My friend was telling me what she wanted in her next partner. The recent break-up wasn’t too ugly, but she didn’t want to make the same mistakes again.

My next guy will be taller, no facial hair, and will have a good job he’s satisfied with. He’ll know how to cook, and how to do his own laundry. He’ll know…

Her situation seemed very sad to me. From what she was describing, neither of them had shared their thoughts with the other, in terms of what they like and dislike, need and want. Neither had given the other an opportunity to change, if the relationship was worth it.

I listened to her story for a while, but I couldn’t understand why she would come up with a list of things she wanted in a partner, didn’t that just limit her opportunities?

“When Bob and I were first dating, we were driving to my aunt’s place about 2.5 hours north of where we lived. We had waited until later in the evening to avoid rush hour traffic, and my aunt had told me she would have some food ready for us when we got there. I was hungry, though, having had only a small lunch at work that day, so I said to Bob:

I’m hungry.

And he answered:

Me too.

And then we passed at least two exits with signs indicating there were restaurants nearby.

I said it again a little while later, and he passed an exit with a sign again.

I was pretty hangry at that point, frustrated at his lack of consideration for me. How could he not know I was hungry? I told him, didn’t I? And then the lightbulb went on in my head. I told him I was hungry, but I didn’t tell him specifically to stop. Could I expect him to read my mind? Was that fair, given our completely different thought processes? (Which is one thing I loved about him.)

As I saw another sign indicating food nearby, I said:

Hey — there’s a McDonald’s at the next exit. Would you please stop so I can grab a small snack?

He pulled off the highway at the exit, and bought me a burger.

Ah ha! All I had to do was use my words. I’m still learning this lesson, more than 20 years later. Sometimes you have to be really specific about what you want; even after many years together, we still have to use our words.

Use your words.

When I finished my story, my friend sat back with an amused look on her face.

So what you’re saying is that I need to tell the guy I’m dating when something he’s doing is bothering me, or if I want something from him.

That’s right. Even if you think you’re being obvious, he can’t read your mind. Be careful with that, though. If what he’s doing is annoying, don’t nag; tell him, and if it doesn’t change, decide if it’s a deal-breaker. After more than 20 years together, that’s something I consider a lot before I bring up that kind of conversation.

I suggested that she think about writing a list of deal breakers for her next relationship, instead of a list of things she wants in a partner. It makes more sense to consider what you’ve learned from past experiences, and know for sure what you DON’T want.

Every job I have, every relationship, and every situation that doesn’t end the way I had intended, I learn from. It‘s a more open approach to consider what I don’t want next, because, really, I have no idea what else is out there for me. If I have a laundry list of things I want in my next adventure, I might miss some amazing opportunity because my focus is on something so specific.

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Sarah Elkins is a professional coach and consultant, helping people and businesses improve their communication through the art of storytelling. She’s also the President of Elkins Consulting, the company making a splash with small, face-to-face, affordable interactive conferences called No Longer Virtual.

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