Hi everyone, I’m Dr. Marie Murphy. I’m a relationship coach, and I help people who are engaging in anything they think counts as infidelity to deal with their feelings, clarify what they want, and make decisions about what they’re going to do. No shame, no blame, no judgments. There’s a lot of infidelity “advice” out there that isn’t much more than thinly veiled judgment, but I believe you’re entitled to guidance and support that respects the fullness of your humanity, and the complexity of your situation. I provide the perfect combination of radical compassion and tough love that will help you get out of limbo and make choices and changes in your life that you feel great about. If you’re ready to talk about your infidelity situation, let’s work together. You can schedule an introductory coaching session with me through my website, mariemurphyphd.com. I can’t wait to meet you.
Today we are going to talk about checklists, or comparison systems.
Sometimes people are in a situation where they’re trying to choose between two partners or two relationship – or more than two – and the decision seems totally confounding and/or excruciating. People sometimes find themselves in a spot where they believe they really can’t choose which person they want to be with, even when that is their ultimate objective. And in an attempt to remedy this situation, people sometimes come up with these checklists for what they want in a partner and in a relationship, and then they score each partner on how they meet each item on the checklist, and then they try to see who comes out on top. Sometimes it gets even more sophisticated than that. Sometimes people give more weight to some criteria over others, and do these crazy calculations based on higher math and the specifics of it are usually very impressive… in a sense. And also, perhaps completely useless.
Before I go any further, let me make something really clear: if you’ve been trying to make decisions about your relationships and you’ve been using some sort of scoring or ranking system and it’s working for you, then that is great. I am not trying to tell you that scoring or ranking systems are categorically bad, and in general, I abide by the maxim that if it ain’t broke, you probably don’t need to fix it.
And in addition to that, I am all in favor of systematic thinking. Very much in favor of it. Sometimes we make very impulsive relationship decisions based primarily on surges of emotion, and that doesn’t always work out too well. So I’m all in favor of being thoughtful and deliberate as you make decisions about your relationships, and that may include having some sort of checklist system.
HOWEVER, there are ways in which people sometimes use systematic thinking, or being thoughtful and deliberate against themselves. It is not uncommon for people to drive themselves CRAZY by attempting to do point-by-point comparisons of their partners and their relationships.
So today I’m going to talk about why attempting to systematically compare your relationships might not be all that helpful, and what you can do instead.
One thing that people very often discover when they attempt to score their partners merit in areas that are important to them is that they find that both people they’re involved with are really great. Or all of the people they’re involved with are really great, no matter how many people that is. Here again, folks, I want to point out that for the sake of brevity, I sometimes use examples that can be misleading. Many people’s infidelity situations involve more than two partners. Of COURSE. But, a common thing my clients are dealing with is trying to choose between two relationships. So even if I use that as the default frame of reference, the points I’m covering will apply no matter how many people you’re involved with.
So, when people compare their partners and find that they are both really great, they sometimes try to re-jigger the calculations. But no matter how much fancy math they do to try to assign a weighting system to different attributes, like sense of humor, or interest in travel, or sexual compatibility, or intellect, or shared interests, or whatever, they can’t get the checklists, or the scoring system, to give them a definitive answer about what they want. The checklist, or comparison system, doesn’t do much to clarify which relationship they want to choose – assuming that’s the goal of the exercise. And that usually IS the goal of the exercise when people are doing this kind of thing.
And there are two important things I want to say about that. The first is that being involved with two – or more – people who you think are wonderful is not a bad problem to have. There is an abundance of love to be found in this world, and experiencing that is not such a terrible thing. And the second is that people sometimes think that making a decision in a situation like this is really hard, BECAUSE of what I just said. BECAUSE both options are so great. They think that if one option was clearly worse than the other, their decision would be much easier. But I want to suggest that this is not necessarily how it works out in practice, and more importantly, thinking about it in this way isn’t going to be all that helpful for you now. What may be much more helpful is considering that choosing between two good options does not have to be a problem. It does not have to be torturous.
So what do you do, if the scoring system is not working? If all the fancy math isn’t spitting out an answer for you, or an answer that you like? Here’s what I urge you to consider:
Number one: you don’t have to make a decision! If you really want to keep both, or all of your relationships going, you could. But if you don’t want to do that, it might be WORTH IT to make a choice, even if making a choice does involve relinquishing something great. The question I want you to ask yourself is, is it a problem to relinquish something great if you’re left with something that’s also great?
Number two: if you really think you have two options that are so great, just pick one and go with it. If you want to be with one person, if you want to have one relationship, then you’re going to have to choose who you want to be with, and if both of your options are great, you can’t go wrong. You COULD literally just flip a coin and then choose your person, and choose to fully invest in that relationship and make it awesome. A lot of people really resist this idea, but even if you don’t literally want to make your relationship choices based on a coin toss, I want to consider the idea that you could. It doesn’t HAVE to be any more complicated than that if you believe that all of your options are great.
But here’s the THIRD thing I want you to consider: part of the problem with your comparison system may be that you’re using a scoring system, or checklist, that isn’t really useful. You may be evaluating your partners based on ideas about what’s important in a partner or in a relationship that aren’t currently congruent with who you are, or weren’t ever truly important to you in the first place.
So for instance, who cares if you think your partner would make a great parent if you don’t want to have kids? Now, depending on your age and what’s going on in your life, this can be a really sneaky one. Some people of a certain age assume that they want to have children, or that they WILL want to have children, and thus operate as if co-parenting potential is something important to look for in a romantic partner. And of course, if you are sure that you want to have children, you may well want to make assessments of your partners’ suitability as a co-parent. Same thing if you already HAVE children living with you, and you’re considering investing in a relationship with someone who isn’t currently a parent to your children.
But here’s the trouble. Sometimes people just assume they’re going to have kids, because it’s what they think they’re supposed to do, or what they’re naturally going to want someday, and they consider parenting potential an important criterion in mate selection, but then, upon serious self-reflection, they realize they don’t actually want to have children. You’ve got to know yourself and what’s important to you in order to make a checklist, or devise a comparison system that’s even remotely useful for evaluating your relationships. If you don’t want to have kids, it may not MATTER whether you think someone could be a great parent or not, or could parent with you in a way that you would like or not. It may be far more important to you to be with someone who loves architecture as much as you do, or is crazy about bird-watching, or likes to do a particular set of sexual things that you really like.
Sometimes the checklists we devise have more to do with what we think we SHOULD want, or what other people want, than what WE truly want. Yes, everyone around you may have kids, your family may expect you to have kids, and random strangers may tell you that you’re a freak if you don’t reproduce. But that doesn’t mean that you want to have kids, and if you don’t, potential to be a good parent may not belong on your checklist. Your selection criteria need to be YOURS, not someone else’s.
Similarly, sometimes people use checklists or comparison systems that are faithful to them, but to an outdated version of themselves.
I’ll use the parenting thing as an example again. Sometimes people whose children are adults are evaluating romantic partners and using “good parent” as a criterion. But at this point in your life, do your partner’s qualities as a parent matter all that much? Yes, you may want your romantic partner to get along with your children, or at least not have an antagonistic relationship with them, but do they really need to be able to actively parent your children? Perhaps, but perhaps not! Some of us – not all of us, but definitely some of us – have equated “good parent” with “good person” in our minds. And there’s a lot that I could say about that, but my point right now is that at different points in your life, different things may be important to you. At some point in your life you may want someone who wants to party all night. At some point in your life you may want someone who is a great co-parent and great day-to-day life partner. And at some point in your life you may really want to be with someone who wants to play the accordion as much as you do.
Now, sometimes people freak out about this, and say that if you committed to someone, especially if that commitment came in the form of marriage, and you said all the “till death do us part” stuff, you SHOULDN’T WANT to not be with someone anymore just because your interests and priorities and preferences have changed. And to that I say, is that true? What if the problem isn’t that sometimes people want to leave a committed relationship, but the idea that the commitment to a relationship matters more than anything else – such as the happiness and evolution of the individuals within it? That’s a big topic in and of itself, so I won’t take us too far down that road right now.
The most basic thing I’m getting at here is that if you’re using a checklist or a comparison system, make sure that what’s on the checklist reflects who you are and what you want NOW, rather than what other people want, or what you wanted five or ten or twenty or thirty years ago. Make sure your checklist is congruent with who you want to BECOME, rather than who you are done being.
And this of course requires you to have a reasonably clear sense of who you are, and who you want to become, and if you do not have a clear sense of this, you are not alone, and there’s nothing wrong with you. Most of us are not encouraged to explore and determine who we are and who we want to be in any systematic ways, if at all, ever! Most of us are encouraged, implicitly and explicitly, to get with the program. Do the things that people like us do. Want the things that people like us want. Make other people happy. Don’t rock the boat. But there may come a time in your life when that just doesn’t work anymore. There may come a time in your life when you essentially HAVE to learn how to figure out who you are and what you want and how you’re going to honor who you are and what you want. And that’s one of the reasons why infidelity situations can be such great teachers. As ironic as this might sound, infidelity situations often force us to learn how to be faithful to ourselves in ways we perhaps never have been before. It’s pretty hard to make decisions about relationship situations that may have an impact on every area of our lives if we aren’t willing to be radically faithful to ourselves.
If you have been trying to make a decision about your relationships based on any kind of checklist scoring system and you haven’t arrived at any satisfying conclusions, I want you to check in with your checklist. See if you are using a set of criteria that are meaningful to who you are and what you want right now, and who you want to become.
Now, this brings us to a bigger issue. Some people do not know why they want what they want. Some people don’t know if their desires are really their desires, or just the desires they think they should have. This is a big problem, and it can be related to all of the others I’ve already mentioned. If you have a list of things you think you want in a partner and a relationship, but you don’t really know for sure why you want them, then how do you know if you even want them at all? I don’t want to suggest that the answers to the “why” questions need to be all that complex or deep. The bar for knowing why you want something, or why something is important to you doesn’t have to be impossibly high.
Here's an example. Let’s say you are learning a language that is not your first language, and you’re really excited about the progress you’ve made, and you really want to keep speaking that language and traveling to places where that language is spoken, and you really want a partner who either speaks that language already, or wants to learn, because you really like the challenge of learning this language and all of the opportunities for understanding other parts of the world and other people’s experiences that come with it, and you want to share this major interest of your with someone else. You LIKE this thing you’re doing, and you want a partner who likes that same thing, too. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that. You don’t have to get to the root origins of WHY you like what you like, and you don’t have to justify your preferences. So, just to go back to the parenting example, some people say, “Well, I want someone who I think will be a good co-parent because I really want to have kids, and I really want a partner who is excited about having kids as I am, and shares my parenting philosophy to a great extent.” That’s pretty clear, and it doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.
But that’s very different from someone saying, well, I want someone who makes a particular amount of money a year, has certain physical attributes, has these specific hobbies or interests, has this level of education, and speaks three foreign languages, but I have no idea why I want these things. I just want them because everyone I know values these things, and I’ve automatically valued them all my life, and I think they’re important now because I can’t imagine what else might be important. If this is kind of where you’re at, you may want to set aside the decision about your relationships, and invest in getting clear on what’s really important to you.
So to sum up what I’ve said thus far, checklists or scoring systems MAY be helpful if you’re trying to make a decision about your romantic relationships. As I have talked about on other podcast episodes, I think that clarifying what you want in a partner and in a relationship can be very helpful. And getting really granular and specific might be helpful, too. This stuff can provide a really useful roadmap for where you want to go and where you don’t want to go in your romantic life.
But, if you’re using a checklist or a scoring system that isn’t helping you make a decision, then there’s a chance you may need to revisit your checklist or throw it away entirely.
You may get to a point in your life when you decide that you want to open yourself up to the adventure that is life, and all of the adventures that can come with loving people, and in so doing, there may be times when you want to throw even the best checklist, or maybe parts of your best checklist out the window. If our understanding of what is possible for us and desirable to us is ever expanding, we may be presented with new experiences that transcend our old understandings of what we thought we wanted. The old checklists, and the old criteria for comparison, may suddenly no longer apply. And by old I don’t necessarily mean ancient! I mean any checklist that you’ve been carrying around up to this point. Any checklist AT ALL.
The whole reason you’re in an infidelity situation in the first place may be that you’re expanding into a newer, fuller version of who you are. You may be shedding your old skin. Your ideas of who you are and what you want may be changing, and you may want to leap into something new that is tremendously appealing to you in ways that your old checklists didn’t even take into consideration. There are times in life when we just need to adjust our old checklists a little bit, and everything’s fine. And then there are times when we just need to let it all go and leap into something totally new and different.
It's kind of like when you try a new food for the first time, and you fall in love with it immediately, and you’re like, oh my god, I didn’t know this existed until just now but now that I’ve tried it, I never want to live without it. You don’t sit around and think, do I like this or not? How does this compare to my old preferences? You just KNOW you love it. It’s like when you eat your first mango, or your first oyster, or your first really good piece of pizza. Or whatever you may have eaten that introduced you to a whole new world of what delicious food could be. You may have liked apples and fish sticks and Dominos pizza your whole life, but as soon as you have that mango or that oyster or that amazing slice of pizza, you just know that you want MORE of that, simply because you like it and it is available to you as part of your experience of your life on this earth. You’ve gotten a new sense of what’s available to you, and you want more of it, and that’s all there is to it. You don’t WANT to go back to your old preferred foods.
Very important side note: the point here is NOT that mangos and oysters and “good” pizza are better than apples and fish sticks and Dominos pizza. This analogy could work the other way around. You could go your whole life thinking fish sticks sound nasty and then try one and love it. I will never forget the moment when I first tried a Twinkie. I was twenty three, and I had eaten SOME junk food in my life, but I wasn’t a connoisseur, and I’d never had a Twinkie. And then there I was at age twenty three, serving in the Peace Corps in Zambia, and I was in one of the houses that served as a hub for volunteers, so it was a house with electricity and plumbing and all of that, and one volunteer had some Twinkies in the freezer that someone had sent them from home. And somehow it came up that I’d never had a Twinkie and so the owner of the Twinkies gave me one and I tasted it and I was like, oh my god, this is fucking delicious, why have I not experienced this ever before. It was quite a moment, if memory serves me correctly. But, I don’t think I’ve had a Twinkie since. It was a good one-time thing, though. And I think I could easily have another one if I wanted to.
Anyway! I digress. The point is that you may get to a point in your life where your experience is expanded in ways that totally blow up your old frameworks. And you need to account for that. You may need to acknowledge that all of the old criteria may not matter anymore, and that you’ve got to get clear on the new ones.
Similarly, at the end of the day, the unique essence of who someone is may trump any checklist or comparison system you could possibly create. You don’t have to have a checklist to know that you LOVE mangos and even if that doesn’t mean that you now hate apples, you just know that you don’t like them as much as you like mangos. You may meet someone who is so amazing in ways that you didn’t even know someone could be amazing that it doesn’t matter if this person doesn’t check many, or ANY, of your old boxes.
So if you’ve been trying to make relationship decisions using a checklist system and it hasn’t been going well, here’s another thing I encourage you to do, either in addition to or instead of what I’ve already suggested. Ask yourself what is uniquely amazing about each person you’re involved with, and your relationship with each of them. How do you think that continuing a relationship with each of them would be uniquely amazing? And which of the ways in which a particular person and relationship is uniquely amazing to you is more appealing to you at this point in time, and more congruent with the life you want to live?
Now, if you ask yourself all of these questions and you’re still like, oh my god, this is so complicated, I still can’t decide, I don’t know what to do, then let’s talk. I can help you find the signal in the noise. We can turn your confusion into clarity. To schedule an introductory coaching session with me, go to my website, mariemurphyphd.com. All sessions are held via Zoom, so we can work together no matter where you’re located.
All right everyone, that’s it for today. Thank you so much for listening. Have a great week! Bye for now.