alice in wonderland

This Isn’t Wonderland: You’ll Stay Lost Without a Dating Plan

“If you don’t know where you want to go, then it doesn’t matter which path you take.”
— Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland


I coach men and women about dating and relationships. I’m not a dating coach, because “dating” is usually not the goal. I’m a relationship coach because I believe life can be better if shared with a healthy partner. How would I know what a healthy partner looks like? Good question. I’m going to reveal a bit of my story with unhealthy or unavailable partners and then wrap it all up with some ideas of how to skip to the front of the line.

What Does a Healthy Relationship Look Like?

Or, more importantly, feel like? Here’s what I know:

  • I seem to pick out unavailable or damaged partners
  • I stay attached and optimistic about the relationship against my better judgment
  • I often break up more than once, I try again at least twice
  • I have some idea that my health and happiness can bring the other person along
  • I see red flags and dismiss them, running smack into them months or years later

A friend asked me recently, “So, have you ever been in a healthy relationship, by your definition?” I had to pause and think.

“Not until this one,” I said, referring to my then, and current, girlfriend.

So, what’s different about this relationship? What have I learned along the way? And do I still ignore red flags?

Finding My Ideal(istic) Partner

It’s true, I set a high mark as I reimagined my next relationship, post-divorce. I had been blindsided by the unexpected animosity of my soon-to-be ex, as she decided to maximize her kid-time by killing mine, just as the state of Texas advised her to do. I recovered a bit stronger, a bit gunshy, and a lot more idealistic about what I was looking for in a lifetime partner. The partner I thought I was married to, showed early signs of dishonesty. And as I pulled myself back together from the depression and wreckage of my single-dad life, I also began to put together some ideas about what a “healthy” relationship might look like for me.

12 years later, I’m pleased to say, I’m in my first healthy adult relationship based on all of these ideas I’m going to share with you. It was not easy. I had to break off and let go of a number of flawed attachments, as I was seeking something more secure.

Here are the main items that formed my YES LIST for my next relationship.

  1. emotional maturity
  2. had a similar goal for a long-term partnership
  3. was also a parent (this was a preference, I tried twice with non-moms)
  4. was within 5 years of my age (also tried twice with much younger women)
  5. involved in their own creative life, had a passion or two
  6. was easy to hang out with, even with no plans
  7. attractive to me
  8. was able to listen with intention
  9. had her own trajectory in life worked out, but wanted a partner
  10. could express her affection easily and did
  11. invoked joy when I was around her, and even in anticipation of being around her
  12. was kind, always

Over the course of my dating and relationship journey, I learned a lot of lessons about myself and what I wanted. I also learned what my NOPES were. I failed several times with a difficult release. (Meaning, I had to break up three times, before it took.) But, each time, I kept going. I always paused, wrote a lot, and reassessed my attempt and failure. I added and subtracted from my list of WANTS vs NEEDS.

It is critical to articulate what you want in a partner. Then, stick to it. Don’t settle for average. Don’t give up one of your “must haves” for good sex. Don’t compromise yourself when your partner does not have the time or the emotional intelligence to commit to the relationship.

Building a Rocket Ship Together

We are heading to the moon. A lot of preparation is required. The “WE” planning requires alignment, focused goals, and time and energy to work on the we of the rocket ship. We need flight plans. We need time to train our relationship, like a complex dance routine. And, most of all, we need to be *all in* on the idea of building the partnership and the rocket ship that will survive the long journey.

What you take and what you leave behind are critical in finding a new partner. It’s almost as important to know what to let go of in your preparations. If you’ve still got anger towards a previous partner, or if you’re still holding a flame for someone, it’s important that you clear those technical hurdles before joining a rocket ship mission.

I am going to the moon and I’m taking my lifetime partner. I might be calling her my girlfriend, at the moment, but once we’ve blasted out of the atmosphere, we can have a hope of successfully achieving our goal, a love life of joy and growth.


John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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