Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Hi Carolyn:

I’m worried that I’m stuck in a pattern — every guy I’ve dated seriously has turned out to be what you could nicely call a fixer-upper. They seem okay, but the issues don’t really come out until well after I’m invested in the relationship. I am too old (32) for wasting time — what is the best way to avoid getting into relationships with these people in the first place? How should I “tune my antennae” to spot trouble early and run?

Just outside DC

This is interesting, because when you say that “every” guy is a fixer-upper, that leaves room for interpretation. It could be that all of the men you’ve dated have been messed up, but it could also be that your idea of “turnkey” (opposite of “fixer-upper”) is unrealistic — you could have such high expectations that you regard perfectly normal guys with perfectly normal issues as messed up.

So I’m not sure I can advise you in a way that covers both possibilities completely.

You can try a treating-the-symptoms angle, and make an effort to slow down the progression of your relationships into Relationships. Keep them at the friendship stage for as long as possible, thus allowing you to know the person, good and bad, before you commit.

You might also want to look around at other people in your life — friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, etc., both men and women — and try to imagine how you’d see them through the lens you use to view these guys you dated seriously. Would your parents or sibs be messed up, by these standards? Your best friend?

It can actually be a fascinating mental exercise: Have you ever set up one friend with another? Doing that forces you to look at both parties as potential romantic partners for someone, and you really see them differently that way. That awesome person who sticks by you and shares your sense of humor and makes amazing zucchini bread suddenly becomes the one with a patchy employment history and mother issues.

The point of doing this is to, in a sense, calibrate your radar. Think of these people you value highly in nonromantic roles in your life, and ask yourself which of them you’d label, objectively, as a great catch. Also think of great couples you know, and see if you’d classify each of them as “great” individually, and why. Then, see what attracted you initially to the guys you dated who turned out to be bad choices.

Are there inconsistencies in what you date and what you admire in your friends? Are the things you find attractive in men at all in conflict with the things that your steadiest friends provide? Or, are you seeking similar things, but those traits in a friend (whom you join for grins once a week) are less draining than in a boyfriend (whom you count on to provide much more)?

Both of these — slowing down and calibrating your radar — can be tackled on your own. If you’re feeling impatient, though, or if you’re struggling to make sense of your thoughts, consider enlisting a reputable therapist who is open to ideas and really likes to dig.

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