Decisions are a part of life. At various times you may need to choose the best vacation spot, job candidate, babysitter, or place to live. Your most important decision may be figuring out your best romantic partner. Relationships matter – a lot. They have implications for your health, your reactions to stress and even how you look at the world.
But how can you determine if your current romantic partner is the best of the best for you? It’s hard to know what factors truly matter, what you should not overvalue, or what is best to ignore entirely.
This kind of assessment comes up in a variety of contexts. Consider, for example, something that may seem entirely unrelated to relationships: determining whether a baseball player qualifies for the Hall of Fame. The task requires wading through dozens and dozens of highly qualified candidates, each with various outstanding characteristics, to determine who warrants permanent enshrinement. Still, no candidate is absolutely perfect – just like finding a quality relationship partner.
So as a relationship scientist, I’ve gathered inspiration from the Hall of Fame selection process and infused some science to draw up a checklist of intangibles you can use to think about your own relationship.
Instinct adds nuance to hard numbers
There are two general ways to make assessments: data and your gut feeling. In a sport like baseball, with a plethora of statistics, a data-based approach makes sense. But for a player to be truly Hall of Fame worthy, numbers may not tell the whole story. It should be visceral, a player should feel like a Hall of Famer. As Malcom Gladwell famously observed in his book “Blink,” snap judgments can have astounding accuracy. As a psychology professor myself, one example that always amazes me is that student assessments of a professor based on a 30-second silent video clip matches students’ evaluations based on the entire semester.
Relying on gut feelings isn’t perfect. But intuition is an important component of decisions, especially social ones. Clearly, people rely on instincts in a variety of situations such as deciding which job to take, which daycare is best, and who you should date. Trusting your own feelings is sometimes necessary because expert information is hard to access – published research articles are often locked behind paywalls – or written in a way that defies comprehension. And of course, the very nature of science and statistics is to focus on what is most typical in a population, instead of what is best for any individual.
Experts also aren’t perfect and new research shows that people have a sense of when to value nonexpert opinions over experts. In fact, some experts admit to using intuition themselves. A study revealed that marriage therapists acknowledge using their intuition and consider it a valuable tool in clinical settings.
Deserving of Hall of Fame enshrinement?
Perhaps with the value of instinctive evaluation in mind, famous baseball statistician Bill James created the “Keltner List.” Named for a seven-time All-Star with borderline qualifications, the list was devised as a way to help assess a player’s Baseball Hall of Fame viability.
Even though James is a statistician, the Keltner List is intentionally nonscientific. Rather, it’s a collection of 15 questions that anyone can quickly answer to help guide an overall assessment of a player’s worthiness for the Hall of Fame. (Think: “Was he the best player on his team?”) The answers are not meant to provide a definitive conclusion, but rather to force a careful consideration of the most important information.
Back to relationships. A similar process can help you determine whether your current romantic partner belongs in your relationship Hall of Fame. Inspired by the Keltner List concept, I’ve put together a list of 15 questions to highlight what matters most. Like the Keltner List, my approach to relationship assessment is intentionally not scientific and has not been tested empirically (though that isn’t a bad idea for future research).
That said, as a relationship scientist, I couldn’t help but use science as a guide. In crafting each question, I consulted the existing research to ground it in the science of what contributes to a healthy relationship. Note that this list isn’t about helping you pick the best Tinder date, hookup or short-term fling. The questions focus on what matters for serious, long-term, committed, sustainable love. To benefit from this exercise, you need to be honest. If you’re lying to yourself, you won’t gain any insight. As computer programmers say, “garbage in, garbage out.”
A Keltner List for relationships
Consider each question and answer truthfully with a simple yes or no response:
2. Are you and your partner both comfortable with sharing feelings, relying on each other, being close, and able to avoid worrying about the other person leaving?
4. When disagreements arise, do you and your partner communicate respectfully and without contempt or negativity?
5. Do you and your partner share decision-making, power and influence in the relationship?
6. Is your partner your best friend, and are you theirs?
7. Do you and your partner think more in terms of “we” and “us,” rather than “you” and “I”?
10. Do your close friends, as well as your partner’s, think you have a great relationship that will stand the test of time?
11. Is your relationship free of red flags like cheating, jealousy and controlling behavior?
13. Are you and your partner willing to sacrifice your own needs, desires and goals for each other (without being a doormat)?
14. Do you and your partner both have agreeable and emotionally stable personalities?
15. Are you and your partner sexually compatible?
At this point you may be tempted to tally your responses. Remember, this isn’t about generating a score, but rather engaging in a self-guided tour through what’s important in relationships. That said, the best answer for every question is a quick, certain and unqualified “yes.”
Looking at the list, you may take issue with a question or two and think, “that’s not important.” First, I’d say that the scientific evidence begs to differ. But that’s also why there are 15 questions. More questions provide greater accuracy. While any one question may not perfectly capture your relationship, 15 different perspectives gives a fairly complete picture.
Are there different questions you could ask? Sure. More questions? No doubt, but Bill James stuck to 15 questions for his Keltner List, so I did as well.
With relationships, like selections to a Hall of Fame, there aren’t easy answers and no guarantees for what the future holds. As much as you may like a definitive scoring system where a partner with at least a 12 out of 15 is a “keeper,” that isn’t possible. Relationships are complex. Any attempt at an easy answer is inevitably an oversimplification.
Instead, consider your responses to this list as additional data points that provide new insights. Don’t stop here. When you make important decisions – like who you’re going to spend the rest of your life with! – collect as much data as possible. Consult the experts, yourself and, as Question 10 suggests, your friends. By using both your head and your heart you can make the best decision about whether your romantic partner is Hall of Fame material.