The Checklist: insurance or illusion?

We’re all familiar with the checklist. The “on paper” qualities that qualify a person as marriage material. It becomes ingrained in us early, when we first start dating; in high school, college, and in our twenties too. It’s made up of things we are programmed to want, whether we actually want to or not.

The checklist is seductive. It serves to give us comfort, a sense of security that it’s going to be okay. It helps to give definition to an otherwise murky future. It’s like buying relationship insurance that safeguards us against angst, marital discord, and divorce, and provides us with its opposite.

But does it really work? And when it does – at what price? Does subscribing to the list actually generate confusion; impair our judgment of the other person, and our ability to ascertain how we truly feel about them?  

When I got married, I wasn’t asking these questions. I unwittingly bought into the checklist. It was part of what brought my husband and I together.  It was concrete – something tangible that helped strengthen my faltering conviction. When in doubt, I could grab the checklist and feel better. Perhaps it’s what kept us together for close to fourteen years. But when we divorced, I wondered if it was the reason for that too. In the end, was my dependence on the checklist antidote my failure?

Since then, like most people do after a break up, I reacted by going in the opposite direction. I took the anti-checklist approach.  I turned away from the tangible. Instead, I put feeling before function. I chose men that gave me that swoony feeling of butterflies. It inspired the emergence of my inner Cougar, primed to defy the norm and what was expected of me. It didn’t matter whether the men were age compatible, financially solvent, or culturally and religiously different. All that mattered was that I felt in love. I was thinking, for a change, of only the present, because as I learned all too well, you never know what will be tomorrow. Worrying about my future and trying to control it by grasping onto a flimsy piece of paper didn’t work.

This approach was logical. And earned. Because although I was in my thirties, I had missed out on dating in my twenties, so it was okay for me to choose a mate as if I still was.

But here’s the catch. A female in her twenties (pre-Cougar age), looks at the world through a different lens than an older women in her thirties, whose priorities – the checklist criteria – demand adjustment.  The importance of feelings, of butterflies, trumping all, starts to diminish. And function forces its way back onto the page.  Now that you’re a bit more experienced, now that you have more realistic expectations about what you can actually attain in this life, you can’t ignore the checklist’s legitimacy, like it or not. It matters less whether or not you actually want the things on the list, and more that you might need them. Because now you have acquired the undeniable knowledge that certain things can and do make this difficult life just a little bit easier. It sucks, but it’s true.  So what do you do?

I don’t have answers. If I did, I would have nothing to write about.  I know there are some of you who are fortunate enough, or built in a way, to have both the butterflies and the boxes checked. Some of you happen to be my friends, and relatives too. But for those who might not, I am eager to know whether you have experienced this kind of recalibration of wants and needs. Are the qualities that made you fall for your boyfriend or girlfriend at 25, and they for you, still holding up? And if they’re not, is that a deal breaker? Is the checklist tempting you, and if it is, is that a bad thing?

Ultimately I think it comes down to what’s important to you, and accepting that perhaps what once mattered, doesn’t have to matter now. It’s okay to change. It’s okay not to know. I guess it’s that thing called growing up, that we resist, that’s been nipping at our heels and has suddenly tackled us. The time has come to readjust. Perhaps it doesn’t necessitate some earth shattering life change at all. Maybe it’s just a perspective shift, a necessary one that forces us to accept that some things are unattainable, while we continue to reach, and to dream.