During group therapy in prison, as the group members approached the time of their release, we talked about future romantic relationships. Prior to prison, most of them had, at best, created tenuous unhealthy relationships. Then their poor decisions seriously, sometimes irreparably damaged relationships with spouses, children, extended family, and friends. With therapy and their own hard work and sincere efforts, they changed their lives. Now they could talk about creating and maintaining healthy, emotionally strong relationships.

The group members would come up with 30 different qualities they sought in a healthy relationship. Some of them would identify different attributes, some would identify different shared interests they would like to see. Their list included finding someone who was patient, accepting, kind, forgiving, energetic, honest, intelligent, someone with shared spiritual beliefs, someone who was a good cook, someone who liked to go camping, etc. etc. In addition, we are encouraged to develop the attributes of Christ from Preach My Gospel: faith, hope, charity and love, virtue, knowledge, patience, humility, diligence, obedience.

All of them said that the person had to be someone who is drug-free, otherwise if their probation officer found drugs where they live, they would come back to prison. Sometimes a group member would start to talk about physical attributes and they were re-directed back to healthy attributes. Otherwise, that type of focus would revert to treating another person like an object. Certainly, there is physical attraction but what is inside – their personality – is essential and enduring. Besides, all of us change physically … what will they or you look like in 5, 10, or 20 years?

We reviewed the list to determine which of the desired attributes, if not there, were deal-breakers? One guy said, “Well, it doesn’t matter if she is not honest. Neither am I.” The other group members quickly challenged him and re-emphasized what makes a healthy relationship. Another man said, “I suppose it’s okay if she doesn’t like to go camping. We can make sure to do a lot of other things together.” Another said it’s a deal-breaker if we don’t have shared spiritual values. The discussion went on. Then at the end were two key questions: “How many of these attributes do you have? What healthy qualities do you bring to the relationship?”

How do we learn about the attributes of others? Spend time in groups, service projects, activities with family and friends, etc. to observe what they are like in different settings. President (then Elder) Dallin H. Oaks encouraged dating: “Simple and more frequent dates allow both men and women to ‘shop around’ in a way that allows extensive evaluation of the prospects. The old-fashioned date was a wonderful way to get acquainted with a member of the opposite sex. It encouraged conversation. It allowed you to see how you treat others and how you are treated in a one-on-one situation. It gave opportunities to learn how to initiate and sustain a mature relationship. None of that happens in hanging out.” (“Dating versus Hanging Out,” Ensign, June 2006, 13.)

Having shared interests is rarely a 100% match. A young adult neighbor of ours said that she would never marry a cowboy. Then she met a cowboy! She learned to like horses and cowboy boots and cowboy hats. He learned to like going to plays and concerts. They shared a central interest of living the gospel of Jesus Christ and they merged many of their other interests. Having shared interests and possessing essential attributes contribute to healthy, long-term relationships.

May the Lord bless us as we strive to develop the essential attributes we need as His disciples as well as blessing our relationships with others.