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It’s hard to find lasting love today. If you follow the prescribed trajectory, first, you date, which involves swimming through a sea of app options, battling behaviors like “ghosting,” in a hyper-distracted culture. Next, you couple up and attempt to form a stable bond, all the while juggling career, family, friends, travel, and a million other obligations to split your attention. And once you finally settle into a committed relationship, you’re tasked with the not-so-easy job of keeping the flame lit and your partner satisfied for, well, the rest of your life!
Finding love is a tall order for any person, especially given the millennial generation’s ideals; the expectation is often that you fall in love with a person who can be a partner, a lover, and a best friend. Thankfully, it’s not impossible to find that sort of fulfilling love within a single person—but you need to work at it, choosing, committing to, and growing in a positive direction with the right person.
As you do it, here are some studies to keep in mind about the process of dating, committing, and staying together.
Limit choice to some extent.
Much has been made of the plentiful “options” in present dating culture. Flip open Tinder or Bumble, and you probably have hundreds or thousands of options within your reach. Additionally, a 2014 study showed all the ways daters keep in touch with “backburners”—those people they’re not dating now, but might want to date or hook up with later. It’s great to realize dating is more varied than ever, and getting together with the right person might even take years. However, while it’s one thing to recognize that timing can thwart potential love, or to stay in low-key touch with romantic flames from your past via social media or the occasional text, it’s another thing to consider everyone a legitimate option. The Paradox of Choice is real, per psychologist Barry Schwartz; sometimes, imagining too many potential dating choices will make you less happy. So when it comes to finding a relationship, limit choice when looking for someone who might be right for you—and invest accordingly.
Never pretend to be less to score a partner.
In a 2017 study of top MBA students, single women downplayed their ambition when they thought single guys might be able to see their answers; married women did not. Whether conscious or subconscious, pretending to be less than yourself might help you reach a short-term goal like scoring a date, but it’s unlikely to help you reach long-term satisfaction. Career is a smart investment for women—something that can help keep you fulfilled, no matter how your relationship status changes throughout a lifetime. Take those opportunities to climb the ladder, and don’t worry about what guys might think; the good ones would want you to reach for your dreams. (Related: 5 Lessons I Learned from Going On a Relationship Cleanse)
For straight women, find a man who “accepts your influence.”
Toxic masculinity is currently at the forefront of the cultural conversation when it comes to dating—so it’s important to consider carefully whether you see potentially negative behaviors early on. Way back in 1998, marriage researcher John Gottman found that couples were far more successful if a husband accepted his wife’s influence. (While the opposite is also true, women typically already accept influence from their male partners.) That means he doesn’t stonewall after an argument, or he doesn’t get defensive when you nicely point out something he might do better or state your feelings. If you want a strong relationship, make sure you listen to each other, without defensiveness or negative tactics. Your partner’s reaction to conflict might give you key information about your ability to be satisfied in that relationship long-term.
Look for a partner who makes you better, not comfortable.
It’s great to feel like you can be yourself around your partner, that you can let your hair down, have bad days, or share things you’ve never told anyone. However, these behaviors might not be indicators of the best kind of relationships. In a 2017 study, researchers discovered that the strongest, most fulfilling bonds were between two people who felt like their best selves in a given relationship—not like their actual selves. Today, men and women have never wanted more for their long-term loves, and the essence of what millennials want is growth. Look for a person who inspires you and helps you work toward your personal goals, whether that’s going back to graduate school or training for a marathon together. If you find that, you’ll be a stronger couple, too.
The secret to a great relationship might be simpler than you think: kindness.
In his book The Science of Happily Ever After, psychologist Ty Tashiro found that some of the hallmarks of couples who make it last weren’t grand gestures or romantic getaways. One discovery? Kindness is a big key to a satisfying long-term relationship. The essence of this finding might be really simple. According to a 2010 study, the more a person sees and experiences kindness from others, the more they will pass that on to others. So, for instance, if you bring your S.O. takeout after a long day at the office or plan a surprise evening out for his birthday, there’s a good chance he’ll return the favor in some other way, another time. If you notice this simple reciprocity early on, instead of noticing withholding or selfishness, you’re likely to have the foundations for a good, strong, lasting bond.
Jenna Birch is author of The Love Gap: A Radical Plan to Win In Life and Love.