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What Am I Looking for in a Relationship? What Matters Most?

February 8, 2024

What are the scariest words when you’re dating? You might be thinking “I love you.” Those are pretty scary words, but there is another contender for the scariest words to hear from your date. “What are you looking for in a relationship?” Even scarier is when you try to ask yourself “what am I looking for in a relationship?”

Trying to work out what you’re looking for in a relationship isn’t easy. In this article, we’re going to look at why it is so important to know what you want in a relationship and the key steps to figure it out. We’re also going to talk about the 3 essential things to look for in a relationship.

Why Is It Important to Know What You’re Looking for in a Relationship?

Having someone ask you what you’re looking for in a relationship can be unsettling. Whether it’s a friend, a therapist, or a potential date, the question can feel odd or wrong.

This is partly because, as women, we’re often taught to put our needs last. This can start from a very early age1. Talking, or even thinking, about what we want out of our relationships feels selfish and demanding.

That cultural conditioning is really harmful, to us and to our relationships. When we know what we want from a relationship, we’re able to communicate that to potential partners and give ourselves the best chance of finding someone who is eager to meet our needs.

If you don’t stop and think about what you want from a relationship, how will you know where to look for it? And will you recognize it when you’ve found it?

Knowing what you are looking for lets you look in the right place. If you’re looking to settle down and have children, there are probably better places to look than Tinder. If you want someone for no-strings-attached sex and adventures, you might not choose your local book club.

It’s not that you can’t find the father of your future children on Tinder, or your delicious Casanova buried in the pages of Jane Eyre. Your chances are significantly more limited, however. 

It’s ok not to have all the answers about what you’re looking for in a relationship. Sometimes you really are happy to go with the flow about a lot of things, or you’re still in the process of working out what you need in your life right now. You should have at least some ideas about what you want, however.

10 Steps to Figure Out What You’re Looking for in a Relationship

If you’re not sure how to know what you want in a relationship, that’s ok. Here are the best ways to figure out what really matters to you and what you’re looking for in a partner.

1. Understand what made past relationships fail

One of the first steps you can take to help you figure out what you’re looking for in a relationship is to understand why your past relationships didn’t work out. This can help to give you a clear picture of some of your most important needs and values in a relationship.

Creating a list of problems in past relationships isn’t about assigning blame or making out that your past partners were bad people. It’s an opportunity to spot some of your strong deal-breakers in a future relationship.

For example, if your last relationship fizzled because the sexual spark disappeared, that’s a sign that sexual attraction is an essential part of what you’re looking for in a relationship. Similarly, if you dumped your ex because he hated your friends and family, you’re probably looking for someone agreeable who believes in a strong social network.

It’s helpful to have a good idea of things you reallydon’twant in a relationship as well as what you do want. Try thinking about things that felt like a relief when previous relationships ended. For example, if it was a relief that your hair and clothes stopped smelling of cigarette smoke after your last break-up, you might realize that you don’t want to date another smoker.

2. Look at your values

Your values are key to working out how to live a happy and fulfilled life. When you live according to your values, you feel centered, stable, and at peace. Therapists call this congruence2. Having a relationship that is congruent with your values prevents many arguments and builds trust between you and your partner.

But, how do you know what your real values are? There are some helpful surveys online that can help you to get an overall picture of your key values, but this is only ever a starting point. Working out your personal values will usually take much more self-reflection and consideration.

Look at the ways that you influence the world around you. What are you proud of? Why was it important? What are you ashamed of having done? Why was this wrong? What makes you happiest in life, and what are the common factors?

You can also ask yourself whether you match the things you want and need in a relationship. For example, if you want someone who is fit and active, are you living an active lifestyle yourself? If you’re looking for a financially successful partner, are you also working hard to make yourself financially secure?

We typically look for partners who match our values, so it’s important that our actions match those of the partner we’re hoping to attract3.

3. Examine what makes you feel loved

examine what makes you feel loved

As well as understanding your values, it’s also important that you know what makes you feel loved and what your biggest needs in a relationship are. This will help you understand what you are seeking in a relationship.

You can start out by looking at attachment theory for this. Your attachment style will tell you some things that are likely to be important to you in a relationship.

If you have an anxious attachment style, you will probably want someone who is demonstrative with their love. If you have an avoidant attachment style, you’re likely looking for someone who respects your independence.

These are only broad brush ideas, though. To really understand what you should look for in a relationship, you will need to dig deeper.

Think about what makes you feel loved in a relationship and try asking yourself why this matters to you. Keep asking why it matters to you for 4 or 5 repetitions. This will usually help you find a deeper need.

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It’s also helpful to be alert for red flags in your own wants and needs. We’re used to looking out for red flags in a potential partner’s behavior, but lots of us self-sabotage as well. Some things we want or need in a relationship are actually unhealthy and can be a useful warning that we have more work to do on ourselves before we start dating seriously.

These include codependent signs, such as wanting a partner you can help or “save”. This is especially true if you have a habit of forming codependent relationships. Wanting someone who will ‘complete’ you is another big red flag that you might be struggling with your self-worth.

4. Think about what makes youhappy, not what others expect

What you want out of a relationship is deeply personal. There are several cultural expectations around what we “should” be looking for in a partner. It might be “tall, dark, and handsome”, or someone with a good sense of humor who likes long walks on the beach.

Those are great qualities if they fit what you actually want for yourself. If not, they’re an arbitrary list of expectations that you’re placing on a potential partner for no reason. If you want someone who is quiet, serious, and kind, it doesn’t matter that other people want to date someone who’s the life and soul of the party with a great sense of humor.

This is also a great time to look at yourself objectively. What are your qualities, and what qualities would be complementary to those? Your relationship is about you and your potential partner. Anyone else’s expectations are unnecessary.

5. Don’t ignore the common factors, they exist for a reason

Having said that, you don’t need to discount the common factors that lots of people want just because they’re a bit cliche. If there’s something you want in a partner that also appears on everyone else’s list, that’s completely fine too.

It’s ok to have physical attractiveness on your list of things to look for in a relationship if that’s important to you4. We’re often told that focusing on looks is shallow, but it doesn’t have to be. If you’re looking for a long-term relationship, this might be someone that you wake up next to for 30 years. Wanting to like his face isn’t unreasonable.

6. Consider ranking factors, or having levels of importance

consider ranking factors or having levels of importance

When you’re creating your “what do I want in a relationship” list, you can easily end up with a huge collection of wonderful qualities that you’d love your partner to have. That’s ok, but it’s useful to have some structure as well. Not all of these factors will be important.

Consider ranking them in order of importance to you, or having different categories. At least, you will probably want to divide them into “essential” and “nice to have.” For example, if travel is important to you, it might make it onto your essential list, while having a good career might become optional. If a career is more important to you, those might be reversed.

Trying to rank the qualities you’re looking for in a relationship in order of importance isn’t actually designed to give you a strict, ordered list. Instead, it’s a way of trying to gain a deeper understanding of what is most important to you and why. 

As you try to sort between different, important qualities, you’ll start to ask why each is important to you. Often, this is a valuable way to understand yourself and your values more deeply.

7. Listen to your body

Have you ever got “the ick”? Or just felt like something wasn’t quite right in a relationship? Often, your body will send you signs that you’re not getting something you need in your relationship, or even that there’s something there that you really don’t want.

Learning to listen to your body can give you an early warning that there’s something not completely right for you in a potential relationship. This is especially true if you’ve lost the habit of trusting your own judgment.

You would think that trusting your own judgment about someone you’re thinking of getting into a relationship with would be easy, but it isn’t always. If you’ve been in abusive relationships in the past, had a partner or family member who’s a narcissist, or just been treated badly, you might come to doubt your own judgment5.

One sign that this is true for you is if you feel you need evidence before deciding not to date someone. For example, you might think that you don’t totally trust them but feel obliged to date them because you can’t point to a single lie they’ve told.

Learning what to look for in a relationship, and what to avoid, is a lot easier if you can learn to trust yourself. Try to start by listening to your body. If your body doesn’t feel comfortable with someone, try listening to what it’s telling you and look for a future partner elsewhere.

8. Imagine your ideal future life

One way to really get a handle on what you want in a relationship is to start from the end and work backward. Try imagining your ideal future life, including any relationship you might have. What does it look like? What qualities does the other person have? What have you achieved?

This can help you to understand your long-term life goals, which then makes it easier for you to find someone who matches them.

9. Think about what you admire about other couples

You can also try looking at other couples you admire for inspiration about what you might want in your own relationship. For example, you might love how your parents always have small gestures of affection every evening, or you really respect how your best friend’s partner works with her to find solutions to problems.

You might also realize that there are things you love seeing in other couples but would hate in your own relationship. For example, you might really adore the way your friends will sit on each other’s lap and they’re constantly in physical contact, but know that you’d hate that in your own relationship. 

Whether it’s seeing something you crave, or understanding what you’d hate personally, looking at other successful couples for inspiration can help you see what you are looking for in a relationship.

10. Don’t be too rigid in your rules

So far, we’ve been talking about how important it is that you know what you want in a relationship. We’ve also mentioned that it’s really important that you get your needs met. That’s all true, but you might also want to have a degree of flexibility in how you think about what to look for in a relationship.

Sometimes, the perfect person for you doesn’t fit any of your preconceived notions. You might imagine having a relationship with a guy who works out and wants to travel but then you fall for someone who loves foreign films and home cooking. He’s not what you were looking for but you just make each other happy. That’s great.

As long as he fulfills your “essential” criteria, it’s important to be flexible about the details. Your ideal, dream guy might not actually exist. Even if he does, you might find that dating him isn’t quite what you’d imagined.

While you’re being flexible, don’t throw out your list of things to look for in a relationship entirely. When you fall for someone, it’s easy to get caught up in the New Relationship Energy or honeymoon period, which can lead you to overlook some pretty big incompatibilities6. Check-in with your list after a couple of months to make sure you didn’t get carried away.

What Is Always Important in a Relationship?

what is always important in a relationship?

So far, I’ve been pretty clear that your wants and needs in a relationship are individual. That’s really important. Your list of what to look for in a relationship won’t be the same as someone else’s. There are a few things that should feature in all good relationships, however.

1. Communication

Good communication might not be the first thing you think of when you’re listing the qualities you’d like your future partner to have, but it should be. Great communication allows you to work together as a team, overcome problems in your relationship, and avoid misunderstandings.

Someone who is able to communicate well in a relationship is going to be able to head off potential problems before they happen. Remember, good communication is about listening as well as speaking. They’ll be trying to understand your point of view and develop their empathy, as well as explaining their perspective.

Great communication is essential to lots of other qualities and attributes that you want in your relationship.

It’s also worth noting that great communication is the opposite of lots of abusive behaviors in relationships. A great communicator is open and honest. Gaslighting, the silent treatment, and “joking” insults are all abusive ways to shut down communication. Someone who cares about communication won’t use those tactics.

2. Trust

Trust is another key component of a healthy relationship. Of course, trust has to go both ways. You both need to trust each other, and you both need to deserve your partner’s trust. This means being honest and trustworthy as well as giving your partner your trust.

It’s also important that you’re both on the same page about how trust works and what counts as a breach of trust. Trust takes time to build and it will usually take even longer to rebuild if it has been lost. 

Trust is often one of the most important things to look for in a relationship. If you feel that you can trust your partner, you’re able to be more open and vulnerable, and honest about your needs. You’ll also feel more comfortable and confident in the relationship.

3. Respect

Respect is the other essential thing to look for in a relationship. A genuinely respectful relationship is a healthy relationship where both partners’ needs are taken seriously. 

There are lots of different aspects to respect, and you might need to think carefully to make sure that you’re getting the kinds of respect that are most important to you.

You don’t always have to agree with your partner, but you do need to respect their right to their own opinion. They need to do the same for you. You also need to respect each other’s boundaries.

FAQs

What should I say if someone asks me what I’m looking for?

If someone you’re dating asks you what you’re looking for in a relationship, it’s important to be honest. It’s ok to say that you’re not sure, but try to explain in a little more detail. Ideally, this should be part of a bigger discussion, rather than just a question and answer.

Why is it so difficult to know what I want in a relationship?

We’re often taught to put others’ needs first. This can make it difficult to recognize what we want and need from a relationship. Setting time aside to think about what really makes us feel happy, safe, and cared for is an important step toward effective self-care.

What should I say I’m looking for in a relationship on an online dating profile?

Online dating can feel fake, but you’re still trying to build an authentic connection. Be honest about what you want. Say “I’m looking for a relationship” or “looking for casual dates”. If someone doesn’t match with you because of that, you’re not wasting time on someone incompatible.

Conclusion

Figuring out what you are looking for in a relationship usually means also figuring out your own values. There’s no set list of things to look for in a relationship because everyone has their own needs, preferences, and desires. Having said that, communication, trust, and respect are central to all healthy relationships.

What about you? What are you looking for in a relationship, and how did you figure it out? Let us know in the comments, and don’t forget to share this article with someone who might enjoy working out what they’re seeking in a relationship as well.

Utilize this tool to verify if he's truly who he claims to be
Whether you're married or just started dating someone, infidelity rates have risen by over 40% in the past 20 years, so your concerns are justified.

Do you want to find out if he's texting other women behind your back? Or if he has an active Tinder or dating profile? Or even worse, if he has a criminal record or is cheating on you?

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  2. Sheldon, K. M., & Kasser, T. (1995). Coherence and congruence: Two aspects of personality integration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68(3), 531–543. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.68.3.531
  3. Kara, S., & Vredeveld, A. J. (2020). The effect of shared brand use on brand variety seeking in romantic relationships. Journal of Consumer Marketing, 37(6), 701–710. https://doi.org/10.1108/jcm-09-2019-3415
  4. Barelds, D. P. H., Dijkstra, P., Koudenburg, N., & Swami, V. (2011). An assessment of positive illusions of the physical attractiveness of romantic partners. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 28(5), 706–719. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407510385492
  5. McCann, I. L., Sakheim, D. K., & Abrahamson, D. J. (1988). Trauma and Victimization. The Counseling Psychologist, 16(4), 531–594. https://doi.org/10.1177/0011000088164002
  6. Lloyd, S. A. (1991). The Darkside of Courtship: Violence and Sexual Exploitation. Family Relations, 40(1), 14. https://doi.org/10.2307/585653
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