Today’s dating scene is often hyper-focused on externals. “Great catches” are described as people who are professionally successful or physically attractive, rather than people who possess character and integrity. But behind the impeccable resume and beautiful presentation there is a real person. How does one get to know the person beyond the smiling face and carefully selected outfit? Here are eight tips for dating smart to ascertain who your date really is and whether he or she has what it takes to travel through life with you.
1) Consider what people tell you but trust your own gut more.
The research that is gathered about potential dates is often from people who know only one aspect of that person, or have an allegiance to the suitor or his family. If you ask a rabbi or teacher, remember that people do not act the same way with authority figures as they do with their friends. Rabbis and teachers are seeing people from a very specific perspective, often when they are on their best behavior. They don’t know the range of that person’s behavior. They may not know, for example, if he is quick to anger, or if she is judgmental and dismissive of others.
If you’ve been given good reports about a person but you are feeling uncomfortable from him or her on dates, trust yourself. You know how you feel about the interaction, have seen your date in a scenario no reference has, and you need to trust your own instincts.
2) Look at internal character traits rather than external factors.
There is a “halo effect” around people who have good looks or solid educational or professional backgrounds. People tend to ascribe good qualities to such people, when in reality their looks obviously have no correlation to other desirable character traits. If someone attended a good college, yeshiva or seminary, it may be assumed that he or she has certain qualities (intelligence, religious commitment or honesty) that he may not possess. It’s possible a family wanted their son or daughter to attend a certain institution that wasn’t a fit. Maybe there was a legacy—parents or siblings went there so they went as well but it doesn’t reflect who that person really is. It is up to you to look past this “halo effect” and determine the true internal characteristics.
3) ‘The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.’
This well-known adage reminds us that people’s personalities follow characteristic patterns that are consistent in different situations. For example, if someone repeatedly gets fired from his or her job, or always loses his temper, that is a pattern. Don’t think you will be the one to change him or her. He is not likely to “get his act together” when he settles down with you. Don’t think your love will save her or change her character or integrity. Love is wonderful, but it doesn’t change consistent character traits that have been revealed time and time again in a variety of settings.
4) Observe whether your date takes responsibility for unfortunate events that happen to him or her.
People who always blame others for difficulties—the loss of a job on a “stupid boss,” a previous breakup on a “psychopathic ex,” a bad grade on an “unprepared lab partner”—simply don’t own their own problems and are likely to blame their spouses when things go awry. On the other hand, if someone “owns” his or her errors or mistakes, that reflects a “growth” mindset and the desire for self improvement. The ability to take responsibility and desire to grow will help a couple navigate through life together as they invariably make mistakes and resolve to learn from them.
5) Focus on qualities that don’t change, that are consistent for the long haul.
Life invariably impacts our decisions, choices and appearances. Many of the items that people place on their priority list when dating—such as attractiveness, career plans, ideal place to live, favorite activities, even religious observance—shift over time. Therefore, it is important to focus on the qualities that don’t change, those that are consistent throughout people’s lives. Which qualities don’t change? Personality and character traits such as honesty, kindness, selflessness, patience, intelligence, optimism. Those qualities are likely to remain as a person ages. Make sure the attributes that draw you to this person are qualities that will be with him or her for a lifetime.
6) Learn your date’s core values and see if you share them.
Too often people discuss and often disagree on details instead of focusing on core values. Examples include the desire for a high-powered and high-earning career versus spiritual, idealistic pursuits such as learning and teaching. When dating, don’t focus on details but rather the big picture. For example, whether you are both Zionists is a topic to discuss, not whether you will live in Israel for the first two years of marriage.
If you love looking “put together” and having a beautiful home and he thinks focusing on externals is hedonistic and superficial, that could lead to conflict once married. The reason that money is the #1 issue about which people argue is because it is connected to core values—values of conspicuous consumption versus modest presentation, values of “living for today” versus saving for the future. Your core values direct the paths that you choose, so make sure you are both in agreement on those values and paths.
7) Put together your list of five ‘non-negotiables.’
These should be items that focus on traits that are “job relevant,” those that relate to being a good spouse and parent. Rather than being specific, the focus should be on the big picture. For example, having a “good work ethic” is a “big picture” focus, but “earning a lot of money” is too specific. Someone with a good work ethic will apply that credo to all situations, whereas earning power can easily change with his or her job situation. Ask yourself what comprises your top-five priorities for a wonderful spouse. You may be drawn to someone who is “cool and edgy” but that is not relevant to the job of a spouse. A person can be a great partner without those traits.
When narrowing down your list to the five key items, make sure your yardstick is what matters to you, not to your parents or friends or an imaginary audience you are trying to impress. You are the one who will ultimately live with this person, so it’s important that the qualities you seek are those that really matter to you.
If your parents feel higher education is paramount, but you are perfectly happy with a plumber or contractor, then take “academics” out of the equation.
Also, be honest about what’s possible in one individual. Often people are actually looking for two paradoxical qualities. For example, a young woman usually is not “low-maintenance, down to earth” and also “stylish and well-dressed.” A man cannot easily “spend hours daily studying Torah” and also be a “full-time successful professional.”
8) Reflect on how you and your date disagree and handle difficult situations.
Invariably, life poses challenges and conflicts. When you disagree with the person you’re dating, does he/she become disrespectful of your opinion, or even you? Does she act demeaning or condescending when you disagree with her opinion? These are red flags that should not be ignored. There will invariably be disagreements in your lives together, and would you rather share that life with someone who can disagree with you and still treat you with respect, or someone who belittles you when you don’t agree with him?
Notice how your partner responds when things go wrong. What is he like when the key gets locked in the car accidentally? Or when the waiter spills soup on her new dress?
Any serendipitous moment when things go wrong on a date is a gift to you! It gives you insight into what that person is really like with his guard down. It’s the imperfect date experiences (not the perfect ones where everything goes without a hitch) that help you discover important aspects of what that person is really like.
Someone who remains respectful even during conflict, demonstrates resilience and the ability to cope with challenges is a promising life partner.
Smart dating requires some detective skills. Use these tips to learn the most from each date and get closer to finding your true life partner.
Professor Naomi Nechama Klapper is chair of the department of psychology at Touro’s Lander College for Women and a licensed psychotherapist with a private practice on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for individuals and couples, with a focus on all issues of mental health (anxiety, depression, grief, divorce, relationships, couples work, etc). She also lectures throughout the U.S. on topics of emotional health and relationships. Klapper can be reached at