See if this scenario resonates: You’re swiping on dating apps and you spot someone who fits your physical “type.” Maybe you’re awed by their hardcore discipline around staying fit; maybe you’re drawn to their curvy physique; or perhaps you perk up when you learn about their love of outdoor or sports activities. In any case, it’s a welcome surprise when you match!
You agree to meet for a date—the first one is a great hike and a smoothie at the end. The chemistry is definitely there, and the physical attraction is off the charts! (It’s been so long since you met anyone who checked this box for you.)
Over the next few dates, the conversation moves from basic getting-to-know-you questions to nuanced discussions about what you’re seeking in a relationship. But as you spend more time together, you start wondering about your date’s “E.Q.,” or emotional intelligence. Your potential partner doesn’t seem as insightful as you’d hoped. You notice them blaming others for things they’ve gone through and complaining about insignificant situations. You overlook this at first, thinking you need to give them another chance. Still, it’s a pink flag—not quite red, but you’re cautious.
You’ve spent years committing to personal development work, as well as physical fitness. You’ve seen coaches and/or therapists, and attended retreats and workshops. You’ve read self-help books and articles, and are generally aware of your feelings. You understand that not everyone is on your same path; it’s okay to diverge a little.
As you spend more time with this new person, the embers of physical chemistry continue to burn, but the emotional connection flickers. Some days it feels like you’re just simply not on the same page at all, as you react so differently to small things.
Do you continue to invest more time or let go now?
If you tend to make initial dating decisions using the criteria of physical attraction or physique, you’re not alone. In a recent Dating.com survey, only around 20% of respondents said that body type doesn’t matter when it comes to finding a partner. And many major dating sites enable users to search by body type (filtering out any that they may consider unattractive), while others specifically cater toward certain physiques, such as plus-size or ultra-fit.
But focusing on “working in”—building internal personal skills in much the same way as one might lift weights at the gym—matters just as much as how much we work out. I learned this first-hand after my first significant breakup. When I was younger, I thought I could sort out all problems on my own. Nothing seemed serious enough to warrant therapy or coaching, and I didn’t want to be seen as a baby who couldn’t handle things herself.
In my first serious relationship, I felt like we were bopping along innocently in our early twenties, going to parties and happy hours regularly. These social nights had a dark side, though, and I couldn’t handle being around him anymore. I broke up with him and felt my legs buckle underneath me. No longer could I grin and bear it—I needed to talk to a professional about the pain and hurt overtaking me.
Through therapy, I realized the limits of my self-awareness. I was judgmental, my critical inner voice amplified in self-deprecating humor, doubt, and shame. In therapy and coaching, I experienced a massive, expansive shift toward kindness and generosity of thought.
But as I grew my mind, my physical habits waxed and waned. I had trouble focusing on both types of growth. It felt like I could have either physical health or mental stability, rather than both.
Something shifted when I started looking at exercise as a daily habit. My confidence grew with each weight I picked up and each emotional check-in.
As soon as I incorporated both mental and physical fitness into my lifestyle, everything started to fall into place. Starting slowly with occasional journaling and short bursts of meditation, I became more aware of the benefits of calming my mind. Sometimes I’d practice yoga to nurture both my brain and my body, and other days I’d focus on challenging workouts to chisel my muscles. Longer workouts became endurance and “mental toughness” days, showing me the power of sticking with things and not quitting just because they were a struggle. And my coach was equally enthusiastic and skillful when pointing out my wins.
For me, seeing a coach or therapist has been key—and now I myself work as a professional coach. Receiving individual feedback and developing a relationship with a clinician can be life-changing. In therapy, people learn how to regulate their emotions and assess questionable situations. They develop a full range of feelings and can identify nuances. Additionally, just like with a personal trainer, having someone in your corner to cheer you on and recognize your growth is powerful.
Another way to gain strength is to invest in classes and workshops. Billed as “the world’s first gym for mental health,” Coa is a startup that offers eight-week emotional fitness classes for those who want to nurture their mental health or need an emotional tune-up. Led by licensed therapists, Coa’s workshops encourage participation and self-growth, geared toward immediate takeaways.
Self-help books, podcasts, and videos can also get you thinking about your roles and purpose. While the benefit of consuming media like this is the ability to do it on your own time, one drawback is not having feedback or conversation during the learning. Yet, in conjunction with other personal growth work, there’s plenty of learning to be had!
So… back to our original question: should you stay with someone who looks great but doesn’t meet your emotional needs? Only you know what your values are. Are you looking for a long-term relationship or is “fun-for-now” enough? We all have a threshold, and it’s up to you to keep your best interests top of mind.