“What I say is that, if a man really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow.”
– A.A. Milne
In some ways, dating relationships are like a three-legged table: one leg is attraction, another is compatibility, and the third is character. If one of these three is lacking, the table will be unable to stand, or – in your best case scenario – have an irritating wobble. What I want to talk about today is character. We treat character as almost an afterthought, something to pay attention to only if there is something glaringly wrong. (And then in some cases we ignore or excuse clear evidence of poor character. “Sure he got drunk and peed on a squad car, but he was having a stressful day. It could happen to anyone.”) I think that we need to reverse this process. Bad character should be a deal breaker, yes. As this Psychology Today article points out, there are some serious red flags we all need to pay attention to. But I think the standard needs to change: if you can’t identify clear evidence of good character, that should be a deal breaker too.
Now I know that everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, areas where they excel and areas where they struggle. Nobody is perfect. I’m not saying anybody should be looking for shortcomings and then hold them against that person. There is a world of difference between having a weakness you are working on improving and a habitual failing you are comfortable with. What you should be on the lookout for are patterns of behavior that show that there will lead to conflict in the relationship. (Also, I should point out that this isn’t merely a shared values thing: shared values fall under compatibility rather than character. If you prefer to abstain from drinking but they don’t, it’s not a character issue for them to drink a beer.)
The question then becomes, how do we spot these patterns? When you’re dating someone, they tend to be on their best behavior in the short term. But we tend to leak this information in subtle ways, and that goes way beyond how we treat our waiters. So here are some shot-in-the-dark, totally not comprehensive, wildly guessing ideas on how we can determine a person’s character. I’m going to focus on men since I feel I have a better grasp on how men reveal themselves than women do, but I suspect most of these items apply to both sexes.
1) What sort of friends does he keep? How does he treat them, serve them, and interact with them? The quality of relationships a man maintains reveals what he values, whether he can be counted on when the chips are down, and whether or not he’s capable of healthy boundaries.
2) How does he treat women he doesn’t consider to be potential romantic/sexual partners? There is a neat division when it comes to men. There are the men that only treat a woman well if he eventually wants to sleep with her, and then there are the men who don’t think their romantic interest should determine how they treat people. If chivalry, politeness, respect – or whatever else – aren’t ubiquitous, then they are imaginary.
3) How does he spend his free time? I’m not going to rail against passive entertainment: sometimes that’s necessary. But that shouldn’t be what someone spends all, or even a majority, of their free time doing. Nick Offerman has this to say: “One of my tips is get a hobby and … (do) something with your hands, so that at the end of two hours you have a tangible result to your time.” This might be a little flowery, but I think that we should be in constant pursuit of something. Be it to become a better woodworker, a more learned individual, a faster runner, or decent cook, dedicating your spare time to some pursuit is a good thing to do. After two hours, or weeks, or months, or years, what does he have to show for his time?
4) How does he cope with hardship and adversity? There are some men who absolutely shine when trouble comes their way. They rise to the occasion. Other men hide until trouble passes. And everything in between.
5) From this point forward, what is his life’s trajectory? We all face successes and setbacks. What’s more telling than short-term achievement or disappointment is what happens next. Having been promoted, is he now content to rest on his laurels? Or does he see it as an opportunity to put himself in a position to take another step further down the road? Likewise, when things don’t go his way does he give up? Or does he regroup and continue working hard? In short, is he planning for the future? Is he driven, or is he complacent? This applies to all areas of life, not just to a career.
Again, I don’t think this list is comprehensive. I don’t even necessarily think that it’s practical. But what I do think is that we must start raising our standards. A lot of heartache can be avoided by placing more emphasis on character – and acting on the character issues we notice – than we do to this point.