About ten years ago, my mom had me write a list of qualities I wanted in a romantic partner. I think she wanted me be more conscious about choosing partners, aware of both the qualities that I value highly, and “red flags,” as she calls them. Lately I’ve been considering the possibility of another romantic relationship, so I rewrote the list (without referring to the old one) as part of my end-of-year brainstorming.

I’m also going to introduce the voice of my good friend and editor, Grace Llewellyn. I decided to include her in this post mostly because of her response to list #2—she wanted me to toot my own horn more than I was comfortable, even though I like to think she was right. I’ll put her in italics. Here was part of her initial response to these lists, in October: “I love your lists! Well, also I think in moments they are a little neurotic, and attempting to control life in a way we probably can’t, but they are pretty much like all my lists I’ve ever written of the same category, so when I pronounce my little judgment about neurotic and controlling it is with a light heart and a smile… And I also think, why not make lists? As long as they don’t block us from seeing some greater opportunity – if highly flawed and irregular – right in front of us.” In that spirit, she suggested the last item on this first list, which I agreed to with enthusiasm.

A few apology/explanations: I use the word “partner” instead of “girlfriend” or, what… “mate.” I don’t like it much but it seemed to work best.

I’m embarrassed about some of what I’ve written here. I believe it and I’m embarrassed.

I use the word “confusion” in an unusual way, borrowed from co-counseling: When I say that I’m confused about myself or another person, I mean that I have been triggered emotionally in a way that makes me lose touch with how great I am or they are.

Items on the lists are more or less in the order they occurred to me, not in order of importance. Also, in response to criticism like Grace’s above, I don’t intend these to be demands on anyone or the universe. I understand that this stuff becomes a negotiation once I am in a relationship, and is a negotiation with reality even before that.

List #1—What I Need in a Relationship, as of Year 38

1) Smart enough to engage me fully and to love me for how I think—and how much I think—and not be afraid, disdainful, or confused by it.

2) Emotionally open and supportive. Her love and commitment are palpable. No guessing, no one-foot-out-the-door. None. Emotionally brave—shows me what’s going on, and can rely on my emotional strength for support. If I am having a hard time she can and wants to hear me, understand me, soothe me, in her arms.

3) I want to have babies with her. I have to think she’d be a great mother. We agree on childrearing stuff—attachment parenting, unschooling and the importance of the family in general. Also involvement of the grandparents. That last one probably means living in Joshua Tree a good part of the year once we have kids, with no sense of being put upon. Kinda begs the question—what about the other grandparents? Does she need to be an orphan? No, I’d love for her parents to be involved as well. I just don’t know them yet.

4) She has to love my family.

5) We are very attracted to each other, and sex is a source of joy and fun, not anxiety. No zoning out: present, joyful, intent on our bodies.

6) Athletic, healthy, eats well – and those things are just obvious, not a struggle. When we cook for each other we’re excited about it.

7) Not a fundamentalist. That includes true-believer atheists. Understands the difference between belief and truth.

8) Some form of creativity is a consistently big part of her life.

9) Happy. I don’t want to be a savior. (See List #3, Indications That I Am Not Ready For the Relationship I Want.)

10) Doesn’t have kids yet. (This one may belong on list #3 as well: It’s kept me out of a couple relationships in the past that probably would have been great. And as I get older it will get harder to pull off.) I want to have the whole experience with someone—being together without kids and then making them.

11) Does not rely on alcohol, or any other drugs, in any way.

12) Enthusiastically monogamous.

13) Money is not a big deal. Comfortable living a low-profile lifestyle.

14) Or something even better! (Thanks, Grace.)

When I wrote the original version of that list, ten years ago, my mom read it and her first reaction was something like, “Wow, this sounds like a great person. What do you have to offer her?” Meaning, I think, not that I didn’t deserve someone that cool, but that I should also consider my own development and how my qualities might line up with someone else’s list. Here’s my list of what I think my good qualities are, now:

List #2—What I Have to Offer to a Partner

1) A great community—close friends and family of really incredible, creative, loving people.

2) Really good listening attention and clear, responsive thinking.

3) Emotional and intellectual honesty and bravery.

4) Sensitivity. Say a little more? Hmm. That’s a good idea for a whole post sometime. I consider myself a highly sensitive person. What I mean by that here is mostly that I’m empathic and feel things deeply.

5) Strong, athletic body—healthy, good health habits.

6) I’m 37 and I haven’t peaked. My best is yet to come. Say a little more? Well, it seems like some people peak in a lot of ways in their 20s, or at least have this developmental plateau for the middle third of their lives. That’s not me. I can think of a couple ways that I seem to have peaked—brute strength, for example—but I continue to develop headlong in almost every other capacity. I’m smarter, more flexible, more open-minded, more compassionate, more creative, more self-confident, and more knowledgeable than I’ve ever been. I’m taking on more leadership. My ideas get more and more exciting.

7) I am loyal. I value long term connections.

8) I will be the best dad you have ever seen. Say more? What can I say? I was made to be a dad. I can feel it. I honestly don’t know if I will have kids, but I can say that it will be a too bad if I don’t, and not just for me.

9) Beautiful things make me cry.

10) I am not afraid of your emotions or thinking. And, when I am confused I can recognize and admit it.

11) Good conversations. You deserve a much punchier adjective than “good.” How about “Stimulating, exploratory conversations”? Sure!

12) Fun dancing. Ditto #11… “I’m a musical, connected, joyful, extremely fun dance partner…” That sounds good, too.

I totally concur with your list! Thanks, Grace!

List #3Indications That I Am Not Ready For the Relationship I Want

1) Financial—I’m in school, racking up debt, about $20,000, and that’s just for my Bachelor’s. And my career in the music industry has never made enough money to support a family. On the other hand … a few words about future financial possibilities... And on the other hand, if things go according to plan, I’ll have a Master’s in Couples and Family Therapy in two and a half years—not a huge money-maker (I didn’t choose the field because of the money), but respectable.

2) Everyone I’ve found myself interested in seems to fall into one of two categories: fully engaging to me but a heartbreaker, or true-loving and stable but somehow not fully engaging to me. “I am told I am not alone in this classic human dilemma.” I really think you can’t publish this one out without acknowledging that such is Life. For so many of us. You did not invent this little paradox.

3) I have two homes that I love. The idea of abandoning either is distasteful and adding a third is scary. That probably means that I need to find someone in Eugene who loves Joshua Tree or someone who lives in Joshua Tree who loves Eugene. Or someone who lives elsewhere but loves my towns more than theirs. Eh…. Not everybody is all attached to where they live. Honestly I don’t think this would get in the way of a lot of potential relationships… but, I’d still leave it on your list I suppose.

4) I think I’m not as happy as I’d like my partner to be. During my first mutual crush in years, before my birthday, I had this very nice but ultimately disturbing sense of being saved: “Ah, this makes everything OK!” That wasn’t a big part of the experience, but it was there. I don’t want to be a fixer-upper. I hope that you’re not too hard on yourself about this item… nor, either, about the level of your partner’s happiness pre-Nathen. I mean sure, it would be great if we were all nicely cooked before meeting each other and undertaking The Relationship, but I think we DO – and CAN – make each other happier. A lot happier. And I’m not sure there’s anything terribly wrong with that…. But that’s just me…. :)

List #4—Ways It Could Be Hard to Be In Relationship with Me

1) I tend to have a lot of projects going and I like to work on them. I think all of my past long-term girlfriends expressed some amount of dissatisfaction, a sense that they were having to fit into my schedule. The actual amount of time I spent with these women varied a lot between them. It may be that my tendency is to unconsciously figure out how much time would be completely satisfying to a partner, but then give just a little less than that.

2) I tend to take the things I’m involved in pretty seriously, and I get tense when I get the sense that they are not going well or I’m not doing a good job. I get confused about myself and I contract, especially in the period before I recognize that I’m confused. I have a pattern that makes me feel like the world is ending, and I can remember this pattern running me, from time to time, since I was pretty young—9 at least.

3) When I was 21, I swore with my four brothers that I would always be there with our parents on Christmas, and I always have. Thirty-eight times now. Partly as a result of that, our time in Joshua Tree around Christmas is great. It’s rich with traditions and reconnections—shows, jam sessions with old friends, hikes, Lester Family Entertainment Night, lounging by the fire late into the night, talking philosophy, sharing our new music…. It’s very close and affectionate and I love it. The only reason it’s on this list is that it would be really hard for me to miss it. Occasionally one of the brothers hasn’t been able to come and everyone feels them missing. It’s better when we’re all there. I know that my partner will very likely have a family with holiday traditions, too, and will want to share them with me, but it will be difficult to tear me away from the desert, that time of year.

4) If I have anything to say about it, my parents will never live in a convalescent hospital or old folks’ home of any kind, nor will they be taken care of by anyone who doesn’t love them like family. The understanding I have with my brothers is that we will take care of them, once they need it. It is also my strong preference that they are able to live and die comfortably in the home that they have made and love. I don’t know exactly how it will look, but I have 30 years to figure it out. I’m putting it on the list because I’m serious about it, and taking care of parents and grandparents seems like a radical idea these days. It doesn’t seem radical to me. It seems obvious.

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