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By Annabel Gutterman
November 2, 2018

Hollywood, romance novels, picture-perfect depictions of relationships on social media: It’s all-too-easy to believe in soulmates.

But while nearly two-thirds of American adults believe in them, according to a 2017 Monmouth University poll, psychology professor Gary W. Lewandowski Jr. says the term ‘soulmate’ can be dangerous. It can connote perfectionism — and perfection in relationships is essentially unattainable. “If you believe in soulmates, then you are less likely to work through [problems] because this person was supposed to be perfect and everything was supposed to be easy,” he says. But being able to confront conflict as a couple is imperative to growing a healthy relationship, he adds.

When people are searching for their soulmate, they can end up on a never-ending quest, says Ramani Durvasula, a psychologist based in California. If you believe in soulmates, it’s easy to think that you need someone else to complete you. But a relationship should always be an enhancement, rather than a necessity, she says.

Instead of looking for the one, start searching for a relationship that is more realistic, honest and healthy. Here, experts explain how to do it.

Make a list

Jotting down the qualities you’re looking for in someone can help you hone in on the right partner, says Durvasula. Looking for particular qualities instead of a vague idea — like a soulmate — allows you to be more specific about what you want.

Try writing down the traits that are most important to you. “It can cause you to take a step back and say ‘is this really me?’ Or ‘is this someone else?'” says Durvasula. The process can become an exercise of self-exploration, she says.

Focus more on personality traits and ideologies which generally matter more than factors such as where someone works or what their interests are, she says. Durvasula notes qualities like kindness, compassion, consistency, loyalty and openness as examples of the kinds of traits to jot down.

Then, add objective traits — like a person’s ethnicity or religion — to your list if they are integral to your search for a partner, she says.

Check back with your list not just once you find a partner, but as your relationship progresses, Lewandowski says. This way you can keep track of how your partner stacks up to the characteristics you were looking for.

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Observe the relationships around you

Looking to those closest to you is the best way to find realistic and honest relationship goals, according to Durvasula. “A relationship doesn’t happen on Instagram,” she says.

Seek out a variety of real-life couples you know well — friends or family — and ask yourself what qualities you admire in those relationships. Try to pick up on the negatives, too, Lewandowski adds. If you don’t like the way one partner is always putting another down, make a mental note of that.

And if you’re close enough with someone — ask the person what makes his or her relationship work (or, if someone is divorced, what ultimately caused it to end). “I think we always want to ask people in happy relationships, but the real gold is in the people whose relationships ended at high stakes,” says Durvasula.

Lewandowski says that figuring out ways to emulate the positives and avoid some of the negatives can help you realize what you do and don’t want.

Prioritize yourself

Being in a committed, healthy relationship starts with focusing on yourself. “Sometimes I worry that when a person is on the search for a soulmate they are trying to fill an emptiness inside of them,” says Durvasula.

Spending time working on yourself — whether that’s in your career, personal life or simply who you are as a person — can prime you for a relationship, she says, noting that the best time to find someone is when you’re 100% content with who you are. Being with someone else won’t fill that void, no matter how great the person is, she says.

Already in a relationship? Focus on growing both individually and as a couple, Lewandowski says. If you love to run, don’t stop signing up for races just because you’re in a relationship — and encourage your partner to follow his or her passions, too. Then, try to participate in activities you enjoy doing together. You want someone who values your growth as an individual and as a couple since both are crucial components of a healthy partnership, says Durvasula.

Write to Annabel Gutterman at annabel.gutterman@time.com.

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