The 80/20 Rule: Dating Using The Pareto Principle

By: Jenny Chang

Updated July 29, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Lisa Cooper

You may have heard of the 80/20 principle being applied in business, exercise, and especially dieting: eat healthy 80% of the time and indulge 20% of the time. But this rule can apply remarkably well to dating and has been used by many people worldwide to strengthen their relationships and well-being.

This principle centers on the idea that one person cannot meet your needs 100% of the time. Instead of aiming for the perfect relationship, applying the 80/20 dating rule means that you can savor the good things about it without sweating about the small stuff. Unsurprisingly, this may be the key to a longer, more satisfying relationship.

The Pareto Principle

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The 80/20 dating theory stems from The Pareto Principle, which was conceptualized by Italian philosopher and economist Vilfredo Federico Pareto in 1906. After noticing that 80% of Italy's wealth was owned by 20% of the population, Pareto discovered that almost all economic activity could be attributed to the idea that 80% of the results will come from just 20% of the action.

This concept has since been adopted across various cultures and aspects of life. For example, in Japan, Hara Hachi Bu instructs people to eat until they are 80% full and no more. Researchers have found that this guideline may be one reason why Japanese people live such long and healthy lives.

This rule has also been applied to business; to increase productivity, rather than to idle on low importance (the 80%), focus on the most valuable areas (the 20%). The key to being more efficient, says The Pareto Principle, is to drop or delegate the least important work for the most results-bearing.

In a more philosophical sense, the 80/20 theory implies that there will always be things in your life that are not going right; if your car has broken down, the next problem will be your pet getting sick. It is about your attitude and how you respond to these '20% issues' that will determine how miserable you make yourself feel.

Now, people are applying this golden rule to their relationships and dating life, using it to accept flaws in their significant other or spend some quality time alone.

What Is The 80/20 Dating Rule?

The 80/20 dating rule states that if a relationship is great 80% of the time, the rest can be less than ideal. After all, it is impossible and unrealistic to find a person or a relationship that is perfect all the time.

This theory also supports the idea that if people feel like something is missing in the relationship, they can take some time to be independent and do things that interest them outside of that person. Even though most of their time will be spent nurturing the relationship, 20% of it can be used to engage in self-exploration and self-fulfilling hobbies, such as traveling, reading, and going to the gym. But why 80/20 and not 90/10? Simply put, any more than 80% may put too much pressure on the relationship.

Sloan Sheridan Williams, a life coach, and relationship expert, says, "Anything that encourages balance in a relationship is always a positive step forward. The key to a healthy relationship is to raise your standards and lower your expectations. Lowering your expectations for 20% of the relationship will create enough flexibility to allow a relationship to continue and grow."

How To Apply The 80/20 Rule To Relationships And Dating

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Many of us have fantasies of the "perfect" partner: we want them to be hardworking, intelligent, good-looking, romantic, and emotionally available, in addition to being our soul mate, best friend, and romantic partner, all rolled into one. However, this ideal is unrealistic and, ultimately, delusional. No person or relationship is perfect, and none can provide 100% of your happiness because none were designed to. A romantic relationship may be one bridge to the path of happiness, but it is not the only one.

Our unattainable physical, mental, and spiritual standards are something we cannot live up to ourselves, let alone another human being. And even if a person is as perfect as they can humanly be, there will always still be some dissatisfaction in the relationship simply because it is human nature to detect flaws in other people constantly.

This is why the 80/20 principle can apply remarkably well to dating and help us approach to love and people with a sense of balance. It aligns our expectations with reality. Rather than seeking the ideal relationship, using this rule gives us permission to embrace the imperfections of relationships and accept our partners as they are.

It emphasizes the importance of spending time by yourself, which is just as important as devoting time to a partner. Pursuing and engaging in independent activities that are fulfilling and enjoyable can work especially well in long-term relationships. Plenty of couples are so engrossed in spending time with each other that they forget how to be apart and lose sight of their unique dreams and goals.

Some people use that 20% of allocated personal time to be intimate with other people. Still, if an open relationship is ever to work, it needs to be discussed transparently and honestly. It requires a very high level of trust where agendas are agreed upon and boundaries are set.

The 80/20 principle is about remembering that the search for a perfect relationship will only feed perpetual unhappiness and discontent. We can be in a great relationship most of the time and let the odd irritations and annoyances slide. However, this does not mean settling for less than what we deserve. There is a clear distinction between being realistic and settling down with someone you know isn't right for you. A good relationship should enhance your life quality and make it better, even if there are obvious issues to work through.

What Is A 20% Relationship?

A 20% relationship is one where you are only satisfied for that amount of time. It could be for various reasons: the connection is only physical or sexual, it feels superficial, or you don't see a future with that person. You may even feel obligated to stay for nothing else except that you share a pet with that person. One study illuminated that couples are 10% more likely to stay with each other if they had just one material constraint.

Any relationship that compromises your core values is worth reconsidering as this can cause conflict and challenges later in the relationship. For example, if your partner does not place a high value on having a family, you do; that needs to be discussed with them before deciding that you are ready for children.

If there is any physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, this should not be tolerated, and the 80/20 rule would not apply here.

There are many grey areas in a relationship that you may be unsure of, and seeking the help of a licensed couples therapist will help you explore what is sustainable in a healthy relationship and what is not.

The Benefits Of 80/20 Dating

It keeps you realistic. The 80/20 dating principle goes against the impulse to bail if something doesn't fit your idea of perfection. Holding out for a picturesque relationship prevents you from growing and nurturing fulfilling relationships and keeps you in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction. After all, if you cannot be happy with 80% great, you certainly cannot happy with much else. Says Hannah Green, a psychotherapist, "Realistic expectations result in less stress, more self-esteem, and better relationships."

It keeps you grounded in gratitude. Remembering that no relationship is ideal reminds you of all the things that make the relationship so wonderful. It may even be wonderful because of its imperfections and quirks. When you cultivate a positive attitude and practice acceptance and gratitude for what you have, you can make the relationship even better than it is and increase its chances of surviving in the long term.

It is a reminder of our humanness. We can all be difficult at times. We cry, we lash out; we get scared-that is the human experience. Thinking about leaving the other person because they can be hard to deal with sometimes, even if you are mostly happy in the relationship, is probably not the best idea. The 80/20 dating rule serves as a reminder to embrace the bad and the ugly in the other person and yourself that will inevitably rear its head from time to time.

Want to Learn More About The Pareto Principle?
Speak With A Board-Certified Relationship Therapist Online Today.

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It helps you see the good in a relationship. It is easy to magnify everything that is "wrong" in a relationship. The key to the 80/20 dating rule is to treasure and see the good in your partner and the relationship most of the time, rather than getting stuck on the things that are less than ideal. After all, if you were not dealing with your partner's quirks and imperfections, you would most assuredly be dealing with somebody else's.

It forces you to look at your own issues. Many people expect nothing short of perfection when it comes to their ideal partners but do not use that measuring stick on themselves. We all have baggage we need to work through before pointing the finger at somebody else, and that begins by asking yourself hard and honest questions like: Am I meeting the standards that I have set for others? And am I projecting my negative thoughts and emotions on my partner?

It makes the heart grow fonder. Spending too much time with your partner can breed resentment and boredom and result in people feeling smothered. When two people are given space to be by themselves and do something that interests them outside of the relationship, it makes spending time together that much sweeter and more memorable.

One potential downside of the 80/20 dating rule is that some people enjoy that 20% time alone more than the 80% time spent together. However, all couples are different and need to make their own set of rules; some may find they want to increase their independence from each other, and others may want to reduce the amount of time they spend apart. Whatever the situation, communication is key to a healthy compromise.

The Takeaway

The 80/20 theory means embracing all aspects of your life as not the most perfect but still pretty wonderful. It means not wanting to trade your problems for another's but being grateful for all the goodness in your life. And when it comes to dating, it means knowing that it is completely normal not to feel 100% happy with your partner.

There is no real equation when it comes to love. Still, the 80/20 dating rule encourages us to focus on the positives in a relationship, work through problems instead of jumping ship, and model the kind of behavior we want to see in our partner. It means accepting the good, bad, and ugly that make up human relationships and realizing that none is ideal from the get-go; it takes hard work, commitment, and a whole lot of patience.

“Austa has been wonderful thus far. She has helped my partner and I during an unimaginably difficult time... She has also guided us in communicating effectively and setting appropriate boundaries in our relationship. I was hesitant to pursue counseling at the beginning, but I truly believe that it is making a difference for our relationship. Austa is easy to talk to and she is a great listener. I would wholeheartedly recommend her as a counselor.”

“Sessions with Natalie are very insightful and give practical advice on implementing new habits and changes. Be prepared to engage and be challenged to think in a different way. I know that my partner and I can already see improvements in our relationship and feel more positive about working through our issues together.”


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