THE BLOG

The Bad Relationship Advice You Can Stop Taking

10/18/2011 08:39 am ET | Updated Dec 17, 2011

Many of the single women who have come to me for counseling -- and who are clearly great -- continue to make the mistake of blindly accepting what has become standard, generic dating advice: That in order to find a lasting relationship you need to "market" yourself -- dress to kill, look young, be thin, perky and entertaining, and so on. One problem with this approach to finding Mr. Right is that too many women become so focused on attracting men that they spend months (or even years) trying to make relationships work -- even when the relationships are obvious mismatches.

A Different Strategy

As an alternative to devoting yourself solely to attracting a man, and then trying to make the relationship work, consider a new approach: You can save a lot of time (and heartache) by being more selective from the outset. This is, in fact, the way most single men approach dating. Men are much more likely to "rule out" a woman who does not meet one of their critical criteria for a good match. Of course, men are not necessarily consciously aware that they are doing this -- but they are. For example, a man might say "I like women who are very social and will be easily accepted by my friends, but this woman I've been dating seems to be more inclined to want to spend most of our time together without company." He will then rule out this woman without going much further.

4 Critical Tests for Relationships

I believe there are critical tests for relationships. This is where a woman who wants to abandon the marketing approach in favor of the selective approach needs to begin. To the extent that a man she is dating passes (or fails) these critical tests, a woman may be able to make a decision as to whether or not a budding relationship is worth much more of her time and energy. Especially in these hard economic times, a single woman who has a secure job should appreciate the fact that what she has to offer in a long-term relationship is much more valuable than being perky or skinny. In other words, she should consider approaching dating more like a man would.

Critical Test #1: Empathy

Empathy is the first critical test that you need to consider. Empathy refers to the ability to identify with how someone else is feeling and to experience that feeling yourself. For example, empathetic people will feel happy if someone close to them expresses or shows feelings of happiness. They are capable of experiencing the joy that comes from making someone else happy. By the same token, if someone close to them experiences a loss, empathetic people will identify with that person's grief and experience it as well.

Sometimes women are fooled into thinking they've found a good man because, they say, "He's in touch with his feelings." Well, the truth is that a narcissist can be in touch with his feelings, just as an empathetic man can. Indeed, a narcissist knows when he is happy, sad, angry, or lonely. He knows what he wants, and what makes him feel good. But life for the narcissist is all about him. That's the problem. Not only are these men in touch with their feelings, but they expect you to respond to them and meet all their needs. This does not mean, however, that these men are empathetic -- that they can identify with and feel what you are feeling.

Whose Feelings Is He in Touch With?

As you get to know a man better and tune into his feelings, keep your eye out for whether he does the same for you. Does he seem to recognize it when you are happy or sad? Does he seem to care if you are upset? Is he able to hear what you want? Or does he seem to be too preoccupied with his own feelings and desires?

The ability to empathize is what inhibits us from just going through life doing whatever we want, without regard for others. It is what makes compromise in a relationship possible. And, of course, compromise is the key to any successful relationship. If I realize that something I've done has hurt you (because I can empathize with your pain or unhappiness) I will hesitate to do that again, unless I have taken your feelings into account and decided I needed to take that action anyway. However, if I have no idea how my behavior affects you, I'll just keep repeating it. Similarly, if I am able to perceive your wishes and desires I am in a position to either fulfill them or at least seek a compromise between what you may want and I may want. The person who doesn't empathize is like a bull in a china shop, doing whatever he wants regardless of how that makes others feel.

Measuring Empathy

The ability to empathize does not appear to be an all-or-nothing phenomenon -- something you either have or don't have, period. At the same time, it is very important that a man have a considerable ability to empathize if you hope to have a successful and fulfilling relationship with him. To check this out, answer the following questions as they apply to the man you are dating, from "often" to "seldom":

· Does he seem oblivious (completely unaware) of it when you are feeling sad, frustrated, or angry?

· Does he act surprised if you tell him that you are feeling angry or sad?

· Does it strike you that he doesn't smile or otherwise acknowledge that he knows when you are feeling happy or excited?

· Do you find yourself having to tell him what you are feeling, instead of him knowing it from the way you act?

· Is he too much into his own feelings to know what you are feeling?

No one, of course, is perfectly empathetic. Even in the best relationships, there are bound to be times when one partner misses the boat in terms of what the other is feeling. However, in a good relationship, your answers to the above questions should be "seldom." However, if a different pattern ("often") emerges in your responses, you need to proceed with extreme caution. You may very well be heading down an emotional one-way street into a relationship in which you are empathetic with this man and respond to his feelings and needs, but he does not do the same for you. In the long run, there is a distinct chance that a relationship with this kind of man will leave you feeling drained, empty, and deeply unhappy. Ask yourself: Is this a chance I'm willing to take?

To read more about empathy and the selective approach to dating see Stop Dating Jerks! The Smart Woman's Guide to Breaking the Pattern and Finding the Love of Your Life.