The millennial dating app scene could make a true cynic out of anyone, which is why the idea of finding your perfect match feels more nauseating the older (and more single) you feel. Here, sociologist Dr. Pepper Schwartz—AARP's resident sex and relationship expert and the author of 16 books on sex, relationships, and even love myths—answers some of our questions on whether to buy into this age-old idea of a soulmate ands gives us her best advice on maintaining a good relationship with your partner, flaws and all. We're all ears.
Marie Claire: What would you say to people who believe in love at first sight?
Dr. Pepper Schwartz: I'd say that it's often true that people are attracted to each other immediately and everything lines up, but it's just as true for those relationships to end up a disaster. But people don't think of that as false love-at-first-sight. They highlight the examples that worked rather than the ones that failed.
Ultimately, there are qualities people are drawn to: The way somebody's eyes sparkle, a certain physical look to them, the way they dress. I think people who say "love at first sight" don't realize all the information they're taking in that they're not coding.
The way a person's dress shows their social class. The way they look often shows their background. The way they stand shows their attitude. That information can amount to attraction, but it's not like there's a one-and-only, as if you saw them and everything was guaranteed thereafter.
MC: Can you expound on the idea of there not being one perfect match for everyone?
PS: Well, look at all the people who get divorced. Some of them experienced "love at first sight." But there is not just one perfect person. With justification you can say "I found her right away," but those people were just dumb lucky. Everybody has to keep looking until they have that exact experience and many will be misled by it, especially if sexual attraction is involved. You can feel like something is real and your partner is "the one" and then all the other details come out, and things change.
MC: Do people put too much pressure on their partner to be their ideal match without compromising?
PS: Well my word for someone who has a long list of things that need to be in place to be in love with someone is "lonely." Because very few people, if anyone, will fit that whole list. They might even seem to match those paramters, but they're not going to. Most of us have lists that we can't fulfill ourselves and it also places a lot of pressure on the other person. You discover a flaw and you say, "Oh my God, oh my God," instead of thinking, Of course there's a flaw, and working with it. Your partner is just a human being. They can't fulfill it all.
MC: How should people re-evaluate their expectations of their partners?
PS: I would say, "Is this really working for you? Have you misled yourself on what's really important?" And to see if you can get your list down to a few core qualities that make you happy, whether it's honesty or a sense of humor or ambition—everything else is superfluous.
MC: Can you explain this idea that, "looking for a soulmate friendship is bound to make us miserable"?
PS: Maybe you have a close relationship with your mother. You've grown up together, you've had all these wonderful conversations, and you're on the same wavelength. But if you expect the same kind of relationship with your partner that you have with your mother or your father or your best friend, remember that you didn't have to be sexually attracted to those people. In fact it's best you were not [laughs].
Sexual attraction does create a different environment, like jealousy. If you're heterosexual, you have differences in perception. Men often don't have the same vulnerability as women do. And if you're projecting some of the same vulnerabilities and perceptions on them as your best friend, you're heading for a fall.
MC: So you think people should be more careful about what they reveal to their partners?
PS: It's not that you can't tell your partner certain things. You can, because you've established a great deal of credibility. But there are things that you could tell a friend that you really should never tell a partner. You might be able to tell your best friend, "I feel that you're gaining too much weight," but if you tell your partner, they might never feel safe to be with you with their clothes off again.your best friend doesn't have to worry about how many people you slept with.
Likewise, your friend is probably not going to lose respect for you if you've done something bad in the past, but we all do things we're not proud of. It would be like applying for a job and telling someone why they shouldn't hire you. You have to be selective.
MC: In thinking of a good match as a process, what's your best advice for maintaining a strong relationship after many years?
PS: I think the most important thing is to let the past be the past. Say that you forgive the other person and then actually do it. When you get mad, you can't rehash that argument again. People have to feel that they can escape their mistakes and build new credibility in their long-term relationship. There's no doubt that you've both crossed some threshold that you shouldn't have over time, but you really have to let this relationship go through its stages.
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