If We Never Stop Changing, How Do We Choose a Partner?

woman thinking about how to choose a partner

I love posts like this. The New York Times’ John Tierney reports on a study published in Science that people tend to “underestimate how much they will change in the future.” Says one of the authors of the study, Daniel T. Gilbert, “Middle-aged people – like me – often look back on our teenage selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin. What we never seem to realize is that our future selves will look back and think the very same thing about us. At every age we think we’re having the last laugh, and at every age we’re wrong.”

Yep. That sounds about right.

I’ve long recognized this – and my own fallibility in the process. In fact, there is a very quick exercise I do with clients from time to time. It goes like this:

I don’t know if we could get through the day if we were constantly thinking about how little we know.

Let’s say she’s 36 years old. I’ll say to her, “What did you know at 31?” She’ll invariably say, “Wow. That was like a lifetime ago. I’ve been through so much since then. A new job. A new house. A serious relationship. Yeah, I really know much more now at age 36.” And I’ll say, “What did you know at 26?” And she’ll laugh, and say, “Oh my god, I was such an idiot at 26”. And I’ll say, “Did you think you were an idiot at the time?” And she’ll say, “No. I thought I knew everything.” Not my best dialogue, but you get the point.

As the article indicates, people seemed to be much better at recalling their former selves than at imagining how much they would change in the future.

Why? Dr. Gilbert and his collaborators, Jordi Quoidbach of Harvard and Timothy D. Wilson of the University of Virginia, had a few theories, starting with the well-documented tendency of people to overestimate their own wonderfulness.

“Believing that we just reached the peak of our personal evolution makes us feel good,” Dr. Quoidbach said.

It’s true. I don’t know if we could get through the day if we were constantly thinking about how little we know, how we’re all works-in-progress, how in five years, we’ll have so much more life experience to inform our decision-making. Five years ago, I wasn’t even married. Now I have a house, two kids, and a business that is considerably bigger than the one from 2008. Was I confident in 2008? Yes. Do I know a lot more now? Hells yeah.

What does this mean for you and your pursuit of lasting love? Well, I’d think it would be yet another argument in favor of waiting a long time before getting married. Most people can tell a story about a relationship that was great for 3 months and then fell apart. Some people can tell that same story about a relationship that was great for 1 year and then fell apart. Fewer people can tell the story of a relationship that was great for 3 years and then fell apart.

Dating is something that should take place over 2-3 years before you make any lifetime decisions.

Dating – the process of getting to know a partner and evaluate his/her compatibility as a spouse – is something that should take place over 2-3 years before you make any lifetime decisions. And all of you who want to “just know” that you met your soulmate and lock it in within a year are just setting yourselves up for the predictable backlash of realizing that either you or your partner has changed or that you didn’t really know each other before you got married.

Better to be safe than sorry. And if you doubt me, just think of the mistakes in your past relationships and how much more you know now compared to five years ago.

Click here to read the full article.

Join our conversation (11 Comments).
Click Here To Leave Your Comment Below.


  1. 1

    I think eharmony has touched upon this subject matter as their basis for matching people is to connect people with values. Values tend to be more permanent. There are certain parts of us that are more permanent and then there are parts of us that are more transient. I think the original article makes some valid points. Not sure if they really ‘nailed’ this topic. I meditate and do kundalini yoga so this is something that gets discussed because most of what we experience in life is transitory and most of our pain eg job loss, breakup is transitory. In meditation, we are taught to connect with our divine self and that is our centre point, the calm in the midst of the storm of life.  
    I am growing and evolving but parts of me have stayed the same, namely the good parts, like being analytic, budget conscious etc. I would hope that the good parts stick around but for some people, their good parts get worn down by life. For example I had a friend who said she would help out her friends and family financially but not anymore because they took advantage of her. I don’t think she is more discerning about who to be generous to, I think she has stopped all together and is a bit bitter. I don’t know what she was like 10 years ago but it would be interesting to see if there is a change.

  2. 2

    You said “Hells Yeah” in your article. LOL.
    I completely agree with you here. My boyfriend’s daughter has been “engaged” twice in the five years I have known her. There is a weird sense of urgency that is infecting our culture and our youth. It’s all about instant gratification and, for lack of a better term, ADD? Technology and instant connectivity are likely to blame.
    Whatever the case may be, it would be really great for everyone to follow the advice laid out here: Wait a nice long while before you officially commit!
    You know what? Me and my SO are still not married, legally. Emotionally we are completely bonded for life. It has harmed nothing and no one to wait until we are ready to take the plunge.
    Divorce leaves a wake of destruction in it’s path.

  3. 3
    Jackie H.

    Yes, it’s good to take your time…but relationships are always a leap of faith…but then again, so is life…

  4. 4

    Great topic! I agree with the fact that new life experiences make us grow and refine us, and that we continue to evolve over time as we acquire more understanding and wisdom. I also agree that a certain amount of time is needed to get to know someone, their character, personality, and way to function in life.
    However ideally comes a time when we reach a certain threshold that is compatible with building a happy, healthy, and long-lasting relationship. As Paula writes @1, at some point we hopefully define our values and they become permanent. At some point, we become able to understand our feelings and take control on how to respond to them, we learn how to make wise decisions so that we increase the likelihood of positive feelings and decrease the likelihood of negative ones, and we learn how to navigate life’s ups and downs as we carefully observe more experienced people go through those themselves.
    I find crucial to carefully assess a potential partner’s commitment to their values, how they function in life, and how mindful and in control they are of their future growth and evolution. If we choose to investigate a relationship with and later marry someone who has already passed the stage where their most meaningful growth has happened, we will be less likely to see unexpected and undesired changes happen down the road, regardless of the length of the courtship. The best use of the courtship/dating time is evaluating whether or not you’re dealing with someone who can actually do what they pretend being able to do.

  5. 5

    I wanted to add that with all my years of self improvement, I have gotten to a point where I realized I cannot change certain parts of me. I think for example, temperment is one thing that is not easily changeable. I am a fiery personality and not afraid to fight or stand up to people. I have to learn to pick my battles but it’s not something I can eliminate from who I am. I can never eliminate my inner fire, I can only refine it. I have come to the point where I have to accept myself for who I am. No matter how many self help books I read and things I want to change in myself, I just can’t fight certain parts of me as it would be against my nature. That’s where the self acceptance comes in and I think the more you accept yourself for who you are, the more likely you will be accepting towards others and their flaws because no one is perfect.
    I think that’s why I feel this article doesn’t ‘nail it’. It doesn’t talk about the role of self acceptance and how accepting yourself is more about perception and not actually about you changing.

  6. 6

    I had a younger self that was more disciplined, focused and firmer in his views.   I think that he was probably stronger and achieved more.   He was a lot more demanding of others around him too.   I think that he was better.

  7. 7

    I dated my first husband for 4 1/2 years, and we were married for 2 years. I was 25 (he was 27) and knew going in that it was a mistake, but I foolishly thought that I could change him. DUH!!!
    I dated my second husband for 3 years, and we were married for 12 years. I was 31 at the time (he was 30) and felt that I had made a very sound and wise decision based upon the information that I had going into the marriage at that particular time. In retrospect, although he grew up with wonderful role models for parents–who still love each other and have been happily married for over 50 years–we eventually grew apart, and the relationship became more like a brother and sister type of relationship. I think that this was due to the fact that a couple of years after getting married, we began to fight over money (I was a conservative spender, and he was more impulsive). Also, four years into the marriage (when I learned that he was not going to be able to give me any children), I developed a passion for travel, but he did not. So he let me travel the world alone while he stayed home and watched sports. While we dated, he gave no indication that he was an impulsive spender. In fact, he appeared to be quite responsible with regards to his spending habits.
    In hindsight, I think that pre-martial counseling would have probably brought to light many of the issues that arose which caused serous problems within my marriage that surfaced as the years went by. Knowing what I know now, I would not have married, him. However, I do not regret marrying him because it was the right decision at the time.
    Lesson learned: Just because a man (or a woman) grew up with two happily married parents, and just because divorce was not very common within the person’s family overall, does not mean that that person will make a good marriage partener over the long haul. You see, I thought that my ex would be the kind of husband with me that his dad is with his wife. Boy, was I wrong!

  8. 8

    Re 7
    Money and children. I am sure this has scuppered many a relationship.
    As uncomfortable as it is, it must be thrashed out. Do you want children, how many, what happens if we can’t?, would you adopt? How will we manage finances? Will we have a joint account? How will we split bills? What happens if one of us loses their job?  
    etc etc etc.
    No, it’s not romantic but it matters just as much as how much you get on/love each other.

  9. 9

    I have certainly changed from being a naïve and sweet woman, to a woman who is prudent.   The gentleness is still there, and so is the kindness and compassion, but with it, a certain kind of reality check.
    Men don’t get into a relationship for nothing.   I still would like to think it’s for love, but have yet to find it.

  10. 10

    Great article – Evan you have reminded me of the framework I want to follow in my dating life and have helped me find confidence again.

  11. 11

    You can know someone for 5 years or more and find out they’re gay and attracted to the same sex, or they’re liars or cheaters, or very selfish, or sex addicts or whatever. I’ve known many many people in this situation. Lately many “baby boomers” are divorcing as well. Which tells me you can spend decades of your life with a person, and you’ve only stayed with them for the sake of your kids. As soon as you’re kids are grown and you feel free to walk away and experience new things, new people, and a new life, you do just that. I’ve also known people who have experienced this. People marry for numerous reasons, not all of them love. So imo, there is no rhyme or reason to guarantee that a person will make you happy enough to spend your life with them. Will and Jada Smith both admitted their marriage died a few times and had to be brought back to life. They Chose to do that, both of them; hence they’re still together. People who truly love their partner unconditionally, and everlasting, and want to stay married will, those that don’t, won’t. It’s that simple. There are no guarantees. No matter who you choose, your taking a chance because you have no idea what your future holds, and what that person will or won’t want and need or what may happen to them 20 or 30 years later, nor do u know what life experiences you will have in the future that could shape and/or dictate your decisions. I believe it’s just a matter of do u want to take the chance ur taking with his person, or not. And are you at least 75 to 80% prepared for whatever the future may hold. Can u deal no matter what happens. That is what makes all the difference.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *