A Letter to My Daughters: How to Choose a Life Partner

Asking yourself these questions before you decide to marry or become life partners may help avoid trouble down the road. . Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock

To my two young daughters:

One day that will come all too soon, your father and I will have to reconcile with the fact that you're going to date and, eventually, settle down. When that time comes, we hope you choose a romantic partner (man or woman, doesn't matter to us) who makes you happy — someone who is kind, honest and respectful (and more, but we'll get to that shortly). Interestingly, when you pick that partner, you will have very little understanding of exactly what it means to spend the rest of your life with someone. In some ways, the cliche is right: It's a leap of faith.

As a culture, we spend hours upon hours developing academic knowledge, building physical fitness, deciding where to go to college or learning about finances. But we spend very little, if any, time teaching young people how to make the most important decision of their lives. Because that's what it is — your choice of life partner will affect the quality of your life much, much more than where you go to college, what you do for a living or where you make your home.

Grandma and Papa (my parents) celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary this year, and two sets of aunts and uncles are celebrating their 20th and 30th anniversaries. Your father and I aren't quite that far along at 12 years, but we are very happily married, and those relatives would tell you the same. (Though to be fair, they would tell you this even if they weren't, as would a lot of people, which only adds to the lack of education on the subject.) So when it comes to choosing a life partner and sticking together, I like to think we have some excellent examples around us.

I'm no expert on love or relationships; I only know what I know through experience as I've watched partnerships around me succeed or fail. So armed with that knowledge, here are eight things I hope you'll consider when choosing your life partner.

Happy young couple in the grass
While it's good to have things in common, like enjoying a relaxing sunny day or hitting the slopes, it's also a good idea to find a partner who's strong where you are weak. Tom Wang/Shutterstock

Have the Biggies in Common

Do you share the same desires when it comes to having kids or not? At least two of your relatives got divorced because the answer to this question was no. Do you have similar attitudes toward religion or spirituality? Do you agree about general personal finance practices — debt payments, savings, splurge purchases? Lastly, and don't underestimate the weight of this one, as it has had a huge impact on your parents' marriage: When it comes to spending time with each other's families (holidays, vacations) and taking care of aging parents, are you in agreement on what's reasonable?

Find the Yin to Your Yang

Those commonalities are important, but there's something to be said for having someone who's strong where you are weak. It creates a nice balance and a natural split of responsibilities. For example, I hate dealing with companies — cable companies, banks, electric companies. But your dad doesn’t mind, and he's much better at dealing with people than I am, so he makes those calls. Meanwhile, he can't survive on just a few hours sleep, whereas I can, so I'm the one who gets up with you two and the pets during the night and on weekend mornings so he can rest. (Some people may say that scenario represents stereotypical gender roles, but we both work full-time and have responsibilities at home, so it seems fair to me.)

You'll spot shared weaknesses fairly quickly. For example, when your father and I bought our two-story home with a small-but-high-maintenance yard in 2008, we were overjoyed. However, we soon realized neither one of us had any desire to take care of the yard. He grew up in high-rise condos where they didn't have a yard. And I grew up in a home where my father did all that, so I couldn't even start a lawnmower. As a result, our yard is an overgrown mess, the neighbors politely but consistently ask if they can help us clean up, and each fall I comb Craigslist for someone to come bag up all the leaves. Oh well.

Happy couple sitting and smiling
This may look like the perfect happy couple, but perfection is subjective. What I think is perfect may not be what you think is perfect, which is why there's no such thing. So don't expect it from a mate. @erics/Shutterstock

Throw out the Idea of Perfect

Don't make a checklist — mental or otherwise — of traits your future partner must have. You can't conjure up your perfect mate and go buy said robot at Target. If you must make a list, make a list of deal-breakers: no smokers, no drug addictions, no one with a violent felony conviction. Those are healthy boundaries to set.

Explore Compatibility

Some say opposites attract, and that can be true as in the yin and yang mentioned above. But sometimes you need someone with whom you're just a natural fit. Are you both foodies who like to cook or dine out? Do you both have a sense of wanderlust? Are you both couch potatoes? Do you both have a passion for learning? Similarities in activity level and ambition can make for a pair (and eventually a family) that likes to do things together. Basically, do you have fun together? I've had more fun with your father than anyone else, ever. He makes me belly laugh all the time.

A recent study of more than 24,000 married couples shows you will likely end up with someone similar to yourself — at least in terms of education level, height and weight, and possibly even political preference and psychiatric disorders. Australian researchers found a strong statistical correlation between people’s genetic markers for height and the actual height of their partner, and they found a weaker but still statistically significant correlation between people’s genes for BMI and actual BMI in partners, Science Magazine reports.

Don't Expect People to Change

If your prospective future mate is a slob, don't expect them to morph into a neatnik just for you. Sure, some things can change. Maybe a bad cook can get better or someone who snores terribly can tweak a sleep routine to fix it. But ask yourself, if the quality you dislike never changed, could you still love and live with this person?

Happy older couple reading on the couch
When the lust phase has passed, will you still enjoy spending quiet time together?. racorn/Shutterstock

Feel as Comfortable With Them as You Are at Home

Can you be yourself around this person? I mean, really, truly yourself. Can you laugh until you snort like your mother does and not feel embarrassed? Can you express opinions that may be unpopular or contrary to theirs and not feel alienated? Can you admit that you don't know something without worry of judgement?

Don't Just Love Them, Like Them

Life partner means for the rest of your life, and hopefully that will be a loooooong time. When you're middle aged and exhausted and can't muster up the energy to party all night, will you enjoy a quiet night at home with just the two of you? Do you have long talks or conversations where you feel interested in this person and what they have to say? Do they make you laugh? This is why some people say it's good to be friends first. If you genuinely like them, I think you're more likely to keep investing in the relationship and trying to make it work, even (especially?) when it's hard.

Look for Good Partnership Qualities Aside From Chemistry

Whether romantic, business or otherwise, these qualities make for a good partnership: empathy, integrity, honesty, reliability, stability and emotional availability. When you hit bumps along the road — and you will, whether it's a serious illness, a death in the family or job loss — a good life partner will demonstrate those qualities and help you get through it. But there's nothing like hard times to show who's loyal to you and who's not. If life hands you a lemon and your partner bails on you emotionally, it's time to reconsider your choice.

The decision of choosing a life partner is yours and yours alone. This is what I've learned from my own experience, and I'm just trying to share as much knowledge as I can to help you with the process. No matter whom you choose, your father and I will still love you more than anything else in the world.