Dating can be completely frustrating to begin with, but it's even harder when you don't know what you're looking for. Worse is when you have the slightest idea of what you want, but you feel too guilty asking for it. In a recent Bustle survey, almost 20 percent of participants who said they're single and dating said their biggest dating goal is to figure out exactly what it is they're looking for in a partner — but that's often easier said than done. And, if you're naturally not assertive, it's difficult to suddenly start demanding your needs overnight.
"We still socialize females, in general, to be more passive/receptive/submissive, whether in dating or professionally,” therapist Nancy B. Irwin tells Bustle. “Males are generally more socialized to be assertive, ask for what they want with no apology. When men are perceived as too pushy or demanding, they are called names like arrogant or 'a-hole' but women are called much more demeaning names."
How many times have you been told to give someone who you knew was wrong for you another chance? Or that you were being too picky? “Our society does not do us any favors when it comes to dating, relationships, and communication,” family and marriage therapist Rachel Wright tells Bustle. “There isn’t a class in school on how to express our needs, and there’s also a huge cultural shame around women asking for what they need — we’re afraid to come off 'selfish,' 'needy,' 'bitchy,' or 'aggressive.' The reality is that if we don’t ask for what we need from our partners, they are never going to know, and not going to be able to give it to you."
If you've ever continued to date someone you were on the fence about, in hopes you'd eventually come around to liking them because they're someone you "should" be with, there's a good reason why. "Women are told by parents, society, their own negative self-talk, etc., that they must fit some mold rather than lead with their own preferences,” life coach and relationship expert Diana Mitchem tells Bustle. “... There is no need to feel guilty when you are personally clear about the kind of person with whom you are looking to connect."
So, in order to get past these hurdles and find clarity in exactly what you're looking for, here are 17 ways to figure out what your exact needs in dating are, according to experts.
As psychotherapist Alison Pelz tells Bustle, women who ask for what they want are often labeled as abrasive in our culture. But holding back can be detrimental to your dating life.
“Unfortunately, not setting boundaries in [your] dating life can lead to low self-esteem, sadness, anger, fear, and isolation," Pelz says. "Here are questions to ask to find out what you really want in your dating life: If I could wave a proverbial magic wand, what would I have in a good partner or date? And why? What do I like to spend my time and energy on? Does this partner or date respect how I like to spend my time and energy? How do I handle conflict? If you avoid conflict, get some help with this from a therapist in order to get good at setting boundaries and asking what you need in a relationship. Once you learn how you handle conflict, looking for a partner that is good at navigating conflict is key.”
2Start With Your Bad Dates
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While we often look at bad dates as material for funny stories to tell friends over brunch, there's actually another bright side — they can reveal exactly what we don'twant in a partner. "If you want to find out what you want, start with what you don't want,” Amica Graber, founder of dating blog TruthFinder, tells Bustle. “Sure, bad dates are a drag. But after experiencing a few of them, you'll learn to recognize traits and behaviors that you're not interested in — making them a lot easier to spot (and avoid) in the future.”
3Ask Yourselves These Two Questions
If you're ever unsure whether someone's a good match for you or not, think about these two questions. "Two key questions to ask oneself are: Does this person share my lifetime goals and dreams? Do I feel better about myself when I am with this person? The first question deals with the practicality of the relationship," psychotherapist Arlene B.Englander, LCSW, MBA, tells Bustle. "If we want marriage and children and we’re out with somebody who tells us that they’ll never commit to a permanent relationship, we’d do best to tell ourselves to move on, rather than falling for the fantasy of 'once they love me they’ll change.' The second question deals with the equally important issue of how they’re treating us. If their eyes are drifting off of us and onto any other eligible single in the room, leaving us feeling slightly edgy, that’s a wake-up call for us to look further — for a new relationship.”
4Ask Yourself How You Want To Feel With Someone
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Here's another important question to ask yourself. "How do I want to feel with this person?” relationship coach Rosalind Sedacca tells Bustle. She says it eliminates the focus on factors that really aren't important to a relationship, like someone's height or profession.
"When you think about how you want to feel with your date/partner, your attention moves to: What [are they] saying? What [are they] doing? How [do they] respond when I do things? Where are we going? What are we talking about? How does [this person] look at me? If you're feeling appreciated, valued, respected, stimulated, interested in [them] and other desirable traits, you're with someone you're looking for who is also looking for you," Sedacca says.
Relationship coach and expert, Jenna Ponaman, agrees. "Start with getting clarity on how do you want to feel," Ponaman says. "Then ask yourself some empowering questions, such as, why is it important for me to feel this way? Once you have done that, ask yourself: what are the things that I do to accomplish this feeling? What kind of person would I want to attract that would generate this feeling within me? What might potentially hold you back from achieving the perfect dating life you’re looking for?"
Whether it's jotting down the details of a date or taking notes about the traits you value in a partner, experts say journaling can be key in the process of determining what you want. "Journal about your dates — the good, the bad, the ugly,” Graber says. “Try not to think too much about it as you write, and don't re-read anything you wrote for at least a week. Over time, your journal will become a fascinating blueprint that may reveal exactly what you're looking for.”
Self-care coach Carley Schweet says journaling also comes in handy when figuring out your values and dealbreakers. “When it comes to finding what you're looking for in dating, it's important to first know what qualities you value and have a level of standard for — in both yourself and in others," Schweet tells Bustle."To help figure that out, I love to encourage asking some simple questions and writing your answers down in a journal. I've found it's best to do this exercise in a calm and relaxed state of mind. From there, you might begin to see a pattern or two emerge within your answers. Then, take some words that come to mind when looking at your thoughts and create a 'non-negotiable' list, one that you can reference when starting to date someone new. Revisit and adjust as you continue to grow.”
6Take Personality Tests
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If you're struggling to think of what qualities are important to you or who you'd be compatible with, try an online quiz to kick things off. “Take a personality assessment test: Myers-Briggs can be a great place to start,” therapist Alisha Powell, PhD, LCSW, tells Bustle. “Once you’ve learned your type, read up about other personality types that are complementary to yours and why."
7Identify Your Values
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Several experts say that identifying your values — the core things that are most important to you — is the perfect place to start figuring out what you need in a relationship.
“The first step to finding a good match in a partner is to think about your values and interests," mental health writer and expert Emily Mendez M.S. EdS, tells Bustle. "What things are important to you? Family, spirituality, or a healthy lifestyle perhaps? Look for someone with similar values and interests."
As Dating Examiner Kevin Darné says, values are tied to someone's core being — so they're incredibly important to pay attention to when you're dating someone. "The goal is to find someone who shares your same values, wants the same things for the relationship you do, naturally agrees with you on how to obtain those things,” Darné tells Bustle. “Compatibility trumps compromise... There is no amount of work or communication that can overcome being with someone who simply does not want what you want. If you or your [partner] has to 'change' your core being in order to make a relationship 'work,' you're probably with the wrong person! ... Most people want to be loved and appreciated for who they are. There are only two ways to experience joy and peace of mind in relationships. We either get what we want, or we learn to be happy with what we have. Accept them as is or move on. The choice is up to us.”
One way to start identifying your values is by thinking about your lifestyle. "Is it important that you attend church every Sunday? Do you enjoy dinner with your family at least once a week? If so, you should be with someone who supports your desires and needs,” dating expert Lori Bizzoco tells Bustle. “Recognize what’s important to you — whether it’s your religious beliefs and your relationship with parents or your career-driven attitude — and look for those same qualities in your significant other. When you are meeting people, see if they value the same things that you do."
8Figure Out What You *Don't* Want
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Struggling to figure out your core values? Try the reverse to guide you: what do you not want in a partner? “These are dealbreaker items that we often do not think about," psychotherapist Juliann Rasanayagam tells Bustle. "I call this list of items the 'NO NO list.' The NO NO list is a short, four- to five-item list that describes qualities that you don't want in your partner. If you're dating an individual and you see items on your NO NO list appear, then you know that it's time to check out. The items on your NO NO list should be hard NOs. That is, these cannot be negotiated because they speak to your values. I find that it's a great filtering process to weed out those individuals who we know are not going to make the cut long-term, so it saves a lot of time.”
Sexologist and coach Noelle Cordeaux echoes the idea of coming up with a non-negotiables list — and this time taking into account your values. “Lifestyle and personal values should be taken into account," she says. "...Think about how [you] want to live and what [you] want to do with [your] time. It is way too easy to lose sight of your own goals and adapt to the needs of one's partner."
She suggests starting off with these questions: "What level of financial health is important to you in a partner? Do you want kids? Do you like to be social? How about travel? How important (if at all) is religion to you? How important is it to you to have a prospective partner be connected to your family? Or you to [theirs]? Are you looking for for marriage? Are you dating with the expectation of exclusivity? It is super important to get answers to these kinds of questions up front and stick to your guns," Cordeaux says.
9Talk To Women Who Have Healthy Relationships
Just like you'd talk to someone who has the career you want to pick their brain, it may be helpful to talk to someone who has a healthy relationship you admire. “Talk to women who are happily married about how they made their decision,” Powell says. “Use this information to write a list of characteristics you want your significant other to have.”
10Make A Vision Board For Your Dating Life
To get a clear picture of your dating goals, Ponaman suggests making a vision board. "Create a vision board around your dating life," Ponaman says. "This will also help you gain clarity on the differences between the things you think might bring you happiness versus the things that are actually aligned with your values at your core."
11Write A List That Includes *You*
You've probably heard mixed messages about having lists when dating — some people may tell you to write down everything you're looking for, while others say throw out your list entirely. But relationship expert Elayen Fluker has an idea for a different kind of list she says she's even practiced personally.
"Write down every single thing you want in a partner in specific detail," Fluker tells Bustle. "Everything! Two sides, single spaced if you have to! Then take a long look at your list and ask yourself how many qualities you embody on that list. Do you have expectations for your partner to meet standards you don't even meet yourself? If so, become your list, and you will have a better chance of attracting someone on the same wavelength."
12Ask Yourself What You Need From A Vulnerable Place
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As celebrity dating coach Laurel House says, it's crucial to make sure your feelings match your words and actions. "First, you need to know what your needs are," House tells Bustle. "I’m not talking about what you need based on insecurity, self-doubt, 'should,' anger, resentment, hurt, or an attempt to please another. Strip all of that off, strip down naked to your core — to your confidently vulnerable needs."
"Take a breath. Exhale. Drop your shoulders," House says. "Release the muscles in your neck and jaw. Stop thinking. Stop trying. Stop doing. Just… be. Be present in this moment. And think, but more than think feel the question: what do I need? Once you know what you need, then have integrity to your needs. Because once you have integrity, once you stand for something, once you assert your needs... then you’re unstoppable. Once you have a purpose, and you act on your purpose, then your needs will be met and you will be showing your worth."
13Think About Your Worst Relationship
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As licensed therapist Julie Williamson says, women often feel guilty asking for what they want because at some level they feel they are not fulfilling the caretaker role society has given them. But there's a way to move past that. “Something I suggest is thinking about the worst relationship you've ever had, and listing all the things you didn't like about the relationship (include if the person made you feel badly about yourself, spoke down to others, etc). Then, look at the opposite of each of those characteristics," Williamson says. "That can help you develop a picture of the qualities you're looking for and that are really important to you.”
14Try The Friend Support Method
“Women often hear messages, such as 'do not take up too much space,' 'if you ask for something you are inconveniencing people,' etc.,” dating coach Shaina Singh, LCSW, tells Bustle. If that sounds familiar and you have trouble being assertive, Singh says to try the friend support method.
"The friend support method works like this: If you had a friend in this exact same situation who felt unsure about what they wanted — how to be assertive, etc. — what advice would you give them? This question invokes empathy, clarity, and strength in people, and they can come up with a very clear answer on how they would support their friend," Singh says. "I end with asking my clients to reflect on what they said for their friend, and how that applies to their life or situation."
15Try This Writing Exercise
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"It’s important to speak up, and it’s OK to be vulnerable, instead of waiting on our partners to eventually pick up on little cues," relationship expert Vikki Ziegler tells Bustle. To figure out what you want, Ziegler says it's all about the approach and the language.
"[Write] down the top 10 things you want in a relationship," Ziegler says. "The first five should be dealbreakers, meaning you can’t live without them, and the last five should be needs. Then, assess your current relationship(s), and see which traits you have and which traits your partner is not fulfilling. If you have less than four, you need to reevaluate your current partnership. If you can’t figure out or identify what you need in a relationship, visualize your needs being met or start a daily affirmation. These exercises will help you develop the ability to access what you want and ultimately get it.”
16Think About Your Childhood
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Still struggling to get get rid of the guilt? Licensed psychologist Dr. Mindy Beth Lipson says it may go way back to your childhood — but you can actually use that to help you move forward.
"Guilt may stem from early childhood stories of what a woman should accept or how they saw their own family's intimate connections," she tells Bustle. "The best way to figure out what you are really looking for is to hone in on the strengths and weaknesses in your parental relationships. What areas your parental figures were lacking in for good or bad will be areas you need healing in. You will be drawn to others who represent this. Knowing your own history and dynamics with your parental figures will help you to understand why you are drawn to others for good or bad. Our needs are based on healing areas that were not fulfilled for us in childhood.”
17Talk To A Therapist
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If you're still struggling to create a vision for yourself, there's no shame in seeking help. “Women feeling guilty asking for what they want in their dating life could be tied into being a people pleaser and generally putting the other person before themselves,” marriage and family therapist Heidi McBain tells Bustle. “Going to counseling can be a great way to figure out what people truly want in life.”
Figuring out what you're looking for may involve deep introspection, trial and error, and even unlearning problematic gender roles that have been ingrained in us since a young age. But as Dr. Lipson says, you deserve what you need in a relationship. And while figuring out your needs isn't always easy — especially if you aren't assertive in other areas of life — if it leads you to an authentic, fulfilling relationship, it's undoubtedly worth it.