Many people encounter difficulties later in a relationship because they haven’t asked or paid attention to information they needed to know about their partner in the early stages. Often this is because we’re caught up in the excitement of a new relationship, or equally it could be that we just don’t want to know, as we fear disillusionment or facing the realisation of incompatibility with the person concerned. However, as all psychologists will advise, past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour meaning that healthy, value-laden behaviours are repeated but dysfunctional and negative behaviours are too so it is in our interest to know something of our partner’s past behaviour. Asking questions early on is not about judging another human being – we all have our skeletons in the closet and moments we are not proud of and this is how we learn and grow. However, it is essential that we look out for ourselves and our future and choose a partner who is on our level in terms of their values and the qualities they prize.
There are key areas which give insight into someone’s character and value system. This is not about probing or being intrusive or manipulative, but it is important in finding out information at an early stage rather than months or years down the line when it can be a shock, or you are experiencing behaviour from your partner that there would have been warning signs for if you had asked key questions earlier. Obtaining this insight is not actually about asking fixed questions, but rather covering a range of areas during your discussions which are revelatory in terms of the insight they provide into personality and beliefs. Unsurprisingly, most of these are relational. These are the areas to explore:
Relationship with family
The relationships a partner holds within a family can reveal much. A key area to explore with men is the relationship they have with their mother – be wary of attitudes of contempt or disinterest as there is actually a great deal of research which supports the idea that, ‘as he treats his mother so he will come to treat you.’ Look out for respect, genuine warmth and compassion. The same can be true of how women talk about their fathers and the experience they had of this relationship. How does your partner view their siblings, their children? Do they value these bonds and invest time in them? Be curious about a reluctance to discuss family. Of course, not everyone is fortunate enough to come from a happy family background, but in terms of emotional health, the person needs to have worked through difficulties this has generated in order to be emotionally available for you.
Friendships give key insights into a person’s set of values. Does your partner have long-standing friendships? This indicates that they value longevity in relationships. Or do they have a more disposable attitude towards friendships or see friends for what they can provide? If this is the case you can predict what will happen to your relationship at the first sign of trouble! Does your partner value quality over quantity or do they need lots of stimulation to massage their ego? Pay attention to how they talk about their friends.
Vision of the future
A key area to tap into is how your partner views the future unfolding. This is the key to aligning relationship goals. If for one person having a family is central to their future but their partner is undecided, this is likely to cause heartache down the line. Where does your partner see themselves living long-term? What sort of lifestyle are they hoping for? No matter how much chemistry is present at the beginning of a relationship, if one person loves spontaneity and the glitz of the city and the other loves routine and the quiet life, this is going to surface in the relationship over time.
This is obviously a key area, but it needs to be explored without being intrusive. Has your partner had long-term relationships before (assuming they are older)? Is there a pattern in how relationships have ended? How do they talk about their ex? Be especially wary of bitter recounts of previous relationships or blamers who take no responsibility for the end of the relationship. It goes without saying that if someone is derogatory about their ex-partners, this should ring warning bells – most people have been hurt in a relationship before but are able to discuss this using a healthy dialogue.
How they feel about their career role
Career is often overlooked but reveals much about a person’s traits and characteristics. How does your partner feel about their career? Do they have an attitude of respect and care towards their staff? If they have a boss, be wary of someone who is disparaging about them. Has your partner taken responsibility for their career, moving on when the time is right or displaying loyalty if the position is valued? How do they talk about their colleagues? Do they ensure that work is balanced with time for other important areas of their life? This is also an area where you can assess how ambitious someone is and how that might be a positive or negative contribution to the relationship. Career often aligns with attitude towards lifestyle as well, so if someone has a passion for, and continually seeks to develop themselves in their work this generally correlates with a passion for living and curiosity about life too.
When exploring these topics it is important not to quiz, show judgement or interrogate – all of these things will put someone on the defensive and may lead to secrecy or modification of what’s being discussed. Allow people to tell their story, and try not to become judgemental if you don’t like what you’re hearing – everyone wants to be accepted for who they are. However, you also need to know who they are so be alert for what is not right for you so that you don't lose time in the wrong relationship.