How do you know when a potential mate is right for you? Are there specific qualities you should look for if you're hoping to find someone to spend the rest of your life with? It turns out the answer is yes--but those qualities probably aren't what you typically look for in possible partner. You may think you should find someone intelligent and easy to get along with, who has the same interests as you, or that hard-to-define quality, chemistry. All those things are great. But studies consistently show that the best choices for a life partner are people who display two very specific traits: conscientiousness and self-control.
What do conscientiousness and self-control have to do with romance? Quite a lot it turns out. In a piece on the Psychology Today website that was published a few years ago but is still popular today, psychologist Jeremy Nicholson lays out the research that supports this approach. One study shows that "partners of individuals high in self-control trust those partners more," he writes. It turns out that trust is well placed, because three different studies show that romantic partners with high self-control were much likelier to be faithful to their lovers than those with lower self-control. "Apparently, those with better ability to control themselves can resist temptation--even the temptation to stray when someone cute is flirting with them," Nicholson writes. You might be attracted to passion and spontaneity, but if you want a monogamous relationship and a faithful partner, you'll do better if you look for someone with good self-control.
The second quality Nicholson says you should seek out is conscientiousness. Although that sounds even less romantic than self-control, the fact is that a conscientious partner is more likely to make the effort to work things through with you when the two of you get into conflict, or when anything in your relationship isn't as it should be. "In two studies, researchers found that conscientiousness plays a role in motivation to correct relationship mistakes, in constructive problem-solving, and in relationship satisfaction, Nicholson writes. You may want someone who can sweep you off your feet, but the truth is you'll have a happier relationship if you pick someone willing to do the work required to iron out the difficult issues that come up in every relationship.
Importantly, people who are high in self-control and conscientiousness are better at keeping the promises they make, something you likely want and expect and from a romantic partner. "Across four studies, the authors found that self-control and conscientiousness predicted follow-through on relationship promises, while feelings towards a romantic partner did not," Nicholson writes. "Apparently, people don't keep promises because they 'love' you; they do it because they have the self-control to complete the task they promised." Whatever else you may want in a partner, you absolutely don't want someone who won't keep the promises he or she makes to you. That's a recipe for frustration and heartache.
So how do you find a partner with these qualities of self-control and conscientiousness? Nicholson suggests paying attention to your date's attention span--a short attention span bodes ill for conscientiousness and self-control. He also recommends finding someone who's good at making plans with you and sticking to them.
A third indicator that Nicholson doesn't mention but that I believe is a good test of both qualities is this: What happens when you and your potential partner disagree? Does the other person leave in a huff? Does that person try to get you to change your mind with anger, pouting, cajoling, or wheedling? Or does that person discuss the issue with you and work at finding an acceptable compromise? Someone who will patiently put in the effort to work things out early in your relationship will likely bring those same skills to the table later on, when more serious conflicts arise, as they inevitably will.
That may not sound romantic, or sexy, or like something out of a fairy tale. But it is how you get to live happily ever after.