It’s rush hour on a crowded New York City bus. Aaron, devoted husband to a Glamour editor, is hustling home to feed their two cats when he sees a woman writing 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 she’s written a pro-con list. About her boyfriend.
The pros: He makes her happy. Also, his cats are cute (yes, seriously—see above). 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 a thousand dollars.
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 guy’s 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 put another way, 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 is 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 Benjamin Karney, Ph.D., a professor of social psychology at UCLA. “People leaning toward 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.”
Which is to say, when you write a pro-con list, you’re often just projecting the preferences you already have. That can be useful, says Bruce,* 29, a reporter in Washington, D.C. At one point, with an ex-girlfriend, 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 other list items like ‘She gets on my nerves when we stay at each other’s places,’ I realized how flimsy my reasons to stay with her were. The list helped crystallize my thinking.”
What If You Still Need Help?
But not every list is as conclusive as Bruce’s. “A pro-con list is great for bringing out the possible factors that go into your decision, but the problem is that it equalizes the importance of all these things,” says Charles Foster, Ph.D., author of What Do I Do Now? “It just becomes a list of stuff.” If you want to make a more useful list, he advises narrowing 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 a right to say, ‘If this isn’t the case, then we’re done,'” Foster says.
And remember, the list is not the whole picture. “We don’t have access to the reasons for some romantic feelings,” says J. Frank Yates, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Michigan’s Department of Psychology, who researches judgment 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,” says Ellen McCarthy, author of The Real Thing: Lessons on Love and Life From a Wedding Reporter’s Notebook. “Is this what I want going forward? Is it nurturing enough that you want it in the days and years to come?”
When Catherine, 26, a sales specialist in New York City, 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, she 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 she had been keeping a mental checklist of all the ways he’d 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 she broke things off, he called her, wanting to get back together. She consulted her list, and her exact words to him were: “I would not respect myself if I got back together with you.” Decision made.
Jessica Goldstein has written for The Washington Post and Vulture. Additional reporting by Concepcion de Leon.