Our choice of a long-term romantic partner or mate is one of the most important decisions we make in our lifetimes. Yet sometimes it seems a mystery why we choose who we do.
People who on paper should give us everything we want may leave us feeling flat. Yet someone who seems wildly inappropriate or unlike anyone we think we would want may spark intense fireworks.
One prominent view of mate selection, based in evolutionary psychology, is that we are genetically wired to choose partners who will give us the best opportunity to propagate and pass on our genes.
In this view, males tend to seek women who show signs of good fertility, to maximize the chances of healthy offspring. Thus men instinctively look for women who display youth and physical attractiveness.
One sign of this is a much-researched preference of men in Western cultures to prefer women with a waist-hip ratio as close as possible to .7 — that is, a waist size 70 percent the size of hips. This “hourglass figure” ratio can be present on a woman of any size and can be a measure of fertility and health.
Females, evolutionary psychology posits, seek mates who can provide resources to maximize the chances that children will grow up with the most advantages. Thus women instinctively seek men who display intelligence, competence and ambition or who possess wealth or power.
Women also seem drawn to physical strength, possibly as an evolutionary indicator of the ability to protect them and their offspring. Thus women tend to be attracted to men with broader shoulders and a waist-hip ratio as close as possible to .9.
But what about mate preference at different ages, in various cultures, of different sexual orientations, or among people who are not seeking to have children with a mate? The research varies, though some evolutionary psychologists would argue that this drive is hard-wired in all of us.
Others suggest that a sort of “exchange theory” drives mate selection. In this view, we evaluate a mix of factors to size up a potential mate with an eye to getting a good “deal” based on our values and aspirations.
Another theory is that we seek mates who will make us feel better about ourselves and improve how we are seen by others.
Still others, such as Imago therapist Harville Hendrix, suggest that we may be drawn at least unconsciously to a potential mate that reminds us of one or both of our parents or chief caregivers. We may pick people like a parent because it is familiar. However, if parents showed love poorly or inconsistently, we may be drawn to people who are not good for us.
Another take on this view is that we are unconsciously drawn to work things out that didn’t work so well in childhood, hoping for a different outcome that allows us to heal our pasts.
Regardless of the theory, research has shown several consistent factors in mate selection.
- We tend to pick people close to our self-assessment of our own attractiveness and desirability
- We value people who are similar to us
- We value physical attractiveness and status
- We value people who live or work close by
- Women tend to have higher standards than men
- Men tend to prefer women of their own age down to five years younger, while women tend to prefer men of their own age up to five years older.
- We especially value the following characteristics in potential mates:
1) Warmth and kindness
3) Intellectual openness
8) Likeliness of being a good parent
9) Emotional stability
Of course these are tendencies based on research with large groups and don’t necessarily match any one individual’s preferences.
Mate selection can also be influenced by supply and demand. In locations with a significant disparity in number of available mates of one’s desired gender, partner selection can become either far more selective or lead people to settle for a less desirable partner than they had hoped.
Individual circumstances, goals and psychology also influence timing and choice of mates. For example, we may feel lonely and desperate, influenced by peer or family pressure to find a mate or in a hurry due to a “biological clock.”
While biology, economics and psychology all may influence our choices with or without our awareness, in most cultures in the 21st century we have greater choice of mates than during most of history. Thus, many people seeking mates today have the opportunity to choose with awareness, thus increasing the chances of finding a good partner.
One way of doing this is to tally what you do and don’t want in your primary partner.
The 10 characteristics listed above that people prefer is a good place to start. Evolutionary psychology researcher David Buss developed a checklist to rank factors in potential partner selection. Others have created “Must have/Can’t stand” or “Soul mate” lists.
You can develop a list of your own using a body of knowledge you likely already possess — your experience of past relationships and friendships. To do this, think about significant relationships to date and tally those qualities and traits you have least liked and most appreciated.
I suggest that in addition to thinking about preferences such as age, looks, status and shared interests, you pay special attention to a person’s character, as this does not tend to change over a lifetime.
Here is a sample “Red Flag/Green Light” list based on character traits. You can adapt this in accordance with your unique values:
Possible Red Flag/Green Light Qualities in Partners
- Critical vs. Supportive
- Undependable vs. Reliable
- Self-absorbed vs. Attentive
- Abusive vs. Loving
- Intolerant vs. Accepting
- Unfaithful vs. Loyal
- Demanding vs. Tolerant
- Lacking empathy vs. Good listener
- Disrespectful vs. Considerate
- Refuses to take responsibility vs. Self-aware and responsible
- Possessive vs. Respectful
- Controlling vs. Cooperative
- Dishonest vs. Trustworthy
- Uncommunicative vs. Transparent and communicative
- Cold or harsh vs. Warm and kind
- Rigid or closed-minded vs. Open to learning, growth and new experiences
- Unable to laugh or experience joy vs. Playful and creative
In addition, similar styles of communication, sexual compatibility, similar desires regarding parenting, and similar preferences for amount of intimacy and closeness all can strengthen a long-term relationship.
Furthermore, how you feel around a potential mate tells you a lot. If you feel you are walking on eggshells as opposed to feeling you can just be yourself, pay attention.
And needless to say, picking someone who is emotionally available and unencumbered will avoid a lot of heartache when seeking a mate.
Of course, few people or relationships possess all these qualities so you may wish to prioritize the most important qualities to avoid and seek and keep those front and center in your search.