The trait that matters most might surprise you.

By Blythe Copeland
October 13, 2020
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If you've imagined finding your true love by creating a perfect-partner wishlist and then looking for a person who checks all those boxes, you may want to rethink your approach: Conflict in any relationship is a given, and even the dreamiest on-paper Prince (or Princess) Charming will have flaws you have to learn to accept. "The majority of problems that come up between couples are these unsolvable, perpetual problems, and that's because we are both these unique snowflakes with individual qualities and personality traits that are unchanging," says Gottman Institute therapist Laura Heck. "You can trade your partner in, but you're still going to have your perpetual problems."

While specific traits—like an interest in current events, a love of your own favorite sports team, a passion for reading, a commitment to healthy living, or a steady paycheck—may spark your interest, the personality attributes and relationship habits that indicate long-term success aren't quite as cut-and-dried. For Heck, the most critical—by a huge margin—is emotional intelligence: A partner's ability to listen and respond to the other. "If your partner is coming to you and saying, 'I have a wish, a want, a desire, a complaint,'" she says, "in healthy relationships, the response is going to be, 'That's interesting, tell me more about that.' In unhealthy relationships, they shut you down."

While it's important for both partners to exhibit an emotional intelligence, men often find it more difficult, says Heck, because women are conditioned from childhood to notice and respond to other people's feelings. She cites research from The Gottman Institute showing that couples in the roughly one-third of relationships where husbands have a healthy emotional IQ report happier, longer-lasting marriages. And while people can improve their emotional intelligence with a little effort, it's not hard to tell at first if your partner has a tendency toward respect and a willingness to yield—or whether they're a "My way or the highway" type.

"You can see that in a relationship pretty early on," says Heck. "If you come to your partner with a complaint and they escalate your complaint and turn it around on you, and they get defensive or counterattack, that's when you know it's a problem."

A healthy level of emotional intelligence also contributes to the other two essentials that Heck says create a solid relationship: The two of you should genuinely like each other (most of the time), and you should know how to handle it when you don't. "[It's] having a deep friendship," she says. "If there are things you like and respect and admire about your partner, those are great qualities to have. The second is being able to navigate conflict in a way that is honoring and respectful. If you can nail those two, I think you're probably going to have a pretty great relationship."

But holding out for a respectful, flexible partner whose company you enjoy, who you can have a healthy argument with, and who also ticks other boxes that are important to you—attractive, financially secure, religious, sports-obsessed—doesn't mean you're settling for a shallow relationship. "We all have these unchanging things tied to our values and our morals," says Heck. "They may not be shallow. Sometimes the shallow qualities have deeper meaning, and we just need to discover what that deeper meaning is, and why it's so meaningful for you to find somebody with that quality."

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