Relationship post today. A reader writes:

Hey Mark,

I thought I’d send you a message regarding some issues that have been concerning me. I came from a typical PUA background, had some great success, and eventually started dating a girl who I really liked. Now, three years later, we are still together.

I’m almost 25, and I’m starting to think about some aspects of the future; marriage, children, having a partner for life. My girlfriend is very attractive, quite ambitious, has good values, and likes me a lot. We have great chemistry.

And yet, I can’t help but feel like there is something not quite right. In many ways, she is only 85% the girl of my dreams, and there is a part of me (egoic? realistic?) that believes I could probably find someone “better,” however marginal that may be. There is something in our relationship that is leaving me somewhat unsatisfied.

Am I being ridiculous?

Is this just typical 3-year-itch kind of stuff? Or, is it a genuine problem that may indicate that we really aren’t meant to be together? Maybe I’m only 85% the man of her dreams, too, and we should be both looking for other people (the 90%, 95%, 100% etc).

Additionally, she is now a full-time career woman, and I’m just about to go back to university to study medicine, so it does appear that our helms have been negotiated into different directions.

Any insight would be great; it’s kind of doing my head in.

There are two separate issues going on here at once, and both are fairly common relationship issues that most men face at some point.

The first issue is the cost/benefit conundrum we all face. We have a limited amount of time to find a suitable mate, there are an almost infinite amount of options out there, so how do we ever know if we did the best we possibly could? How do we know we’re not settling? The second issue is being unaware of which of his emotional needs are not being met by the current relationship. It’s more important to understand WHY you’re not completely satisfied in a relationship before you go around making major life decisions.

But let’s start with the first one: this idea that there’s a potentially “perfect girl” out there waiting for all of us. This is a common romantic fantasy that’s as old as love stories themselves. But I’ve actually found that men who have a history within the pick up artist movement struggle with this even more than average. In the PUA movement, it’s hammered into our brains that our emotional and romantic lives are quantifiable and skill-based goals that can be measured and achieved. There are “better” and “better” women out there, and striving to attain the closest version of your ideal woman is very much the yardstick of success and improvement.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t some truth to the idea that some women are “better” romantic fits for us than others, and that some women are closer to our ideal than others. But the problem is that there’s no endpoint. There is no 100% perfect girl out there for you or for any of us, and there never will be. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the unreasonable amount of women I’ve been involved with, it’s that you’re never going to find “the complete package.” It doesn’t exist. The most beautiful girls have annoying ticks, the smartest girls have emotional problems, the sweetest and most caring women have bad personal habits. People are flawed. Accept it. What’s going to determine the success of a relationship is not how good the 85% perfection is, or even how much perfection there is, but it’s in how you deal with the 15% imperfection together.

So get the idea out of your head that there’s a 100% perfect match for you waiting out there for you to find her. The 100% perfect match is not something that you find and conquer, it’s something that you build and nurture with a together through years of introspection, communication and hard work.

The immediate solution to the first issue here is to stop framing the problem in terms of finding a “more perfect” match for you, and begin to see it in terms of how much perfection are you two capable of building together. You may have topped out here. You may not. But if you continue to see your love life as a personal achievement rather than a team-sport, then I hate to say it, but this gnawing feeling that you’re somehow giving up a perfect something that you don’t even know exists or not, is going to follow you from relationship to relationship, from woman to woman, and silently torture you for years.

The second issue is to understand why you aren’t feeling fulfilled in the relationship. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that if you were aware of which of your needs weren’t being met, then you would have mentioned it in the email. Not knowing exactly why we’re unsatisfied in a relationship is not uncommon. So the solution to the second issue is to find out what’s lacking from your current relationship. We do this by asking the right questions.

It could be that you’re getting a little restless after three years together (although I wouldn’t claim this is necessarily a common phenomenon). It could be that you have a bit of separation anxiety going on knowing that you both are pursuing diverging life paths soon. If you’re an avoidant attachment type then it would not be uncommon for you to rationalize your separation anxiety with thoughts of possibly wanting to get away.

Or it could be a million other things.

But I’m going to go ahead and assume that up until recently you were, for the most part, getting your needs satisfied in the relationship — again, since you failed to pinpoint any specific issue that has been eating away at you guys or that’s been a growing cause for concern over the years. If there IS a background issue that’s been going on, and you failed to mention it, then disregard a lot of what I’m about to say and focus on that. But assuming all other variables held equal, the major change happening in the relationship is the shift in life plans and life goals happening for you two right now.

In my relationship pyramid, the final and ultimate level of a relationship with a woman is to attain a certain lifestyle compatibility. Sexual compatibility can keep a couple going for weeks or months. Personal compatibility can keep a couple going for maybe 6-12 months. A deep emotional connection can keep a couple together for a few years. But if a couple is going to hit that serious, long-term commitment zone, then they need to be able to see each other as integrated into their individual life purposes.

As a thought experiment, ask yourself, “If my girlfriend had life goals that were 100% compatible with mine, would I still feel this way about our relationship?” My guess is no, you wouldn’t. If she were magically pursuing a career that lined up magically with your career schedule- and location-wise, I imagine you’d be singing a different tune. You didn’t come to me with, “She nags me and we fight and it sucks, but I can’t leave here.” You didn’t come to me with, “She gets drunk too much and cheats on me.” You didn’t come to me with, “We really don’t hold the same values and our worldviews are really starting to come into conflict.” No, you came to me with, “She’s basically perfect, except I’m not completely convinced she’s right for me, what gives?”

On the other hand, if the answer to the above question is “Yes, I’d still feel like she was only 85% of what I want in a woman,” then there is an underlying emotional incompatibility and you two need to either address it or move on eventually.

But if I were a betting man, I’d bet my money that this schism in life goals is causing some separation anxiety, and as an avoidant, you’re processing it through the prism of your personal independence. I could be wrong, but that’s the feeling I get from the limited information you gave me.

How to move forward? The same way I tell 90% of my clients with relationship questions to move forward: “You need to be having this conversation with her, not just with me.” It sounds to me like you guys need to sit down and have a real heart-to-heart about the upcoming changes in your lives, how they affect each other, how you guys see each other fitting into each other’s life paths, and finally, if you’re willing to sacrifice to keep each other included on those diverging paths. As you said in the email, for all you know she could be feeling the exact same thing about you. You have no idea. So find out.

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14 Responses to The 85% Perfect Girl

  1. Tim says:

    I think this is a great question to deal with, and I think it’s going to be relevant to almost everyone who reads this site at some point in their life.

    One thing that just crystallized for me that I think you first mentioned in your posts on compatibility and chemistry is the idea of lifestyle compatibility being so crucial to the long-term success of a relationship. This fits with why a lot of arranged marriages end up working out despite the odds; because the chances are that if you’re in that situation that there’ll be a higher lifestyle compatibility due to shared values, similar cultural background, etc.

    On the other hand, I do have to slightly disagree with your response to this guy’s email. A common thing I see in American marriages and relationships, that seems to be less prevalent in the rest of Western society, is that people marry for compatibility at the expense of chemistry, because they’ve never really experienced the latter. A great example for me was the movie Crazy, Stupid, Love. Hannah (Emma Stone’s character) is clearly not in love with her boyfriend Richard, yet she still wants him to propose, and only realizes how incompatible they are when he fails to meet her expectation to do so.

    It was only when I finally lived in the US that I saw that this is not just some fiction of Hollywood, but a reality for a large proportion of relationships there. A lot of people worry more about finding someone with lifestyle compatibilities and value matches that they ignore opportunities with real chemistry. Then they get in a relationship with enough compatibility that it lasts until they’re in their mid to late 20s, thinking about settling down, and begin to have these doubts. But because they’ve never experienced something with more chemistry, or have disowned it as a valid thing to look for in a relationship, they stick with what they’ve got already.

    I mean you see this all the time in both life and the movies; older couples who end up in affairs or with midlife crises because they’re in a marriage with only familiarity and no romantic love (American Beauty is the obvious example). I used to think this was just a minority group, and an inevitability for a limited number of people, but after a while in the US I realised that it was more common than I thought. My theory behind this is that the American dream of owning a nice house in the suburbs with your 2.5 kids, 2 cars, a dog, and a white picket fence is just so enforced in a lot of people’s heads that it’s meant they prioritize finding someone who can realize that dream with them above all else.

    If you’ve ever been in love, and especially once that love is gone, you know for sure what it’s like. If I was you I would have asked the reader if he was in love. Because if you are, then it’s a no-brainer answer for you, and you need to move on to other questions about your compatibility. But if you hesitate on that answer, it’s likely because you don’t, or you’ve never had the certainty of knowing what it feels like.

    I remember years ago when I had my first girlfriend and first LTR I emailed someone for relationship advice. And I was writing a sort of pros vs cons for why we worked, which felt really weird to me. And I realised that it felt weird because I was trying to write down logical, tangible reasons like ‘we have a similar sense of humour’, and all I really felt like I needed to say was ‘we’re in love’.

    Now obviously being in love isn’t enough on it’s own; hence your relationship needs pyramid. I know that relationship had too much long-term incompatibility to work out. And there’s no guarantee you’ll stay in love even if you are compatible. In fact that’s why we broke up; because we fell out of love.

    But if you’re asking whether you should settle down with someone and potentially marry? If you’re nearly 25, you’ve been in a relationship for 3 years and you’re looking at someone from this perspective, you should be able to do better than ‘she likes me a lot’. Does she love you, and do you love her? I think that if you’re a reader of this site then you shouldn’t be willing to settle in a relationship that doesn’t have that.

    • Geert says:

      I always love reading your posts Tim! Same with your contributions on the forum.

      I love your critical and analytical attitude!

    • Mark says:

      I agree that the emotional content of the email was little to go on, so I just went ahead and assumed they were in love. You don´t usually make it 3 years unless you´re in love.

      And I agree with you about lifestyle compatibility, although I was in no way insinuating that one should give up chemistry for compatibility. So don´t think we actually disagree here.

      • Tim says:

        Yeah I think we mainly do except I wouldn’t make that assumption because when a guy says something like “My girlfriend is very attractive, quite ambitious, has good values, and likes me a lot. We have great chemistry.” it sounds like he’s trying to rationalise why it’s so great; to convince himself that things SHOULD be great because there are these logical reasons for it.

        On the other hand, like in that email I wrote myself, it could be that he was just trying to communicate that they do work. Or listing the reasons because he was trying to be more objective, and he knew he’s ‘in love’ but didn’t want that to cloud his wider perspective. So I defer to your vast experience and accordingly hard-gained judgment.

        • Tim says:

          Mainly agree that is.

        • Mark says:

          Well, we definitely agree that the email could have been a bit less vague. That’s another problem with relationship questions. Unlike pick up questions where I can get a pretty good idea of where the guy’s at with a few sentences. Relationships, you need quite a few details to get a good grasp on where they’re coming from.

  2. Nicholas says:

    When I read the title of this article, I was reminded of a terrific short story by Haruki Murakami called something like, “On Meeting The 100% Perfect Girl.” But as I began to read, I became skeptical. How could someone like Mark, who has never been married, who has been actively seeking casual (random?) encounters, (e.g. avoiding serious relationships) have the chops to advise someone considering fusing his life with another person?

    I don’t think we know what we are all about at 23 or even 25. Not in America in 2012. She, in my experience, less so than him. (Societal construction.) I think it is the things that are found beneath the radar of consciousness that will determine the success of the relationship. Yes, some of us are blessed with the clarity that comes from a secure attachment and a well-modeled parental “marriage.” Most of us get “good enough.” And that leaves some holes.

    For the purpose of this post I will propose a model of personality and relationship motivation based on the age of the brain rather than physiologyor personality theory. At the base is the R-complex, the reptilian brain (brain stem). Not real sophisticated, but it keeps the heart beating and a few other functions. Can’t do much but does what it does very reliably. On top of that is the Mamalian brain, including the limbic system (emotions). Have you ever “known” you forgot something but couldn’t get a handle on what, until….damn!, the pictures I wanted to show (X) when I was doing(Y). It shres with the reptilian that it is non-verbal. On top of that is the reason we have a near vertical forehead, the neo cortex. Language and logic. And the reason we have the reality-testing function know as ego. Ego is the basis for our “persona” ( image we construct to win the approval and love we need) and the reason we tried out different “personalities” when we were impressed by different people. (athlete, warrior, smart-ass comic, PUA, loner-musician, etc)

    When we are young we are still trying out different personas to find what fit’s with….our most deeply held beliefs and values. And those things are hugely influenced by our family of origin (FOO) and environment, even if we superficially believe we have “rejected” those values. I believe that the guy writing to Mark above is writing mostly from the perspective of persona – from the things he believes he “should” or “must” want. Family relationships are going to be huge even if he doesn’t know it yet – both people. (and more so if there is an effed-up attachment to “Mom”) If we are judging our future happiness with a potential life-long mate from the perspecive of a persona we have (no matter how sucessfully) created, we have ignored the FOO issues which will arise – not just ours, but hers, and we might as well marry a random attractive stranger. That’s part of the reason the divorce rate is over 50% for first marriages and worse for second marriages.

    (If you believe in serial monogamy and are marrying knowing this ain’t forever, well, that’s different…)

    Mark’s last paragraph is a good start, I think. You have to get below the surface and understand how this girl understands her place in the world, and how you understand your place in the world – communication. If a couple is “perfect” on the surface but something just feels not right, then I think my example of the forgotten pictures tells the story. (If you want to understand more, read Malcom Gladwell’s “Blink”). Sometimes called the “gut.”

    What that means is there may be a non-verbal part of your brain/personality that is not satisfied this is right, and it is every bit as “smart” as your neocortex/ego. It’s your version of a woman’s intuition. The 85% model is wrong, because reality is not linear. It’s layered and interconnected, multi-dimensional.

    The best defense is to be aware of your own personality defenses and how a woman may be filling in where you have holes. Awareness. Mind wide open.

    Marriage is (or can be) beautiful, a blending of personalities and the comfort of not being alone in the world. I have two kids who are doing awesome, and they resulted from a marriage that succeeded beautifully, until the subterranean issues she had were too much. Paradox. I should have seen, the clues were there in the open if I had chosen to see. But I can’t imagine the two awesome (wish I could tell you what they are achieving!) kids not “being.”

    • Mark says:

      I´d agree that I´m not really in a position to give marriage advice, but I´ve certainly dealt with this guy´s situation before, in myself and in people I know and have worked with.

      I like the triune brain theory, but it feels like we´re basically saying the same thing except you´re saying it in a more complicated way.

      I say early on in the article that we´re rarely aware consciously or rationally of why someone is not fulfilling our needs completely. I then go on to talk about the possible causes, and that ultimately it´s a conversation he needs to have with her.

      • Nicholas says:

        An apology might be in order. I’d take your advice before a number of my married friends and I found the article well done. The main idea of my note was the notion that trying to quantify how perfect a girl is for you is lacking in the fundamental stuff which I believe a good marriage is made of – and I think you said much the same. And I tried to provide an example with the “triune brain” standing in for the idea that we are not always aware what we are up to in finding a girl “perfect.” Making the quantification problematically unreliable. I was just sayin’ it in my own way.

        • Mark says:

          In hindsight, quantifying the quality of a relationship in general is probably a poor way to frame it. And so I shouldn´t have used that frame in my answer either. That´s a good point.

          And hey, I love the triune brain theory. It just hasn´t made its way into the blog before because it´s too complex and not immediately applicable.

  3. chronik says:

    Great post! Definitely appeals to the older one’s here who are kind of over the whole PUA thing and looking ahead to the next stage of our lives. Even if I don’t entirely agree with all the insight here, it definitely gets the gears turning.

    As an aside, I’d love to see more posts on the art of constructing and maintaining strong relationships. Obviously a large part of your partner’s identity is fixed and cannot be changed no matter what you do, but as the one in the dominant/leader role, men have greater agency in setting the agenda of a relationship. We can decide how open and honest the communication will be, what the expectations should be, how both parties should act to prevent things from going south etc. Certainly there are right ways and wrong ways to do this agenda setting, but I haven’t come across much solid advice on this yet.

  4. Mack says:

    It’s an interesting point (and probably true for most people) that most relationships won’t make it to 3 years unless they’re in love. Sadly, I was in a relationship that lasted 3 years and I wasn’t in love, and felt it was the simply the best I could do at the time. That’s what drove me to the community a year ago and I’m so thankful because it has changed my life and perspective and would never enter an unsatisfying relationship just to do so again.

    This is where this message gets interesting –> I’ve met and dated more girls than I can count over the last year; many amazing ones, but I have finally found 1 that is beautiful, extremely fun to be with, I connect with deeply and could see myself being with long term. With that said… it is really hard for her to get off in bed (which hasn’t ever been a problem for me before with any girl). So, you can argue that the sexual chemistry is tough, but we’re both attracted to each other (I even hear how much she likes me through other people as well); I think she has simply never been able to make it happen easily, even doing it herself. On one hand it’s disappointing because it’s empowering when you can get a girl off five times but I don’t see a reason to focus too much on that, as long as we’re really into each other, right (and both still enjoying sex)? Can you see any future issues with this? Heck, it could just be that she has less nerve sensitivity there or maybe I can help her overcome whatever may be holding her back if it’s some sort of stigma? Thanks Mark

  5. Mack says:

    Also, I totally agree with “chronick” above that more articles on constructing and maintaining relationships is of value, and that has to be good for general readership as well. Mark already has some good articles that are borderline between the pickup stage and relationship, but not that many focused solely on progressing and maintaining a healthy relationship.

  6. Tyler says:

    The only paragraph that matters, reader, is Mark’s last one. If you sit down with her and talk through your fears about how your career tracks might affect the relationship long term, and you DO NOT come away reassured, then your problem IS the percentage.

    But what you will be surprised to learn is that the 15% is not a fault in her, it is a fault in you. We can not ever be 100% fulfilled with one person, so we must either carve out a lifestyle that does satisfy us 100% for our circumstances, or mature emotionally to the point that percentages are no longer relevant to us. And, you’re not even close to that maturity at 25, no matter how assured you feel to the contrary.

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