What to do when your partner has unfulfilled potential

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Potential can be a scary word. It suggests an as yet untapped source within someone that could make them great. It also comes with a caveat that it can take time, work and confidence to unlock that potential, which is why some people shy away from realising their own potential.

When you start dating someone, there can be nothing more heartbreaking than seeing their untapped potential but not knowing quite what to do about it. You might think that it’s crystal clear they’re an amazing artist, or have the analytical mind of a great barrister, but they may see themselves as stuck in their dead-end job, living a very mundane life.

If they don’t see their own potential, then you are faced with a very real dilemma; try to help them realise it, or get out of the relationship before you’re in too deep with someone who just won’t see how great they could be.

If you’re in this situation, these are the principles you should always keep in mind:

Judge them on their inner qualities
If you think your date is attractive or sexy, that’s all well and good, but it’s what’s inside that counts when you’re thinking about a long-term relationship. Don’t let your judgement be clouded by external factors; if their life plans mirror yours, if their values align with yours, and if their kindness shines through then these are the things that truly matter. These are the things that show that potential has the chance to break through.

When a person ticks all your boxes (or has all your ‘Must Have’ qualities, and none of your ‘Can’t Stand’ qualities) then they’re usually worth the benefit of the doubt, at least for a while.

Look for motivation
Self-motivation is incredibly important here. If your date shows signs of being self-motivated, even if they haven’t actually achieved their potential yet, then there’s a good chance they will eventually. But beware, a go-getting attitude can rarely be taught in adulthood. Or in other words, don’t think you’ll be able to take them on as a project. That will be exhausting for both of you and will inevitably drive a wedge between you as you aim to ‘change’ the other person.

Evaluate your own situation
Let’s be practical here. If you’re in your 20s or 30s with few commitments then starting a relationship with someone who has untapped potential can work; you have the time to wait and see if they come good. But if you’re older, or perhaps divorced or widowed, you might not be willing to invest lots of time in someone who may do something great with their lives. After all, if they’ve reached that age and still haven’t realised their own potential, the likelihood is that they’re going to be stuck in their ways forever.


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