We’re a cult of list makers. We make to-do lists, grocery lists, packing lists, and now a list of must-have qualities for our potential partner. She needs to be independent, yet be devoted; he needs to earn a good living, yet have enough time for her. He needs to have follow-through on his promises; she needs to not be demanding. And on it goes. If some of these qualities don’t appear right away, do you end the relationship? Or how long should you stay if all the items on your list aren’t there?

It’s difficult to say how many dates it takes to get a good, realistic picture of someone’s character and patterns. Unless there are glaring red flags, give yourself at least five dates. Remember that in the beginning of every relationship, most of us are on our best behavior. But you can be watchful for patterns, those behaviors that show up early, keep repeating themselves, and may present problems in the relationship. For example, “I notice that my girlfriend makes a date with me and, 99% of the time, always changes the plans at the last minute.” This is a pattern. Some patterns won’t present problems in the relationship, but some are the beginning of a red flag, a warning sign, in the relationship.
So pay attention to both the things that bother you and the things that work well for you in the relationship, and use the following tips as a gauge to determine if your relationship is worth pursuing or worth ending. (All references to “he” and “she” herein are not gender-specific and are used for example purposes only.)

1. Willingness to communicate. Reason to stay: She’s a good listener and exhibits a willingness to deal with conflict in a reasonable manner. Red Flag: She seems to require all the focus on her, and her anger escalates easily during a minor disagreement.

2. Honesty. Reasons to stay: He lets you know how he feels about things, even if they’re difficult issues to bring up. He doesn’t hide information when you’re talking about his lifestyle, etc. Red Flag: He’s either telling you too much or too little. If everything seems too good to be true, it probably is.

3. Responsible. Reasons to stay: She takes responsibility for following through on being available when she says she will be. If there’s a disagreement, she can take responsibility for her part in it and not just blame you. She is a hard worker, and even if she’s been laid off in these tough economic times, she is earnestly looking for work. Red Flag: She makes promises she doesn’t keep and looks to others to take care of her. No matter what the issue is, she never takes responsibility for her part; it always gets turned back on you.

4. Concerned with Self-Improvement. Reasons to stay: He is interested in not only working out and keeping his body healthy, he is also interested in improving himself through self-help books, therapy, or classes. Red Flag: He believes that this is just who he is, and if you have a problem with that, it’s your problem. He believes that self-help is unnecessary and problems will just work themselves out.

5. Empathy, Concern, and Interest. Reasons to Stay: She has a real interest in you. She wants to know who you are, what makes you tick, and shows real empathy and concern for you when you’re happy and also when you’re sad. Red Flag: She is totally self-absorbed (narcissistic) and it always has to be on her terms. There is a lack of empathy and concern for you.

It’s important to pay attention to patterns of behavior and red flags. If a red flag appears immediately, and if your reasons to stay outweigh the warning sign, it’s worth continuing the relationship for a few more months. After two or three months, reevaluate. If certain behaviors or traits are on your list, but a red flag catches your attention, use it as the valuable tool that it is to help you decide whether it’s time to stay or time to leave.

Author's Bio: 

Also known as the "last ditch effort therapist," Sharon M. Rivkin, therapist and conflict resolution/affairs expert, is the author of Breaking the Argument Cycle: How to Stop Fighting Without Therapy and developer of the First Argument Technique, a 3-step system that helps couples fix their relationships and understand why they fight. Her work has been featured in O Magazine, O Newsletter, Reader's Digest, Time.com, Prevention.com, and WebMD.com. She's an expert at HitchedMag.com, where she contributes monthly articles on hot relationship topics. She's appeared on TV, Martha Stewart Whole Living Radio, and makes regular radio appearances nationwide. For more information, please visit www.sharonrivkin.com.