You may have heard it said that love finds you when you least expect it. Though that might feel true, another explanation is more likely: We make ourselves more lovable for others by falling in love with ourselves first. It's not that people who find partners do so because they aren't looking for love. It's just that people are at their most lovable and attractive when they're fully enjoying their lives.
Before you find that special someone, or really, before you even start looking in earnest, you owe yourself (and your future partner) a self-check of sorts. Here are eight things to figure out about yourself before you fall in love:
How did your upbringing affect you?
Attachment theory tells us that (to some degree) we're all at the mercy of the way we received love before the age of 5. Our relationship with attachment and feelings of love is formed during those important early years, but it's not necessarily permanent. "Our relationship with our parents or caregiver creates an 'attachment style'—a blueprint for how we handle close relationships later," psychologist Debra Campbell, Ph.D., tells mbg (learn more about your attachment style and how to rewire it here). "Understanding how they are formed, and how they manifest in our adult relationships, is vitally important if you want to grow as a person and in your relationships."
Our attachment styles can affect how we engage with our partners in numerous ways. For instance, one 2019 study found that a fearful-avoidant attachment1 style is "predictive of more sexual partners in individuals during [a person's] lifetime and [of] greater sexual compliance." If your parents were hot and cold with you as you grew up, you may find yourself anxious in relationships as an adult. If they consistently withheld affection from you and even neglected your needs, you may have an issue with boundaries now. These scenarios are understandable; if we didn't get something as children, we often chase what we missed out on as adults. There's no sense in beating yourself up about it, but becoming conscious of your childhood-era hang-ups can only help you when you finally fall in love.
You can purposefully alter your knee-jerk reactions to affection and attraction, but only if you get to know yourself first. Often, this transformation happens with the help of a therapist.
What do you need on a regular basis to stay healthy?
True love tends to make us throw our routines out the window, at least as it blossoms. We become so infatuated with the other person that the little bits of our lives that once mattered to us seem far less important: alone time, exercise, meditation, time with friends. But these activities and values are exactly what make you, well, you. Plan ahead as you enter a relationship so you don't lose yourself: What are the things—big and small—that you need to do to stay happy? Once you figure out the values that make you tick, you'll know how to structure your life in relation to your partners. Your new partner will actually feel relief if you maintain some semblance of normalcy in your own life, and sticking to what works for you will probably inspire them to do the same.
Who are you attracted to, and why?
We each have a "type," and sometimes that type draws us toward people who aren't healthy potential partners. It doesn't matter so much whether you prefer dating people with light or dark hair; we're talking about patterns of behavior. Are you attracted to people who find themselves enmeshed in conflict a lot, or do you develop crushes on the emotionally unavailable? Are you drawn to people who seem troubled, pained, or like they're perpetually "going through something"?
A 2019 study of subjects' past romantic partners found a distinct similarity between them, "suggesting that there may indeed be a unique type of person each individual ends up with." Researchers on that study also found that most subjects' types remained stable through multiple relationships and over the years. In this instance, you may just want to find some awareness about the things that turn you on, knowing that you can't necessarily change who draws you in.
What are some of your nonnegotiable boundaries?
Negotiable when it comes to relationships might include which side of the bed you prefer to sleep on, what you like to do for fun, or how many nights a week you stay out versus watching Netflix at home. Nonnegotiable, on the other hand, tend to be the bigger things like tenets of your core values. Regardless, "healthy boundaries are the ultimate guide to successful relationships. Without healthy boundaries, relationships do not thrive—they result in feelings of resentment, disappointment, or violation," therapist Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, tells mbg. "Boundaries are what happen when you can sense yourself and what you need and want and access your voice to speak to those things. We all have 'limits,' and we all experience violations of our limits." According to her, every relationship should have boundaries surrounding these themes: physical, emotional, time, sexual, intellectual, and material.
Ultimately, it's up to you which boundaries are nonnegotiable, but before you fall in love with someone, you may want to find out where you stand on certain things.
What are your core beliefs?
It's tough to spot red flags in a potential partner if you don't have any idea what you stand for. Take a look at your life and your interactions with others, and ask yourself if you have any hard lines when it comes to a partner's behavior. Could you, for instance, fall in love with someone who habitually tips less than 20% on a meal out? Do you think family should come first? Where do you fall on the political spectrum? All of these questions and more will become relevant when you're comparing moral compasses with a partner.
How are you in communication with your body?
Unless you're asexual, falling in love with someone will probably involve physical intimacy. And sex with a long-term partner whom you love is very different from a one-night stand, meaning the two of you need to talk about what you're doing. A lot. If you're uncomfortable with existing in your own body and staking a claim in your pleasure, those conversations are going to feel stilted and strange.
A study at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that sexual dissatisfaction was a strong indicator of relationship dissatisfaction and an eventual breakup. You can work on satisfaction by finding out how to achieve your own. Do your future partner a favor and explore what turns you on before the two of you even meet. Undoubtedly, you'll discover things together, and that's a fun pathway to preserve, but one way to be "good at sex" is to know what parts of the whole thing you really enjoy.
What do you want from your life, and how are you working toward it?
Once you're deep in love with a new person, conversations between the two of you will naturally move toward discussing a future. You don't want the "What are we?" talk to be the first time in your life that you've mulled over marriage, where you want to live, or the possibility of having children.
That's not to say you have to enter each relationship with an ironclad 10-year plan, but you should have some hazy ideas of the future. If, for instance, you know in your gut that you want to live in a certain city for at least a few more years, stick to your guns when you date someone new. There's no sense in throwing your entire identity out the window just to keep your partner around; that'll end ugly for both of you.
How did your past relationships end, and what role did you play in this?
You know that adage that says if you run into nonstop jerks all day long, you're probably the jerk? That's applicable when it comes to romantic relationships too. If, for instance, you believe that every single one of your exes was "crazy," it may be time to take responsibility for your part in those interactions. You're either attracted to partners who are emotionally volatile, or you may have been consciously or unconsciously riling them up for reasons you need to unpack. Sure, one 2017 study found that negatively reappraising your ex-partners is actually a very effective tool in getting over them2, but the thing is—if you're still spending energy speaking negatively of a past partner, you're on the right track, but you're still not recovered.
It can be extremely tough to take an impartial view of your past experiences, especially when it comes to love, but as you prepare to meet someone special, just try to reflect. If everyone you've ever been with has dumped you, did these people give you any overlapping feedback? If you're usually the dumper, what did you learn from letting people down easily? What led to your lack of interest, and how can you avoid dating people who have that trait in the future?
The bottom line.
Love can make us all feel like we're flying blind into the unknown, and that's as thrilling as it is frightening. But if you force yourself to reflect and learn from the people you've loved in the past, it's like giving yourself a parachute when jumping out of the plane and into a new relationship. There's nothing more attractive than a person who's at peace with themselves, and you can get there with a little self-management.
Emily Gaudette is a freelance writer and editor who has a literature and film studies degree from Bryn Mawr College. She has covered entertainment, sexuality, and relationships for Newsweek, SYFY, Glamour, Inverse, SELF, TV Guide, and more. She lives in Brooklyn.