A couple having an intense discussion over coffee in the morning

When Your Partner Has ‘Unfulfilled Potential’

by Eharmony Editorial Team - March 3, 2010

Should you hang in there with a person whose life seems to be going nowhere fast?

“Potential” is a word fraught with danger and brimming with hope. After all, lots of people have an abundance of natural talent and innate ability—but don’t do much to maximize their God-given promise.

As the pioneering psychologist William James said, “Everyone knows that on any given day, there are energies slumbering in him that are not called forth. Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. The human individual usually lives far within his limits.” The theologian Howard Hendricks put it more succinctly: “Nothing is more common than unfulfilled potential.”

The dating dilemma becomes this: what if you are involved with someone you believe has lots of potential, but the person hasn’t yet capitalized on it? What if, for instance, she is taking a long time to get through college . . . or he has been stuck in a series of dead-end jobs . . . or the individual sets lofty goals but hasn’t achieved any of them? It’s a fact of life that there are many late bloomers—and there are also those who never bloom.

When dating someone with as-yet-untapped potential, should you hang in there or cut and run? What if your dating partner is a diamond in the rough who could turn out to be a gem over time?

Keep these principles in mind:

Evaluate the person from the inside out. The characteristics that count most are those at a person’s core, the heart-and-soul qualities. The external and superficial traits tend to snag our attention, but the virtues that make a person worth waiting for are largely internal—such as integrity, spirituality, kindness, unselfishness, and gentleness. If these are present, you are likely with someone who has an excellent chance of becoming a real gem.

If a person has all of your must-have and none of your can’t-stand qualities, it’s worth being patient. The person who meets all of your carefully considered criteria for a life partner—even currently lacking a track record of success in some areas—is someone worth giving the benefit of the doubt, at least for a while. If a partner has nearly every quality you’re looking for, err on the side of patience and persistence while the person figures out how to move forward.

Watch for evidence that the individual is self-motivated. If you’ve scanned newspaper or online job postings, you know they often include as a requirement someone who is a “self-starter” or “able to complete tasks independently.” HR professionals know what single people should know: a man or woman who is self-motivated is almost surely going to accomplish great things, but the unmotivated person is probably never going to excel. Inner drive and a go-getter attitude usually can’t be taught once someone has reached adulthood.

Let’s end on a pragmatic note: Your age and stage of life largely determine your willingness to hang in there while watching to see if a partner will take solid steps forward in life. If you’re in your twenties or early thirties, you can afford to “wait and see” how a person develops (or doesn’t). The older you get, the less likely you are to invest lots of time in a relationship with someone who may simply be unfocused and unmotivated.

Give every dating partner ample room to grow and develop–but be prepared to move on to better prospects when it becomes clear the individual is going nowhere fast.