In the preview for Bravo’s upcoming reality show “Miss Advised,” internet personality Julia Allison boldly exclaims that she’s looking for a husband and has a 73-point checklist. When I heard that, my immediate thought was that I’ve never had a checklist, and even when I’ve set vague goals for the types of people I wanted to date, I’ve found that the universe tends to throw people in my path who are explicitly not the types I’d have said I was looking for, as if it’s testing me.
I also find the language around who’s “good on paper” disturbing at times. One theme of the First Date: The Musical, about a couple on a blind date, which I saw at ACT in Seattle, was that the female lead is looking for a “quality guy.” But what does “quality” mean? Rich? Handsome? Fit? From a “good” family? I think we often use code words like “quality” to mean just those things, and that’s a shame, because to me the qualities that make a “quality guy” are value systems and beliefs, and how they’re put into action. Is he a kind person? Does he have ethical and moral values? Does he work on improving himself? Does he care about what others around him—strangers and friends—are thinking and feeling?
In her memoir Never Say Never, Ricki Lake reveals the qualities she was looking for in a guy that she listed in her online dating profile (these are verbatim): confident without being arrogant, self-sufficient, funny, intelligent, free spirited, believes the glass is half full, romantic, sexual, adventurous, physically fit and attractive. I read those to a friend, who said, “Isn’t every woman looking for a guy like that?” True, those are broad enough to be almost universal, but at the same time, good luck to anyone who’s not a celebrity finding a man who possesses all those traits (and isn’t arrogant about it). I would venture that if he does, maybe he’s a little too perfect. I don’t mean to be a downer, but nobody’s perfect, and actually, I think perfection is overrated.
My point is, “quality” means different things to different people, as do even seemingly obvious traits like “funny” and “intelligent.” Is his sense of humor dry? Do you get his jokes? Do his jokes make people uncomfortable? Is he book smart but socially awkward, or street smart even though he dropped out of high school?
I don’t think we can know for sure who we want ahead of time. It’s not like making a grocery store shopping list, where we can just pick a mate from a shelf full of similar but slightly different mates. For instance, I tend to like big, cuddly guys, but every once in a while my eye is turned by a guy who’s tall and skinny. When that happens, I pay extra attention because it’s usually some other aspect of him—his personality or sense of humor or career choice—that’s pulling me in his direction. I’m not into him necessarily because of his body type, even though I know plenty of women who would be, but I could nonetheless see myself getting it on with him. Any time that happens, it forces me out of my dream-like utopian fantasies about the “perfect” life and back to reality. I remember that even if I wound up with someone who in every external way fit my “criteria,” they would still be their own person with quirks and habits and interests that I couldn’t control.
Another example is my current boyfriend, who I’m in love and extremely happy with. He smokes cigars. Am I into the cigar thing in any way? No. In fact, I find it a little gross and, at first, thought it was strange because I’ve never been friends with a cigar smoker before, let alone dated one. Yet the more I hear about it, the more I’m intrigued, not by cigar-smoking itself (it’s still pretty gross to me), but by the camaraderie and social aspect of it for him. I like that there’s a subculture surrounding cigars that I’m only finding out about in my mid-thirties. Before then, if you’d said the word “cigar” to me, I’d think “Monica Lewinsky.” If I’d seen “cigar smoking” as a hobby on an online dating profile, though, I might have kept on clicking.
It’s good to have goals, but I suspect that lots of people narrow their range of who they’re looking for to a point where they might miss out on otherwise fabulous people. Even dating experts like Evan Marc Katz agree that a dating checklist can be too long and therefore, not so helpful. It’s good to know what you’re looking for, but it can cut you off from the power of the unexpected. After one relationship that ended in part because my boyfriend self-identified as someone who’d “never been in a relationship” (even though he’d dated a girl on and off for a few years, they were never officially boyfriend/girlfriend). I swore to myself I wouldn’t repeat my mistake by dating that “type” again. Lo and behold, soon afterward I met someone who’d only slept with one other woman and had really never been in a relationship. I knew going in that it was risky, but I was willing to take that risk rather than let my preconceived notions trump the relationship potential, and I don’t regret it.
By saying I don’t have a checklist, I’m pretty much saying that, unlike lots of people, I don’t have many, or possibly any, dealbreakers. That’s a rarity. Meghan McCain, according to her upcoming book (with Michael Ian Black), America, You Sexy Bitch, won’t date atheists or vegans. Millionaire Matchmaker star Patti Stanger won’t date a guy whose ex is his best friend. For the blogger behind “1 Year of Online Dating at 50,” it’s cheapness. I’m not saying I want to date someone cheap—I don’t—but there’s a difference between cheap and broke. If someone makes a decent living but nitpicks over restaurant bills and is generally stingy, that will be a turnoff to me, but if they’re cheap because they’re unemployed or in grad school or in a profession where they simply need to be careful with their money, I can respect that. Another of her dealbreakers is someone with young children, whereas if I’d ever met a single guy with young children, I’d have been over the moon (I find bonding with kids to be infinitely easier than with adults—hint: show them photos on your smartphone).
To me, though, even if someone had a quality I generally dislike—let’s say being unsure of themselves—if they were someone I was otherwise interested in, I’d be intrigued. I’d want to know why they aren’t sure of themselves, and try to add to their self-confidence (maybe that’s naïve and misguided to think I could do so, but that’s part of my personality).
To me, checklists and dealbreakers are ways I could be closing myself off to someone I’d otherwise be perfect for. I have preferences, certainly, but in my experience it’s been those who’ve broken the mold, who specifically weren’t “who I’d be looking for,” who’ve compelled me the most.
The one exception is that I want to be with someone who wants kids; I’m 36, and my biological clock has been ticking like an alarm for six years. I don’t feel like I have time to waste in that regard. I’ve been with my boyfriend for three months and we haven’t explicitly discussed the topic yet, but I’d bet money from the times it’s come up in other contexts that he’s not the “I never ever want to have kids, bury the thought!” type.
Another reason I’m glad I don’t have a checklist is that I’ve gotten to date some very interesting people who’ve had a lasting impact on my life, but who I’m pretty sure wouldn’t have fit into my preconceived ideas of what I wanted. I’ve learned from all of those relationships, and the biggest lesson is that I can seek out the good side of anyone I’m interested in if I want to, and that sometimes their “worst” qualities turn out to be the most interesting ones.