When you are trying to decide whether a person is right for you, well-meaning clichés and idealistic advisers may tell you to “just trust your heart.”
Not a good idea.
This simplistic counsel can lead you into a disastrous relationship with a person who may look good, smell good, and sound good but who lacks the skills necessary to make a relationship last or who is otherwise inappropriate for you. That’s because “trusting your heart” in practice often means trusting the power of what I call the “love cocktail”—the rush of chemicals triggered in the brain in response to falling in love.
Your neurochemical response to love.
In any relationship, I call the falling-in-love stage “the merge” because during this stage, we often feel as if we have found our other half—our missing part. The fantasy of permanent bliss is fueled by feel-good neurochemicals that can overpower common sense. In 1979, psychologist Dorothy Tennov coined the term “limerence” to describe the state of mind that occurs when our brains are flooded with a cocktail of hormones and chemicals that includes pleasure-inducing dopamine and endorphins, aphrodisiacs such as phenethylamine (also found in chocolate), and oxytocin, which promotes empathy and bonding.
This neurochemical cocktail is so powerful, it can make you blind to red flags in a relationship or cause you to downplay problems because you so badly want to be with the person. During this stage, people may believe that their feelings are a true barometer of the relationship, ignoring warning signs, incompatibility, and plain old logic. (“It doesn’t matter that he’s had seven wives, doesn’t speak to any of his 11 children, and can’t hold down a job! I love him. Plus, he has changed. He promises that our relationship is forever.”)
How to really know if your partner is right for you.
Despite the message of the popular Beatles song that “all you need is love,” the merge is a time when you need to access your rational self as much as your emotional self. A successful relationship requires honest self-knowledge. People who can survive the test of many seasons after the initial springtime love fest must be flexible, capable of apologizing when necessary, and willing to change. Although we may be attracted to a perfect-looking body or someone who is the life of the party, it is honesty, persistence, and loyalty that are the keys to a relationship that can stand the test of time.
One of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves in every aspect of life is mindfulness, the ability to observe ourselves and stay balanced in spite of any rush of feelings we are reacting to—the ability to take a step back and make the wisest possible decisions, those that blend heart and head.
Here are four suggestions to help you make a more mindful decision about a future partner:
1. Don’t quickly make any permanent changes.
If you do not take the time to learn and consider all the relevant facts, you may regret moving in with, becoming engaged to, or making large joint purchases with your partner. Wait a while—I recommend a year or two—until the chemical buzz has faded, and you can see who your partner is without the gloss of sexual desire, the temptation to believe that you can change your partner, or the risk of acting solely on first impressions that may have little to do with reality.
A few trusted friends can also help you gain perspective. Ask for their candid opinion about your relationship.
2. Tell your partner that you need to go slow in making major decisions.
Pay attention to their reaction. Is it respectful, or does your partner push you in a particular direction? Notice how they tend to act when they’re not getting their own way, feeling disappointed, or have made a mistake.
3. Look at objective information about your partner that doesn’t have to do with you or your relationship.
What is your partner’s relationship with their family like? What is their attitude toward family members? Two red flags to watch for: (1) insistence that everything is wonderful and (2) insistence that everyone and everything is “bad,” that there is nothing worthwhile about anyone in the family.
Additionally, how does your new lover deal with past lovers? Do they talk about exes with compassion, recognizing their own part in the ending of the relationships? Or do they blame everything on the other person?
4. Make an objective list of qualities that you want in your life partner.
How important to you is a sense of purpose, a sense of humor, humility, loyalty, and flexibility in an intimate relationship? How important is the willingness to take responsibility for one’s behavior and to engage in the collaborative emotional work necessary to develop and nurture wholehearted love? Be as tough-minded as you can. Do the qualities on your list match up with the qualities of the person you’re dating?
Hint: We all bring our own troubles to a relationship. If you cannot identify the ones that your new lover brings, you are still too much under the chemical spell of your new love to make sensible decisions.
Trust your heart to find love—not to find a life partner.
Falling in love is called “falling” because we don’t do anything to make it happen; it happens to us. To navigate the cool, stormy, and even foggy and dull stages of love, we need intention, skill, and willingness. Some people are made to be stars during the initial merge of a relationship but lack the character, strength, or willingness to manage the other stages.
Trust your heart to find you a great lover but not to find you a partner for life. Cultivating a mindfulness that brings both emotional intelligence and rational thinking to bear enables you to see clearly the whole big picture of your lover, yourself, and who you are together.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.