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What Makes A Good Partner — And How To Cultivate Connection

Photo: Sara Ariel Wong for NPR

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COVID-19 makes dating, hooking up and even keeping the spark alive in an existing relationship more difficult. That makes it a great time to reflect on what you’re looking for in romantic relationships and to do what you can to make dating (or kinda-dating, or sleeping with someone, or being coupled) feel less exhausting and more fulfilling.

To better understand how to think about attraction, falling in love and cultivating intimacy, I spoke to writer Mandy Len Catron, author of How to Fall in Love With Anyone and the viral 2015 New York Times article “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This.” Here are some of her best insights.

We have more control over whom we fall for than we might realize.

“When we talk about attraction, we talk about it in this really passive way, as if it’s this thing that sort of happens inside of us, instead of thinking about it as something that we actually have some influence over,” Catron says. “We have a lot of say over who we want to invest our time and energy into.” And realizing you have autonomy can be empowering: It can help you open yourself up to new experiences, including attractions that may feel new to you (like interest in someone who isn’t your “type” or even someone who is a different gender from the people you’ve always dated). It can help you end relationships that are full of intense feelings but also endless drama.”

“I don’t necessarily think you can force yourself to fall in love with someone, but I do think you can re-create the conditions that help intimacy thrive,” Catron says.

To help intimacy thrive, both people need to be willing to be vulnerable — but it’s a good idea to ease into it slowly.

One of the defining features of the 36 questions that (supposedly) lead to love is the way they get increasingly intimate, but it happens gradually, so you’re not talking about matters of life and death until the very end of the conversation. And that’s a good approach for real life too, Catron says — whether you’re getting to know a potential partner or just talking to a new friend. Sharing too much too soon can make the other person feel uncomfortable or like there’s an imbalance in the relationship. So start small.

“[Vulnerability] doesn’t have to take the form of confessing your most intimate secrets or dumping out your whole family history,” Catron says. “I think it comes in much smaller ways, like talking about something that’s really important to you or that you’re passionate about. Or start with telling a funny but embarrassing story that you wouldn’t necessarily tell a stranger.” When you open up in a thoughtful, measured way, she says, it invites the other person to do the same.

If you’re looking for a relationship, pay close attention to how potential partners treat you, and don’t waste your time on anyone who isn’t genuinely excited about you.

“We’re not always thinking about what makes a great partner when we’re dating and looking for a long-term relationship,” Catron says. Researchers have identified qualities that make someone likely to be a good long-term relationship partner: Openness to new experiences, agreeability and conscientiousness are all good signs. “Someone who is just responsible and who takes care of themselves and other people,” Catron says. “I mean, these things, when you lay them out like that, seem obvious, and yet I don’t think we’re thinking about them very often as we’re going about our dating lives.”

But even the most agreeable or easygoing person in the world won’t be a good partner if they don’t treat you well. So pay close attention to whether the person celebrates you and your wins and how they respond to your “bids.” “You just want someone who shows up, engages with you and makes a big deal out of things that are important to you,” Catron said.

“The simplest metric is finding someone who makes you feel better about who you are, who never makes you feel smaller or inadequate,” Catron said. “It’s a really simple metric that is pretty reliable across all different kinds of relationships.”


Rachel W. Miller is the deputy editor at Vice Life. Her second book, The Art of Showing Up, came out in May 2020. (You can hear about it on Life Kit here and here.) Follow her on Twitter.

This episode was produced by Clare Marie Schneider.

We’d love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

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