What’s on your shopping list of ‘ideal qualities in a partner’? Sexy? Funny? Clever? Absurdly wealthy or sultry and mysterious? I used to have a long list of things I thought I needed from someone. But the thing I care most about now would never have made my list when I was younger: kindness.
A friend of mine, who’s been dating for a while, and struggling to find anyone she likes more than a little bit, has recently found someone who might have longer staying power.
“Sounds like you like him a fair bit,” I said, after she’d dropped him into the conversation a few more times than any other guy would warrant. “What’s he like?”
She put her head to one side, smiled a bit and looked kind of nervous, clearly chewing over all the different ways she could explain this new dude to me.
“He’s very…” Long pause. Swallow. Short giggle. “He’s a very kind person. I know that doesn’t sound dramatic or exciting, but it feels important. He’s really kind – you know?”
When I first started caring about boys, the most important thing they could be was willing. They didn’t really need to be enthusiastic, cool, beautiful or any other thing that people used to dream about. I’d stare at posters of guys from boy bands and picture them doing… well, some really basic stuff to be honest. Hugging me. Looking pleased to see me. Buying me roses or inviting me backstage at a gig. I rarely had sex fantasies about these guys, because it was easier to people my filthy fantasies with faceless strangers. But if I really really liked a guy, the greatest my imagination could stretch to was picturing him liking me back.
What do you want in a partner? He literally just needs to be willingly in the same room as me.
Later in life, I started caring about looks. I didn’t just want any guy who liked me, I wanted one who looked scruffy or punky or vampiric – all black eyeliner and big silver buckles and baggy hoodies I could borrow when it was cold. They didn’t have to be beautiful, just interesting. I wanted a guy who looked like he’d get sweaty in a mosh pit, and roll cigarettes from cheap tobacco while his baggy jeans soaked up puddles at a bus stop.
What do you want in a partner? Some kind of hot punky mess, ideally covered in sweat and cheap make-up.
At various stages in my life, I’ve wanted different things in a partner: sexiness, enthusiasm, filth, humour, the ability to tolerate me singing showtunes while I do the washing up… To this day, a good sense of humour is still one of the most important things I look for: make me laugh hard enough and my knickers will magically fall. Laugh at my jokes and I’ll slide off my chair.
And the hunt for each type of man has changed me a little in turn. When I wanted a scruffy gothy punk guy, I dressed as a scruffy gothy punk girl – all purple lipstick and big stompy boots. When I wanted humour – as I still want humour – I’ll make a twat of myself shoehorning punchlines and anecdotes into conversations to impress him. At uni I’d have told you my perfect man was ‘tall, dark, skinny, slightly emo and a bit mysterious – like he had unfathomable hidden depths and mysteries only I could help him unravel.’ As a consequence I spent most of my university days navel-gazing and miserable because I wanted to unravel the secret desires of a boy who, if I’m honest, neither needed nor wanted my unravelling anyway.
We change for other people – we can’t help it. We seek out the things we love, and in doing so we ape them ourselves – becoming punkier, funnier, filthier, more mysterious or enthusiastic, depending on what the person we fancy is like, and which of their qualities we value the most.
“It’s not dramatic or exciting, but he’s a very kind person. You know?”
My younger self wanted punky, hot, filthy, bitchy, funny, clever guys. I never even thought to wish for someone kind. Kindness is one of those things that’s easily overlooked in the face of excitement and drama – I think the reason my friend seemed embarrassed to say it is because it has the same, bland ring as ‘nice.’ It feels like faint praise – something you’d casually mention about that cousin you vaguely know, or a word you’d throw in to a leaving card for that person in the office who occasionally brings in cakes. But kindness – genuine, warm, forgiving kindness – deserves far more fanfare than that.
Kind people can forgive, and compromise, and love. Listen to what you need and be thoughtful in how they respond. They can challenge you if they think you’re being unkind, or help you to understand things from other people’s points of view. Drama might give you passionate rows and make-up-fucking, and make your relationship feel like you’re running full-tilt through an obstacle course – the adrenalin is a kick and a half but the knocks and bumps are horrible. Finding someone who is kind doesn’t mean the obstacles disappear, it just means there’s someone who can assist, nudge, cajole, carry and even drag you through to the finish line.
Somewhere in here, of course, is the worry that we hunt out people who can do the things we can’t: I want funny guys because I’m worried that my jokes aren’t as good as I think, so I need backup from a support act somewhere along the way. I hunt for filthy guys because I don’t ever want to run out of sexy ideas. And maybe kindness is important to me at this stage in my life because I worry I can’t do it, and I’m desperately looking for a teacher.
Because as I get older and grumpier, I find it much harder to cling on to kindness: to be the sort of person who can forgive and love even when my partner’s being a dick. But as well as being hot and filthy and weird and whimsical and funny… he’s kind. It’s his kindness – and my desperate desire to learn from it – that keeps us both hauling each other over the obstacles.
And I know that doesn’t sound dramatic or exciting. But kindness is important. You know?