When my future husband was in high school, a couple of his siblings asked him what sort of girl he liked. What hair color, eye color, height, or personality did he have in mind? What did he want his future girlfriend to be like?

He told them that he didn’t know, and didn’t really have a list of things in mind. When they kept prompting him, he finally admitted that he thought he might prefer a brunette. But that was it.

A lot of people have relationship checklists—but their long list of criteria can be a problem, according to Aziz Ansari’s new book Modern Romance. In her review of the book for Verily Magazine, Julia Hogan considers the pitfalls of Mr. or Mrs. “Right” list-making:

It’s easy to reduce potential dates to items on a checklist, and, when one criterion doesn’t match up, we move on to the next option. With so many options available through online dating and dating apps, it seems logical that if we keep looking long enough, we will find the absolute perfect match. … [But] passing on a relationship with someone who doesn’t meet all of your criteria could mean that you miss out on a great relationship. Cristina’s story is one of a woman with an extensive list of criteria for her “perfect” match: athletic, type A, overachiever, highly intellectual, disciplined, well-established in a career, family-oriented, and spiritual. So when she met her now-fiancé, Aaron, and he didn’t fulfill all of her criteria, she was forced to reevaluate. In fact, some of his qualities were different from the ones she had on her list, such as his laid-back personality and the fact that he was just getting started in his career.

She says, “I had a revelation when my mom said, ‘I think Aaron is great for you because he balances you out so well.’ It dawned on me that without realizing it, my characteristics for an ideal man were really a perfect description of myself.” With that realization, Cristina shifted from a checklist mentality to seeing how she and her fiancé complemented each other. She says, “If I had kept trying to check off all the qualities on my list, I’d probably still be out there searching.”

The story made me wonder how many people out there I knew (people who’d been married for decades, especially) had assembled “checklists” during their dating years. An informal Facebook poll revealed some interesting patterns: almost all of them had a “list” of sorts—but the lists were short, abstract, and flexible. They also followed parallel themes:

First, beliefs and virtues mattered. This was usually the first thing on their list. Was the person in question religious? If so, how sincere and committed were they to their faith? A lot of people I am friends with on Facebook are religious, but I would guess that secular people would have similar priorities—because belief systems, be they religious or secularized, inform our virtues, our characters, and our outlooks on life. Any specific virtues listed were usually along the lines of integrity / sincerity, loyalty, and gentleness / kindness. Basically—someone who would tell the truth, wouldn’t cheat, and would be nice to people. 

Second, looks mattered—though perhaps not in the way you may think. The people who responded didn’t have a specific physical “type,” or try to define one. A couple women said they wanted someone “goodlooking and strong,” or “tall and lanky.” One man said he wanted a woman with “good legs.” Physical attraction obviously mattered—but they knew better than to put together a checklist of physical attributes, trying to determine the perfect “look.” Ansari says that when he set up dummy online dating profiles for his writing project, he posted specifics on who he was looking for: someone “a little younger than me, small, with dark hair.” But then he realized that in reality, his girlfriend was “two years older, about my height—OKAY, SLIGHTLY TALLER—and blond. She wouldn’t have made it through the filters I placed in my online dating profile.”

Third, family mattered. For most people, though not all, this was an additional item on their “list”: they wanted a person who 1) respected their family and treated them well, 2) respected their date’s family and treated them well, and/or 3) someone who was ready to settle down and raise a family. These stipulations convey an important point: we are more ourselves—for good or ill—around our relatives. Additionally, the way we treat our own (and other’s) loved ones is often a good demonstration of the respect, kindness, and deference we’ll show to people in general. The third item is obviously more important to some than others—but if you’re dating seriously, with a future spouse in mind, it seems like a good thing to consider.

These people weren’t trying to find a chick flick hero or heroine. They didn’t have any stipulations or conditions re: someone’s quirks, income, hobbies, “life goals,” or intellectual finesse. Of course, I’m sure there were times when some uncompromisable annoyance or difference along these lines kept them from pursuing a relationship further. But it didn’t keep them from dating—and it didn’t keep them from eventually sticking with a married partner.

A final thought: when I was younger, I remember starting to think through my own checklist. But I only got halfway through before a thought struck me: “What if there’s a guy out there who I’m going to date—or marry—someday, and he’s making a list of qualifications for me?” It was a rather terrifying thought. I decided then and there that I should just worry about my own virtues and vices, annoying quirks and silly habits, rather than trying to judge someone else’s.

(And yes—I am a brunette.)