Are Your Love Standards Too High?

Long-term character contouring is not for you. You crave a ready match and your compatibility list is firm (loves dogs, plays chess, financially independent). But how willing you are to modify or even disregard that list?
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Portrait of joyful senior couple dining at the restaurant
Portrait of joyful senior couple dining at the restaurant

It was once village matchmakers who joined marriageable folk, and sometimes they joined people whose temperaments were at odds. Couples were expected to cope with their incompatibilities and grow closer -- or not -- with the passage of time.

Long-term character contouring is not for you. You crave a ready match and your compatibility list is firm (loves dogs, plays chess, financially independent). But how willing you are to modify or even disregard that list?

I'm not talking about the lists on which phrases such as "always puts down the toilet seat" or "admires my off-key singing" appear. Cuteness, some feel, is welcome diversion from the grueling search for love. Lists I oppose are those dead-serious inventories that regulate whose on-line profile will live and whose will die.

Dating gurus want you to make two lists: the things you insist on and the things you won't stand for. I'm not sure lists facilitate the love quest. They seem, in fact, to imperil it. Right now, all over America, love-seekers are huddled over their Starbucks lattes, wondering how to extricate themselves from time-wasting chats with new acquaintances who don't pass the test. "This woman looked totally hot on line," I imagine one man thinking, "but 10 pounds over my weight limit is 10 pounds too many." Women's brains, too, are sifting silently through lists. Metallica fan: Check. No kids at home: Check. Likes to ski: No. Ivy League: No...

How will anyone who is ruled by a list ever find a satisfactory partner? Recently a friend ended an intensely committed forever relationship -- his fourth this year. When I expressed my sympathies he actually responded, "I should have known not to get involved with her when I saw how far I'd strayed from my list."

The Washington Post Sunday Magazine runs a popular weekly feature called Date Lab. Applicants are matched by age and stated interests. More often than not, the match begins and ends on the debut evening.

When Date Lab daters express disappointment it is almost always because "we didn't have enough in common." The poverty of this itemized list approach is not lost on Date Lab readers. "I've been amazed at the pickiness and pettiness of some of the daters," commented one. "Having things in common is no guarantee at all... Chemistry is the only thing that matters."

Chemistry is that indefinable something that joins two people in giddiness without regard to whether or not they both like bowling. It works differently for the 50-plus crowd than it does for 20-somethings. For the young, chemistry has a fairy tale feeling -- the future is a warm, unhatched egg. For older couples, chemistry depends heavily on how myriad past experiences have shaped the expectations of the two people involved.

As a rule, 50-plus people are experienced in partnering. Their characters, habits, prejudices, skills and dreams are already formed. When that mosaic of attributes finds its complement, it matters not at all that he was born in Egypt and she in Oklahoma, that he is a geologist and she a CPA. Chemistry for mature couples is two histories carefully and contentedly combined.

Date Lab recently tried to match a 59-year-old woman and a 64-year-old man, professionals in complimentary fields. Minutes into the evening she excused herself to go to the ladies' room and never returned. She later told the magazine he was "completely and totally and 100 percent not anything I would be interested in."

If the guy was vulgar and disrespectful, the lady gets a pass, but the evidence is that she simply wouldn't waste a precious hour on someone who doesn't meet her standards. Kindness is important, and to regard every person who occupies the seat opposite as a candidate for life partner is to misunderstand the purpose of a first date. The purpose of a first date is to see if you'd like to have a second.

Relationship building, like other modern endeavors, moves quickly to the next big thing, and happily, list-making appears to be losing favor with some dating experts. Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, authors of "Not Your Mother's Rules: The New Secrets For Dating," are writing mostly to denizens of the hookup culture (young women yearning to know proper texting etiquette), but the core of their message is patience, and that applies to mature daters as well. Simply enjoy the company of each person you meet, they say, without insisting that he or she matches your idea of a perfect long-term partner.

Technically speaking, none of us is list-less. A woman who had an unfaithful husband is hoping for a man who's inclined to fidelity. The man whose wife squandered the family fortune wants fiscal prudence next time. Widows and widowers often look for people who embody the best traits of their lost spouses. These are qualities not to be assigned to clipboards. The most realistic lists are unconscious, residing in the depths of memory, and what draws one person to another is ultimately unquantifiable, even mysterious.

Most of us would wish for a partner who is gorgeous, agile, and well-heeled. But we know how rarely life delivers up the ideal. How is it not stupendous to find someone who combines average good looks, modest financial assets and flawed physique with a penchant for loving you madly? Less-than-perfect can suffice for the openhearted.

Sienna Jae Fein blogs at

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