Valentine’s Day, the day we celebrate romantic love, is almost here. “Falling” in love is such a dangerous thing to do. Yet that is how most of us choose our mates. We follow our hearts and fall in love. Later, we wonder what happened to the magic. Why didn’t we see it was just an illusion? The romantic love, the chemistry — for most of us — blinds us and then is over in a few years.

Some theorists take all of the fun and magic out of the process, talking about an unconscious pull toward those who resemble people from our family of origin in some way, either behaviorally or physically. Interestingly, both negative and positive traits attract us. It is as though we unconsciously look for someone who acts just like the family member we had the most problems with. Perhaps, the theory goes, this is so we can work through old issues we couldn’t resolve with that family member. Unfortunately, we are no better prepared to deal with this new person than we were with the old one. When the magic goes out of the relationship, there’s a separation, and we connect with someone else with similar traits.

Therefore, it is important to bring our conscious minds into the process, to use our heads as well as our hearts. It helps to figure out those unconscious magnets and actively observe them in people we are considering for partners. Harville Hendrix in his book Getting the Love You Want describes an exercise that helps you become aware of those unconscious elements. He calls the image that develops an “Imago.” The exercise goes something like this: Picture the home you lived in at approximately five or six years of age. Remember as many details as you can. Then imagine yourself going from room to room in the house, looking for family members. Tell each family member you encounter all of the things you like about him or her, all of the things you don’t like and what you always wanted and never got.

Then draw a circle that represents your Imago. In the top half, write all of the positive traits that came up in your “meeting” with your family. In the bottom half, write all of the negative traits. Mix the traits together without identifying their owners. Then draw circles on separate pieces of paper for each of the significant partners you have had. Write their positive traits in the top half and their negative traits in the bottom half. You may be surprised at the similarities. For example, controlling and critical may be in the Imago traits. And one or the other of those may be in all of the partners you have been with to date. Those are traits to watch out for in future relationships.

Pay special attention to what you wanted and never got. You’ll be attracted to someone who seems to offer that. Then think about traits that might be found in a partner and what you want in a partner. Following are issues and traits that frequently come up in marriages:

Work ethic
Fun/play
Substance use
Parenting
Sociability
Humor
Health
Intellect
Education
Need to control
Critical nature
Neatness vs. slobbishness
Sharing of household responsibilities
Spending
Family centeredness
Pets, inside or outside
Holidays
Time with family of origin
Food preferences
Managing conflict
Loyalty
Spend time with your partner in as many different types of situations as possible to learn as much as possible about her or him. Think of each of these traits as a continuum, and recognize that in most cases, while some of a particular trait is good, there is frequently such a thing as too much. For example, a sense of humor in a partner is desirable to most of us, but someone who rarely takes anything seriously would be extremely difficult to live with.

Partners who are hypercritical and controlling erode one’s self-esteem and self-confidence. My idea of a healthy relationship is one in which each partner promotes the growth of the other emotionally, educationally, socially, vocationally and spiritually, and one in which each accepts the other’s personal differences. If your partner-to-be is hypercritical in wanting the little things done just the way s/he does them (toothpaste squeezed and rolled up from the end, toilet paper over the top of the roll, etc.), think twice about cementing this relationship. Verbal abuse may be just around the corner. Not because s/he thinks differently from you, but because this individual doesn’t tolerate differences.

Finally, how will you manage conflict? Conflict cannot be avoided in healthy human relationships. Learning how to talk about differences and the things that bother one is essential to maintaining connection and love. A partner who “sulls up,” as we used to say in my family, and expects you to know what’s wrong “if you love me,” is poison. Similarly, a partner who blows up over differences and tries to coerce you into agreement is poison.

A partner who is willing to learn how to give and receive feedback and negotiate for a win/win solution can be a partner for life.

Rosemary J. Stauber, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in San Antonio and founding director of the Bexar County Women’s Center.

Author: Rosemary J. Stauber