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Knowing What You Don't Want

What if a romantic partner treats you badly? Depending on your alternatives, it may be time to abandon the relationship, and "tuck away" for the future what you've learned about the traits you seek and the characteristics you know you can't accept.
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People these days tend to stew over what they want, be it personal or professional. And why wouldn't they? There are so many choices and so many places to search them out. Dating websites are now a $2 billion industry, according to the marketing research firm IBISWORLD. Job employment firms continually redesign their websites to make it easier for the unemployed or restless to find exactly what kind of jobs they're looking for. And let's not forget craigslist -- a source for almost everything including kitchen sinks.

But here's the thing: Attempts at helping us find exactly what we want -- a romantic partner who's tidy, work that provides a generous childcare policy, the luxury of a refrigerator with a built-in wine cooler -- leave out one key ingredient for making a smart decision: knowing what we don't want. As a friend and longtime observer of romantic relationships told me, "No one talks about the hair in the sink problem."

This came up recently in a conversation with a work colleague in her late 20s. Reflecting on a previous romantic relationship, Lauren said she and her boyfriend first bonded over matching playlists on Spotify, the digital music app. On the third date, they enjoyed seeing singer-songwriter Dallas Green in concert. They discovered they shared a taste for, as she calls it, "weird vegan Vietnamese food." They went running. They watched the TV crime drama Breaking Bad regularly.

She was convinced that they were a good match and didn't pay much attention at first to the things about him that bothered her. She recalls:

When he'd come out with my friends, even when there were other boyfriends there, he'd make it seem like it was a favor he was doing for me and get grumpier and grumpier as the night wore on, until we eventually went home early.

I should have known we were star-crossed by the way our 'relationship' began: After dating exclusively for over two months, he signed me up to run a 5K with his office mates. The night before the race, I asked him how he was going to introduce me. He replied, 'Hmm. I don't know. I guess I shouldn't call you my friend, right?' How romantic.

Over time, she realized that "he wasn't really ready for a relationship and couldn't give his share of energy needed to maintain one." She doesn't regret the time spent with him, however; their differences were instructive. "There are so many qualities in a partner that you might not want but you don't think about," she said. "If it hadn't been for our time together back then, I would never have learned these things about myself."

Figuring out what you don't want in a job or your coworkers is as important as knowing the non-negotiables in your personal life, says Kathleen Kelley Reardon, professor of management at the University of Southern California. Some things are only learned on the job. Reardon says she told this to her son who was in his 20s and starting to work. After he ran into problems with his employer and fixed them, she asked whether the experience had been useful or annoying. "I've tucked it away," he told her.

Reardon, who has written several books on business politics and communication, says we expect work colleagues to treat us with respect. When they don't, we can't exactly split as we might with a romantic partner. She suggests talking over the problem first. If there's no change, or that person seems not to care, a sterner approach may be called for.

An example: Reardon was sitting on a conference panel and another panelist interrupted her twice. When he did it a third time, she said to him, "If you do that again I'm out of this room."

"He looked at me and said, 'Sometimes I speak too fast.' And I said, 'Not today.'" That shut him up.

As someone who writes about communication, Reardon knows what she wants from a conversation and what she doesn't want. She has thought a great deal about how to persuade people to reconsider their manner of speaking and writing. 'If I start out a letter to an annoying colleague saying, 'You're persistent and committed,' rather than "You're stupid and came on too strong,' that person is more likely to listen," she says.

What if, despite your best efforts to correct a situation, your coworker doesn't listen and neither does your boss? What if a romantic partner continues to treat you badly? Depending on your alternatives, it may be time to abandon the relationship, and "tuck away" for the future, as my co-worker Lauren did, what you've learned about the traits you seek and the characteristics you know you can't accept.