The pro-con love list For when you don’t know what to do in love
Should you leave him? Marry him? Or – careful! – get back together? Here’s what to do when you don’t know what to do.
It’s rush hour on a crowded bus. Aaron, a devoted husband, is hustling home to feed his and his wife’s two cats when he sees a woman writing notes on the back of an envelope. On a bus this full, no matter where you look, you’re going to be reading someone’s Facebook feed over their shoulder. So Aaron sees that she’s written a pro-con list. About her boyfriend.
The pros and cons
He makes her happy. Also, his cats are cute (yes, seriously – see left). The cons: he’s unemployed and not looking for work. He has a dirty room ( but also a terrace? Confusing!). Oh, and he owes her more than R1 000.
Aaron thought it was fascinating: “I guess in a depressing sort of way,” he says. “It was pretty obvious from her points that it was totally unnecessary to make a list. If this is your pro-con list, you really have a con list.”
Of course, maybe this woman was a novelist outlining a character, or maybe she was ranking some guys’ qualities for a friend. Regardless, her list forces the question: is it possible to write a pro-con list that actually helps you make a decision about a relationship? Can you really choose a new partner with a piece of paper? Or, can you be rational in love? And even if you can, should you?
You might know more than you think
With something as messy as your love life, it’s natural to want to make a logical list. But first we must dispense with a myth: there’s no such thing as a truly impartial pro-con list.
“Your opinions will shape the list more than the list will shape your decision,” says Dr Benjamin Karney, a professor of social psychology. “People leaning towards a decision will come up with more advantages. People leaning away will come up with more disadvantages. And people hopelessly undecided are likely to remain undecided,” he explains.
Which is to say, when you write a procon list, you’re often just projecting the preferences that you already have.
That can be useful, says Bruce*, 29, a reporter. At one point, with an exgirlfriend, he remembers, “I physically wrote out the pros – ‘She likes Coen brothers movies as much as I do.’ Then, when I saw them next to the other list items, like ‘She gets on my nerves when we stay at each other’s places’, I realised how flimsy my reasons to stay with her were. The list really helped crystallise my thinking,” Bruce explains.
What if you still need help?
But not every list is as conclusive as Bruce’s. “A pro-con list is excellent for bringing out the possible factors that go into your decision, but the problem is that it equalises the importance of all of these things,” explains renowned couples therapist Dr Charles Foster. “So it just becomes a list of stuff.”
If you want to make a more useful list, Dr Foster advises narrowing down the focus to your deal breakers – for instance, will he move for your career, or does he make you feel safe? – and being honest with yourself about what’s truly important. “You have the right to say, ‘If this isn’t the case, then we’re done,’” Dr Foster says.
And remember, the list isn’t the whole picture. “We don’t have access to the reasons for some romantic feelings,” reveals Professor J Frank Yates, who researches judgement and decision making. “You have to accept that you’ll have feelings about your partner you can’t explain.”
So if you’re not feeling the pros, or you’ve got a list of cons but can’t stop thinking, ‘I care about this person’ ( here’s looking at you, Bus Girl!), don’t beat yourself up. “Instead, try asking yourself a simpler question,” suggests Ellen Mccarthy, author of The Real Thing: Lessons On Love and Life From a Wedding Reporter’s Notebook (Random House, R519). “Is this what I want going forwards? Is it nurturing enough that you want it in all the days – and years – to come?”
When Catherine, 26, a sales specialist, broke up with her boyfriend of six years, she decided to take a dating hiatus. Naturally, she met a new guy, like, two days later. So she made a list, designed to help her decide whether to jump in. “It was a lot of, ‘What type of lifestyle do I want? How does a relationship fit?’” says Catherine. In the end, Catherine chose the guy, and she stands by her system. “To be in a successful relationship,” she says, “you have to know what you want.”
And what you don’t want. Just ask Taylor, 28, who works in digital media and broke up with a boyfriend because “we never talked about our problems.” After it was over, she noticed that she had been keeping a mental checklist of all of the ways he had wronged her – things like, ‘He ignored me when I visited him’ and ‘He would rather listen to music than hear me talk’ – so she decided to write them down as a reminder for future relationships.
Not too long after Taylor broke things off, he called her, wanting to get back together. She consulted her list, and her exact words to him were: “I wouldn’t respect myself if I got back together with you.” Decision made.
there’s no such thing as a truly impartial procon list.