Finding an Equal Partner

After my divorce, reentering the dating scene was exciting, bewildering, and disorienting. Having met and dated my first husband in high school, I had absolutely no idea how to date in the adult world, much less as a divorced forty-three-year-old. On the front end, I viewed a return to the dating pool as an adventure and an opportunity to sow some wild oats—oats that most people sow in college. To be frank, I was not particularly discerning, in large part because I was simply curious to see who and what was out there and to discover what it was that I wanted and needed in a significant other. And to have some fun. To learn a bit about myself, the world, and dating that I had not learned as a seventeen-year-old—which is a lot! Thus, there were plenty of first dates with individuals who were clearly not a good match. I don’t regret those, as I learned a lot about myself through those interactions and the trial-and-error aspect of online dating. I also had the privilege and pleasure of meeting some really nice guys, as well as a sketchy one here and there.

Part of my pursuit of a wide-open dating field included not being transparent about my educational background and profession, at least in the beginning. I worried that the pool of potential matches would shrink considerably if I was forthright about having earned a Ph.D., and I even wondered if having a master’s degree while dating in small-town Utah would be problematic. Friends also advised me to downplay certain aspects of my life. One even suggested either trading in my car or getting a second one to use on dates because the little red BMW I drove could turn off some men. Thus, I was intentionally ambiguous about my education level and profession, aiming to cast a wide net and go from there in the selection of a new partner. I thought I was being smart and strategic in my approach, though I recognize that this tactic did not give much credit to those who might come across my online dating profile.

My hypothesis was seemingly put to the test a few months into what was my half dating pursuit, half research project. It was on a first date with a guy named Mike. We met up at a climbing gym and enjoyed an hour or so together. He was an engineer—smart, energetic, and quite charming, with an upbeat attitude. In chatting between climbing various routes, he turned to me and said, “Your job intimidates me.” Frankly, I do not remember how I responded other than to be caught off guard. I think I aimed to be self-effacing and perhaps say something about pointy-headed academics or professors not living in the real world. 

I remember instantly feeling the need to downplay my job as a professor and my achievements. Perhaps I should have taken this as a red flag, but being so new to the dating world, I did not. Mike and I saw each other a few more times until via a text he indicated that he was taking down his Match profile and wanted to be exclusive. I was surprised and replied that I was not ready for exclusivity yet since we did not know each other very well, and I had just barely begun the dating process and was still getting clarity about what I wanted in a dating relationship. Within a day or two, we parted ways.

Thus, after experiencing the intimidation factor that seemed to regularly come into play as I learned how to date as a forty-something, I shifted the protocols in my pursuit of a new and Equal Partner. Instead of trying to fly under the radar about my credentials and profession, I was overt about them. Truth be told, the number of overtures on the online dating sites dropped afterward. At least, that was my perception. However, the fit or alignment with those who did express interest going forward increased dramatically. Time and energy used on that research project were more profitable because I was forthright and authentic. In hindsight, being more overt was fairer to potential dating partners as well.

Women encounter men and probably plenty of women who are put off by their achievements, education, and titles. Consider the case of First Lady Dr. Jill Biden. In December 2020, after her spouse, Joe Biden was elected president of the United States, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed piece by Joseph Epstein calling on Dr. Biden to drop the “Dr.” from her name. He wrote, “Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo: a bit of advice on what may seem like a small but I think is a not unimportant matter. Any chance you might drop the ‘Dr.’ before your name?” he wrote. “‘Dr. Jill Biden’ sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic. Your degree is, I believe, an Ed.D., a doctor of education, earned at the University of Delaware through a dissertation with the unpromising title ‘Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs.’ A wise man once said that no one should call himself ‘Dr.’ unless he has delivered a child. Think about it, Dr. Jill, and forthwith drop the doc.” 

Seriously, he called the soon-to-be First Lady “kiddo.” He was eighty-three and she was sixty-nine at the time. He was dismissive and derisive from the beginning of this thoughtless commentary, for which he was soundly castigated on social media. Dr. Biden said she was “surprised” by Epstein’s commentary but, not surprisingly, she handled the situation with grace, noting that it was “the tone” of the piece that caught her off guard and that her Ph.D. is one accomplishment that she is most proud of. I am sure it will shock you that Epstein does not have a Ph.D. or even a master’s degree. Some people are intimidated or feel insecure around smart, accomplished women. That is their problem. Not the woman’s. It is not a woman’s job nor her responsibility to ensure that those around her are not discomforted by her badassery.

Find Your Equal Partner (If You Cannot Make Them In a Lab)

Get clear and specific with yourself about what you want in a relationship and in a partner. Not what your mother wants or thinks you need or is realistic to hope for. Not what your friends encourage you to find or select. Not what your parents were or were not compatible on. Focus on what you value. You are the one who will be in this relationship, so why should anyone else get to decide what is important to you? Only by focusing on what you value in life and in a partner will you find someone you can click with on a deep level. My partner JL and I joke regularly that we “made each other in a lab” because we are such well-matched partners. Let me be direct: it was not serendipity that brought us together. JL was similarly scientific in his approach to finding a new intimate relationship. We are well-matched because we were both clear with ourselves about what we were looking for in a relationship. We did not leave something as important as a life partner to chance.

Write these values down. I do not care how many of them you start with—write every single one down. Frankly, I am not sure why or what motivated this, but I took this approach when I re-entered the dating market as an adult. Want to take a wild guess at how many items ended up being on my list? Not five. Not ten. Twenty-one items. First, let me tell you that I am a lucky woman because JL is the Equal Partner I never could have dreamed of. But I am also in the relationship I am in because I was clear with myself about what I was looking for in a partner. That clarity was focused on values—not on him having piercing blue eyes and a strong jawline, being a snappy dresser, or having cheese and travel addictions. I was just lucky to get those, too. The twenty-one items on my list were Big Things. Simple Things. Hard Things. Mindful Things. A few examples:

  • Has his own sense of self and holds on to it
  • Considers and values my needs
  • Is evolved as a man—has an appropriate level of humility and self-esteem
  • Speaks to my heart and not just my head
  • Is willing and able to take responsibility and apologize for his part in a conflict
  • Seems happier when I come into the room
  • And at the tippy top of my list: “Is someone I can TRUST.” (Yes, those letters were in all caps on my list.)

Most importantly, if I was not sure he was profoundly trustworthy, all bets were off. I had an unpleasant learning experience with that one early on. Be willing to engage in the “hard pass.” Doing so will serve you well in the pursuit of an Equal Partner. Plus, not only should you not waste your time and energy, but you also do not want to waste anyone else’s time and energy.

Aim for an equal partnership in all aspects. There are surprisingly plenty of opportunities for this, even early on in dating someone and the getting-to-know-you process. Right from the start, there is decision-making about dates such as the when, where, how, and cost. Later, it may be travel planning and meeting each other’s friends and family. Even further on, there is financial management, expense sharing, dividing household tasks, and support for work/parenting issues. 

Does this mean everything is always fifty-fifty? Absolutely not. Sometimes one of you will have a horrendous day at work and not be able to bring your full or best self to the relationship, the preparation of dinner, walking the dog, or getting kids ready for bed. But aiming for an equal relationship from the very beginning is critical to avoiding a slippery slope to a relationship that is out of balance and where one partner gives while the other partner takes. Rarely is that type of relationship intentional. Couples just fall into inequality and inequity over time.

Set the precedent. Aim for equality from Day 1 or at least by Date 3 or 4. I’m not joking—do it from the get-go. This involves setting expectations and being true to who you are as an authentic person. Do it with grace, diplomacy, and that sexy smile of yours. If your expectations are met with defensiveness or aggressive resistance, stop and ask yourself if this is the right person for you. Do not settle for anything less than your equal. One way I tested the waters was to offer to go Dutch on the first and/or second date. If the person I was meeting up with didn’t tense up at the suggestion but just said, “Oh. No worries. I got it,” I let it go. No need to make a federal case. 

However, if by the third date, they refused to respect my agency to pick up the check on a regular basis, I took that as a red flag. There is a gray area here, and different people are comfortable with sharing dating costs at different stages and maybe at different levels if there’s a substantial income difference between the two of you. That being said, I did find it to be a solid litmus test of whether the person I was going out with would embrace me as an Equal Partner or whether I would be risking having to extricate myself from an unequal relationship down the road.

Bottom line: Raise the bar—the men/women will rise up, and the boys/girls will fall away. Date and partner with alphas and avoid the betas at all costs. We each deserve an equal partner who treats us with all the love and respect we can tolerate. Settle for nothing less.

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Merideth Thompson

Merideth Thompson, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and speaker, who empowers young women with the skills they need to live a happy, productive life. It is her goal to demystify dense academic studies and data for everyday people so that they can make informed decisions for themselves. 


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