The #1 Quality to Look for in a Long-Term Relationship

by | Sep 17, 2023 | Break Free From Relationship Anxiety | 15 comments

Contrary to what our culture teaches, the most important quality to look for in a long-term partner is not

…common interests, physical attraction, sense of humor, chemistry, level of education, or confidence.

The #1 quality to look for in a partner is…


The willingness to learn.

The willingness to grow.

The willingness to face hard things.

The willingness to take responsibility.

And, if you hit a roadblock in the relationship, the willingness to get support.

The Intersection of Relationship Anxiety and Red Flags

When people struggling with relationship anxiety ask me what I mean by red-flags, I rattle off the typical list: addiction, untreated narcissism, unhealed betrayal, impassable differences around having children or religion. (You can read about the topic of red flags in more depth in this post.)

But I always follow it up by saying, “Almost all issues can be worked on if both people are willing.”

We all have our stuck places and blind spots, and I don’t think it’s possible to be in a long-term relationship without running into challenges, especially if you both come from trauma.

But not only can these collisions be addressed, they can lead to increased intimacy and growth both individually and together when you have the willingness to take responsibility, seek support, and commit to inner work.

Other important qualities are honesty, humility, and empathy – but these tend to go hand-in-hand with willingness.

Our Trauma Collisions

Like most couples, my husband and I have had our fair share of trauma collisions. We would not be standing here together today, closer than ever, had we not sought help when we needed it most.

There were many things that attracted me to my husband all those years (decades!) ago, but as I look back now, what stood out was his willingness to work on himself and his devotion to our partnership. I knew that no matter how hard things got, no matter how much we collided into each other with our deepest wounds that came out as our worst selves, he would always show up and be willing to look at how we could do better. And he sensed the same in me.

So when relationship anxiety wants to attach onto your partner’s perceived faults and foibles – the places where they fall short according to your anxious mind – you can respond by saying something like, “Those things might be true, or they might be distortions of fear. But the one question I can likely answer is, ‘Do I have a willing partner?'”

If your answer is yes, you have struck gold.


PS: If you missed on recent Gathering Gold episode on Healing Shame, you can find it here



  1. Fantastic as ever. As well as asking ourselves ‘do I have a willing partner?’, we can also ask, ‘am *I* willing?’ My journey in recovery from RA (an ongoing journey) was really catalysed by picking up the mirror, rather than the magnifying glass – to use a well-worn metaphor.

    • Right back at ‘ya, Joshua: fantastic comment, as always!

    • Sometimes when I am in the thick of a break up urge I wonder if I REALLY am willing. Because of all the pain and anxiety, I may be losing my willingness. This then also makes me feel guilty because my partner is so willing but I am not even sure if I am anymore.

  2. The bravest thing we can do be willing to be vulnerable. The weathered warrior in us wants to run, put up barriers and protect us using worn out weaponry. It has taken me years to find the willingness to put down my tarnished sword and shield and I can honestly say I have never been more content and at peace with myself and my life. I quote you all of the time, Sheryl, your work helped me reclaim my true self and begin a lifelong healing process…. It is the most rewarding work I have ever undertaken.

    • This is so beautiful to read, Nick. Thank you 🙏.

  3. Holy cow, the truth of this legitimately bowled me over. Over the years I feel like I’ve heard every piece of relationship advice in the book, most of which has left me rolling my eyes and internally saying “Well, duh.” Respect each other, make each other laugh, agree on core issues, prioritize each other, have a lot of sex—like, okay, that’s all great stuff. But if one or both people in a couple is missing that essential “willingness”, none of it counts for much. Not just willingness to do as the other says (simply following orders doesn’t translate to genuine intimacy in my book), but willingness to BE in a lifelong relationship—to coexist intimately with another human being for the duration of both your lives—in the first place. In fact, I just realized that my partner and I recently busted out of a pretty intense conflict spiral by referring back to this essential truth. We were bouncing back and forth, triggering each other all over the place, and all of a sudden we STOPPED and reminded each other that we were in this with each other and were willing to do whatever it took to make things better. It was a total game-changer.

    The magic of being willing to pause a fear projection long enough to see a productive way forward. Wait, is this what “being an adult” looks like???

    • So much wisdom, beauty, and insight in your comment, Niamh. Thank you!

  4. Hi Sheryl,

    Another reassuring post. I’ve struggled with attraction anxiety for years, complicated by sex/porn addiction. I am finally starting the work with your break free course but am suffering from high anxiety right now. I know I love my wife and she is a wonderful partner. Just hoping I can start to heal my anxiety and change my approach to intimacy and how I “see” her. Thanks again.

    • Hang on, Jonathan. If you commit to this work it will get better. See Nick’s comment above :).

      • Thank you so much for the encouragement. What advice do you have for working through the course/doing inner work when you are experiencing constant anxiety? I have been on medication in the past and trying to get back on again.

  5. Also, I have submitted my email to get the collection of stories of men who broke through the attraction spike with RA but it never comes through. Is there a way for me to get these? Are they part of the BFFRA materials? I think they would really help me. Thanks.

  6. This is great! And I do have a willing partner. What If I am the one who is questioning my devotion to the relationship. after 4 years I still haven’t run away fully. But if you were to ask the question to my partner, I wonder if he can sense my ambivalence and therefore would not have a willing partner therefore maybe it’s not as you say in the article. If that makes sense.

  7. Hi Sheryl,

    This has come at such great timing. I wanted to ask, I’ve generally always been a perfectionist and have come from parents who are perfectionists. I had multiple dating experiences from the same culture where I experienced cheating, neglect, and other forms of dishonesty. I am now with a loving partner from a completely different culture and the other side of the world . I met him right after moving abroad in the same medical school and he came to me after I had prayed for many months to meet someone who would give the same love I gave people.

    Fast forward, I’ve always had anxiety about whether it’s aligned with the “rich, perfect man” I had envisioned and the life of glitz and glam I saw for myself. I am now in a new country going through an identity building phase and am constantly questioning whether I am with the “right” partner. My partner is thoughtful, considerate, loving, honest and all the other traits that I have ever wants yet I keep questioning if we’re too different? He’s from the other side of the world and we’ve been together about a year and a bit with an amazing solid friendship and love. I am exhausted of the constant comparisons to my “dream life” and just wish I could be present and stop comparing and enjoy the love I waited so long for. I don’t know if this is anxiety or something else?

  8. Thank you for these insightful articles I feel very grateful for having stumbled upon your website. I have recently broken free from narcissistic abuse and am still wrapping my head around it. It went from a blissful 3 years with him having asked my parents for my hand in marriage and most of the time he was sweet supportive and my best friend. And then one horrific fight where for the first time we properly insulted each other, and he packed everything up and left. Six months later we reconnected for work and that’s when the narcissistic abuse was in full swing without any mask and it was very ugly. A few months leading up to the breakup fight there were some traumatic events that happened (loved ones dying suddenly, loved ones battling addiction, me being diagnosed with adult scoliosis, etc) that made me very stressed which I communicated to my ex that I needed support. But I found myself having this relationship anxiety that you talk about where I was nitpicking every part of the relationship and I wasn’t nice to always be around. He was going through financial stress and also upset often. But we still found ways to laugh and love each other between those tough times until that ugly fight. I feel regret that I was under the trap of relationship anxiety but in that state I started to see the way my partner treated me badly. For instance, being condescending and rude to me when we worked together in front of others. Commenting on my appearance. Controlling me when possible. And lying often. So now of course after that whole experience I will have relationship anxiety to address, but the point of explaining all of this is that I am wondering if during the emotional abuse it was important to have picked apart things and question everything (relationship anxiety) to see this ugly side of my ex that could have been my future?


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