Everyone has relationship standards. Would you enter into a relationship with someone you knew was addicted to heroin? Each person has their limit, a threshold for behavior, traits, and values, below which they are unwilling to tolerate a partner. Furthermore, research has shown that people suffer distress when their romantic partners do not meet their standards. Unfortunately, many do not identify their essential needs before entering a relationship, and sadly, some are willing to accept sub-standard treatment and conditions and remain in unfulfilling relationships rather than insist that their needs be met. What keeps people from setting a higher bar?
Fundamental needs, not a wish list
One common barrier to setting high standards is fear of losing romantic partner opportunities. In other words, if I set too high a requirement, no one will meet it, and I may end up alone. This might occur, for instance, if I decided that I was only willing to bond with a 6-foot entertainment law attorney and former Olympic medalist. Such characteristics are not standards or true needs, but rather represent “wish list” items. Finding someone with such credentials might be exciting, but in reality, I could feel fulfilled in a union without such exceptional traits, assuming my needs were met.
Relationship standards are minimum requirements. That is, a person feels certain qualities must be present (or must not be present, in the case of unwanted behaviors or values), and failing to meet these requirements results in a “deal breaker.” On an emotional level, these standards are inflexible. For example, Noah has always wanted children, but falls in love with Alicia who hates kids. Noah can forsake his standard, marry Alicia, and agree to not have children, but cannot honestly stop himself from wanting them or feeling resentful toward Alicia for depriving him of a family. This illustrates how dropping below a standard carries a heavy emotional cost. Although setting high expectations for relationships may limit opportunities, a person can decide that being single—even lonely—is preferable to feeling angry, sad, hurt, distressed, and unfulfilled due to unmet needs.
Standards set = needs met
According to negotiation guru Chester Karrass, “… you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate.” This philosophy assumes that a person does not depend on luck or external forces to have success, but possesses the ability to actively influence others to meet her needs. The same principle applies when setting relationship standards: once a person recognizes her standards, communicates them, and enforces them, she will influence others to treat her in a way that meets her needs, and will ultimately find a partner who will rise to those standards. Conversely, if someone does not demand standards from a romantic partner, then that partner will likely behave to the level of his own comfort, which will likely not meet the other’s needs.
Entitlement can help build standards
Everyone deserves a healthy relationship, especially if they aspire to positively contribute to it. You don’t have to be perfect to feel entitled to caring, respectful treatment from a quality partner. If you are willing to give to a relationship—love, affection, respect, honesty, hard work—then are you not entitled to expect that much in return? Developing a sense of entitlement to a quality relationship is the first step to creating one, because once you feel deserving, you are free to set and demand relationship standards.
Where should I set the bar?
When I ask clients how they envision their ideal relationship, some have no idea where to begin. A good starting place for setting standards is writing down a list of the qualities and behaviors that make you the happiest in a relationship, are the most meaningful to you, and that are non-negotiable, i.e. you are unwilling to live without them (or unwilling to live with them, if the qualities are unhealthy). You can make this list a work in progress, and modify it at any time. If you want to borrow some ideas, the following are relationship standards that previous clients have identified:
- I must feel attracted to the person
- The person must want me (have genuine interest in me, desire to spend significant time with me)
- The person must be honest, trustworthy, and faithful (the relationship is exclusive)
- I must feel safe with this person
- The person must practice good self-care and not engage in unhealthy or destructive behaviors
- The person must have ambition or goals, and be success-oriented
- The person must be employed, energetically pursuing employment, enrolled in an education or training program, or caring for children or dependent family members
- The person must believe in equality and fairness in a relationship
- The person must treat me well and is not excessively critical
- The person must make an effort to get along with my family and friends
- The person must have his/ her own life and interests, separate from mine, and must accept my right to pursue my own separate interests and activities from time to time
- The person must be able to handle conflicts and differences in a fair and civil manner, and be willing to make compromises
- I must have effective communication with this person, and we must be able to express ourselves and listen to each other
- The person must bring positive energy to my life
- The person must like children; if I have children, the person must accept my children and be willing to co-parent in a cooperative manner
- The person must not be overly-involved with unstable friends or family members who demand excessive time, money, resources, etc.
Once you have established your essentials, you might try working on the wish list—characteristics that you desire and may look for when pursuing a relationship, but may be negotiable if you meet someone great who does not possess all of them. The following are sample wish list items:
- S/he comes from a particular race, ethnicity, nationality, or religious background (note: for some, this may be a standard, and not a wish list item)
- S/he has particular physical traits I like
- S/he has achieved a specific educational, professional, or income level
- S/he is athletic, or artistic, or philosophical, or handy, or funny, etc.
- S/he has social and political beliefs that closely match mine
Finally, although a trait may fall under a person’s wish list, it is still important, and people are encouraged to pursue their “wishes.” The main difference to consider is that when starting a relationship, failing to meet wish list items is not a deal breaker, but failing to uphold fundamental standards will ultimately undermine the relationship.