While my merry match-making friend was whipping up some enchanted cat magic for me the other day, we drifted off into a deep and revealing conversation about truthful acceptance in relationships. Following up on an earlier dialogue about mediation to improve co-parenting, she said, “I realized that it was me that needed to adjust. I was still sad and frustrated about him not being the father I know he could be. Not much different then when we were married. I was in love with the ‘potential’ he possessed. Not what he really was. I need to accept the fact that he will never change and that it’s ok. As long as he loves the boys, spends time with them and is not putting them in danger I need to accept him. Aaaaaagggghhhhh, so much easier said then done. It is a work in progress for me.”
Most relationship problems start when we fall in love with what someone could be sometime in the future, instead of who they are right now — and then strive to turn them into this potential person.
In “Falling In Love With Potential,” Tamara Angela says “I have a horrible habit of falling for a person’s potential. A horrible habit. I like to see the best in people, and because this is real life and not a Looney Tunes cartoon, there are no true bad guys. Everyone has redeeming qualities. Everyone. And that’s where I mess up. Somehow, I focus on the good and hope that the not so good gets better. Then the romantic and the dreamer in me wants to believe that those not so shining qualities will improve over time and that love itself will help us to triumph over all.”
Monica Torres, in “Why We Owe It To Ourselves To Stop Falling In Love With Potential” says “When I was in my late teens, I dated someone that struggled with addiction. I was not aware of the severity of the issue and I chose to take a ‘strength-based approach’ and focus on the positive because when you’re nineteen and an idiot, love conquers all. While he was flawed, he was good-looking and charismatic with a sense of humor. I chose to minimize his crippling anxiety and insecurity and instead focus on the man he could become with just some tender loving care and a dash of codependency. Although addiction has roughly a 10% recovery rate, I was certain that my relentless effort and dashing good looks would overcome trivial forces, such as human nature and scientific findings. When I finally ended the relationship because I could no longer ignore how unhealthy the situation was, he made a profound statement that changed the way I approached dating moving forward:
‘You fell in love with my potential.’
He was absolutely right- I fell in love with everything he could be if he could overcome addiction, if he improved his self-worth, if he could only cope with his insecurity and treat me as a partner rather than a possession- but he couldn’t. I was merely tolerating who he was in the present because I was in love with the person I believed he would become in the future.
Throughout this process, I learned that there is no greater waste of one’s time than to fall in love with potential.”
A further search on this topic revealed no shortage of support for the notion that falling in love with someone’s potential can generate harmful effects. In “Why falling In Love With Someone’s Potential Is Dangerous,” Blavity reports “Potential can be misleading. Seeing the potential in someone instead of who they really are is probably 80% of the reason relationships don’t work.” Rania Naim, in “Why Falling For Someone’s Potential Is Not Enough” says “The problem with potential is that it’s subjective, it’s based on our opinions and what we think of someone, it’s based on who we think this person could be, not who they really are.” In “Loving the Person and Not the Potential” — an Elephant Journal publication — Rebekah Freedom writes “The truth is that everyone is a victor and everyone fucks up. So when engaging in a romantic relationship, how do you love the person and not the potential?” I guess that’s the real question, isn’t it! And in order to love the person and not the potential, we need to be able to tell the difference between the two.
Removing Our Own Stuff So We Can See Theirs
It seems like, in order to distinguish between someone’s potential and who they really are, we would first have to remove our own stuff from the mix (so we don’t confuse who we are with who they are). Sometimes it’s our own hang-ups and issues that cause us to focus on their potential instead of who they really are. When we are avoiding or denying things about ourselves that we don’t want to see, we probably won’t see them in other people we like either (although we may see exaggerated versions of them in those we dislike).
For example, if we drink, eat, shop, spend, or think too much; and if we are not facing and dealing with our own addiction/compulsion; then the likelihood is that we won’t notice it in someone we are falling in love with either (or if we do, we’ll make the same excuses for them that we make for ourselves). And it doesn’t have to be the same issue either. If we spend too much and they drink too much, then we might deny their excessive drinking so we can continue denying our excessive spending. This could cause us to either overlook or minimize their drinking problem, and focus on their potential instead of the truth of who they are.
If we have issues with self worth, control, fairness, trust, insecurity, rejection, etc.; then these issues will likely color our perceptions of others (in either or both directions). For example, if we lack self worth, we might idealize someone and put them on a pedestal if they praise us, acknowledge us, or give us attention; but may suddenly villainize them and turn them into a giant flying cockroach if they make us feel like we did something wrong. And if we are not able to either resolve our issues, or at least separate them from the mix — then we will be unable to see anyone else clearly for who they are. If we are denying and defending against these things within ourselves — While creating illusion to replace the truth about them — then the likelihood is that, at least to a degree, we will do the same thing with others. And the more we like someone, and the more vulnerable we become with them; the more we extend/apply our own denial and defense-based methods to them (as if they are an extension of ourselves). This, too, can lead to a focus on their potential instead of who they really are (denying truth and creating fictional potential to replace it).
Are They Really Available?
One thing to consider, when distinguishing between who someone really is and what they could become, is their availability. Are you basing your relationship with them on their potential availability sometime in the future, or on their availability right now? Such availability could relate to other current relationships, unfinished business with past loves, their ability to become emotionally vulnerable, consuming careers, extended family enmeshment, addictions, or ego defensiveness. How many years have they been telling you that they wanna, hafta, are gonna leave their current abusive or unfulfilling relationship; while you’re holding on to the goals and dreams you made with them months or years ago; and where are they right now? Who are they with? What are they doing? What has really changed? Are they available right now? If not, then you are investing in potential and wasting your time. And the same goes for all other measures of availability (e.g. being able to be emotionally vulnerable, making changes to consuming career in order to make relationship a priority, etc.).
Do They Have the Capacity to Both Give and Receive Love?
Are they able to give and receive real love, or are you just fantasizing that they can based on who you hope they will someday become? Are you? Do you put up your walls, inhibiting your ability to share love, in order to maintain control, keep yourself from being vulnerable, or eliminate the possibility of getting hurt again? What about them? What is the truth, not the potential?
And are they able to sustain the giving and receiving of love continuously over time, or is it frequently interrupted by emotional reactions, issue triggers, defensiveness, or withdrawal? How ‘bout you? What is the longest period of time you have continuously shared love with them? Has it been at least six months? I don’t mean have you gone six months without a problem. What I mean is, regardless of what has transpired, have you been able to hold on to the respectful, caring, accepting, treasuring attitude toward them without changing how you see or treat them because of how you feel in the moment or because of something that has happened? What about them? Is love the basis of your relationship, or are you clinging to its potential while denying what is really going on?
Acceptance is our ability to welcome, receive, and agree to realizations deriving from our conscious awareness of the truth about something or someone based on what they are right now. When you see the truth about someone, can you accept both their positives and negatives as being OK? I mean right now — not based on what the picture could look like sometime in the future. Well, can you? Do you find yourself locking on to their entrancing eyes, bewitching smile, cute giggle, playful humor, sexy ass, or bulging breasts or biceps — while forgetting about everything else? Or do you just feel like you need to be in a relationship to be OK, and instantly start magnifying their strengths and erasing their weaknesses — to turn them into your dream come true? Or are you feeling desperate or insecure, making them seem like a saint who can do no wrong, in order to justify plunging ahead with a relationship to help you deal with practical life challenges that could be over soon? Have you noticed that you instantly start minimizing their red flags and glorifying their apparent desirables in order to give yourself the proverbial green light?
If we can’t accept someone as they are right now, then we need to let them go and move on. However it seems in the moment, falling for potential is not falling in love.
To keep ourselves from falling into this trap we can create a dating checklist — including a measure for whether each of the desired characteristics is or is not already present in those we are considering. According to eHarmony, this is “Your Checklist for Dating Success.” Psychology Today says when you start a new relationship you should use this dating checklist. Bustle, on the other hand, reports that this is “How to Make a Dating Checklist that Leads to a Healthy Relationship.” They say you should 1 focus on your core values, 2. leave physical qualities off the list, 3. know your deal breakers, 4. stay open minded about things that aren’t on your deal breaker list, and 5. allow yourself to stray from the checklist. And I would add to this, make sure that whatever you identify as valuable or important in a prospective partner is already there (not some future possibility). And it has to be based on more than what they say, because people can say anything (and will often tell you exactly what you want to hear to get their foot in the door, or hand in your pants). It needs to be based on what you, yourself, observe, identify, and experience with them over time — which is an awesome reason to take it a little slower! 😉
So, to insure that we are falling for love, and not its potential, we could create a dating checklist — a list of what we want and need from a relationship partner — and then go item by item and identify whether or not these things currently exist in the person we’re considering.
Yes, LOVE IS EVERYTHING, but potential is not.
Photo Credit: Edurne S. Vincente