Why are you choosing your partner?

“Why are you choosing your partner?” is a question I sometimes ask clients, but I try to explain as clearly as I can what this question is all about.

First, notice the present tense. Here, right now, today, you are choosing to be with this person. You’re not broken up, even if you feel completely miserable in the relationship, so … you are choosing to be with this person. Even if you’re planning to break up tomorrow, why tomorrow and not today? Today, for one or more reasons (probably a lot more than one), you’re sticking around.

Some of the reasons are what you’d expect: you find her sexy. You like how quiet and introverted he is. You love her passion for justice. You can’t get enough of his sense of humor. And so on. Typically, reasons like these change over time. Maybe you thought he was really cute in the beginning, and now you like being with him because he’s so good with the kids. But my question is about something else.

Here’s the theory: you are unconsciously—note, unconsciously—choosing your partner in order to take the next step in your development as a human being. She’s hysterically funny, and you have always been a serious person … you’re with her because you want to learn to lighten up. She’s really quiet and serious … you’re with her because you want to stretch in that direction; you want to get serious.

Here’s an example, and warning, it’s a little on the silly side. Because my job is so intense, I like my entertainment to be really easy. I love sitcoms and sci-fi and crime shows. And for years my spouse and I have been fans of “Psych.” It’s a silly show about a guy who solves crimes by pretending he’s psychic, when really he’s just hyper-observant.

If I haven’t lost you, I’ll continue with this example. In a recent episode, Shawn (the “psychic”) was confronted by his girlfriend, Juliet, a police detective, who figured out that he’s been faking psychic powers all this time, which means he’s been lying to her, hundreds of times, for years. She was understandably very upset. To make it worse, Juliet’s dad is a small-time crook who always let her down when she was a kid, so honesty is a Very Big Deal for her. And Shawn knows she’s furious, but he can’t stop kidding around and anxiously trying to joke his way out of trouble.

Let’s apply my question to this couple.

Shawn is unconsciously choosing to be with Juliet because he wants to grow up, even though he doesn’t want to. He wants to become a little more emotionally mature. He said as much when he asked her out. Because of this, he wouldn’t have a lot of integrity if he complained that she was being unfair in her anger, or if she was not willing to wait around for him to get his act together. At some level he needs to acknowledge that his girlfriend is doing exactly what his unconscious self wants someone to do: she’s caring about him but also holding him accountable for a major mistake. He could dump her and find a new girlfriend, and by doing so avoid taking the next step in his development, or he could recognize that he needs to step up. In short, Juliet is perfect for him.

Meanwhile, Juliet is unconsciously choosing to be with Shawn because she wants to get past her lifelong resentment and distrust of her dad, and how that family-of-origin relationship makes it so hard for her to trust guys today. Honesty is a very big deal for her—in fact it’s much too big. She needs Shawn to be two things: 1) a guy who’s not always honest and reminds her of her irresponsible dad; and 2) a tremendously virtuous and loving guy who truly does right by her. She could dump him and find a straight-laced guy to be her version of “the guy you marry,” or she could recognize that she needs to get past her “dad issues” and begin to trust an imperfect but great guy. In short, Shawn is perfect for her.

I like this couple because the “Why are you choosing your partner” question is easy to answer for both of them. How I wish that were always true in real life…

So, tell me: why are you choosing your partner?