In an insightful chapter written back in 2008, University of Houston psychologists Raymond Knee and Amber Bush examined the wealth of scientific studies on the topic of “relationship initiation.” They were particularly interested in how people’s beliefs about what relationships “should” be like influence what attracts us to new partners in those early phases when we start to bond. In this model, relationship beliefs influence the meanings you assign to early interactions with a potential partner such as disagreements, rapport, and similarities or differences. The combined effect of these beliefs and these experiences will determine whether you think the relationship is worth entering into and ultimately how satisfied and intimate you become with this person.
In part, your relationship beliefs reflect the so-called “internal working models” that attachment theorists talk about, referring to how secure or insecure you feel about your closest partners (known as “attachment style”). A great deal of research exists in the literature showing how important your attachment style is to your ability to enter into healthy long-term relationships. However, much less is known about relationship ideals. As Knee and Bush point out, “General beliefs about what produces good, successful relationships are not necessarily the same qualities that one seeks in an ideal partner or relationship” (p. 476).
At this point, you might be saying, perhaps sarcastically, “Tell me about it!” Perhaps you’ve been involved in one too many relationships in which you fall for someone who meets your “ideal” type but who ultimately turns out to a relationship disaster. It’s important, then, to examine your preconceived notions of what constitutes an ideal relationship. Once you do, it’ll be easier for you to consciously set them aside when you evaluate the prospect of getting involved with a new partner. You might also find it easier to, as the song says “Love the one you’re with.”
Unlike relationship beliefs, which are simply your views on what a good relationship is like, a relationship ideal is highly specific, a virtual checklist of tendencies you expect a good relationship to have.
First, we’ll look at the 3 dimensions of ideal partners:
Warmth and trustworthiness:
How much warmth do you want to express to your closest relationship partner? Not everyone wants a partner who’s overly effusive and loving; some people prefer to keep the display of affection to a minimum. Our conventional views of close relationships are that they do involve physical affection, but not everyone is comfortable with a lot of kissing and hugging.
Most people do probably expect a close relationship to be one in which both partners are loyal to each other, meaning that they can trust each other. However, here again, some people don’t have trustworthiness as an important dimension of their relationship beliefs. They may prefer partners who show they care, but don’t have a high priority on exclusivity in their relationships.
In research that Knee and Bush review, it does seem that men and women both value high degrees of warmth and trustworthiness more than they do other dimensions of the ideal partner. Whether this is because there’s some inherent value in these qualities or because we’re socialized into seeing these as important to a good relationship is another matter, but at least in a relationship’s early phases, chances are that you desire high levels of both.
Vitality and attractiveness:
If you value vitality in your ideal partner, you place high priority on having a partner who’s healthy and active. You’ll be most drawn to a high-energy type who, while not perhaps an Olympic-level athlete, likes to exercise, be on the move, and able to “get physical.”
The dimension of attractiveness if perhaps self-evident, meaning that you seek partners who who look good. Since attractiveness is a relative concept, though, it’s may be that you aren’t necessarily just drawn to people who are at the top of the physical beauty scale. What’s important is that you care about your relationship partner looking attractive to you. That might mean someone who’s into high fashion and the latest hair or makeup trends, or a more earthy-crunchy type who’s clean and well-groomed, but doesn’t go overboard.
Vitality and attractiveness came second in the list of ideal qualities in a partner for both men and women. What’s interesting about these dimensions is that they are ones that may very well change over time, unlike warmth and trustworthiness. If you value a partner who’s healthy and active, what will you do if your partner develops a temporary or permanent disability? Similarly, people’s appearance changes over time, as does their tendency to put a lot of effort into how they look for their partner. If your ideal partner is the pinnacle of high fashion but, after a few years, he or she takes to relaxing in slouchy clothes around the house, this might be a hard transition for you to make.
Status and resources:
Do you crave having a partner who will help you climb to the top of a social ladder, or if you’re already there, do you feel that your ideal partner should be as high status as are you? On the other hand, do you feel uncomfortable around people who are higher on the social status in terms of prestige and influence? If so, your ideal partner will have humble origins and will presumably be satisfied with remaining this way rather than seeking the baubles of success.
Financial resources don’t always go with high status, as a person with a high school education who’s a successful entrepreneur can be far wealthier than a doctoral-level academic. If you want your ideal partner to be wealthy and don’t care about social status, then you’ll seek out those people who you think can provide you with a cushy lifestyle. It’s possible, on the other hand, that you feel that wealthy people are overly superficial and too preoccupied with the materials things in life. In this case, you’ll find your ideal partner to be one who’s happy living on enough means to be able to afford housing, shelter, and some things that money can buy, but not much more than that.
Among both men and women, status and resources are the least qualities in evaluating the ideal partner. People are most focused on the psychological characteristics of a potential mate than even their health or their wealth.
Now, we’ll examine the qualities people cite in an ideal relationship:
Intimacy and loyalty:
In a truly intimate relationship, the partners feel that they are emotionally close and that they can communicate openly and honestly. If you regard these as ideal qualities, you’ll be unhappy if in your relationships, a partner shuts down or avoids expressing feelings, good or bad. You’ll be alert for situations in which you question your partner’s intimacy, and start to become discouraged and dissatisfied when the relationship deviates from this path. On the other hand, if intimacy isn’t all that important to you, then you’ll feel uncomfortable in such close relationship, perhaps leaving as soon as you feel that you’re suffocating.
Wanting loyalty in a relationship means that you expect a good relationship to be one in which partners are faithful to each other. You expect to be loyal, and you hold the same expectations of your partner. If you want a loyal partner, you’ll reject a potential mate who’s ever cheated on someone in the past, even if it wasn’t you. If you want your relationship to be high in loyalty, your partner’s past won’t matter as much as whether he or she is cheating on you now. On the other hand, if your model of the ideal relationship isn’t prefaced on monogamy, then you won’t be overly distressed if your partner strays every now and again.
In a relationship characterized by high levels of passion, the partners sweep each other off their feet on a regular basis. Having passion as an ideal for your own relationship means that you expect plenty of heat in your interactions with your partner. If you and your partner aren’t constantly swooning over each other, you’ll feel that something’s going very wrong, and you’ll wonder why. Eventually you’ll seek to end the relationship because you’ll feel it’s gone dead.
Conversely, some people prefer the relatively coolness of a relationship characterized by a high degree of companionship. Rather than seek to spend your time together in lovemaking, you feel closer to your partner when you’re engaged in joint tasks such as taking care of children or doing household chores. You may feel that when things get too emotional this causes trouble, and so calm and controlled seems safer and ultimately more fulfilling.
As with vitality and attractiveness, the element of passion is one very likely to change over the course of a relationship. Many happy couples do seem to move from passion to companionship over the course of time and feel that they’re gaining, not losing, in intimacy. However, if you’re holding onto the ideal of passion that we see in media depictions of close relationships, this can lead you to become dissatisfied even though your relationship is in many ways highly functional and rewarding.
According to research cited by Knee and Bush, people’s ideals do affect the way they evaluate relationships. At the beginning of a new relationship, you’re more likely to evaluate whether your partner fits your ideal criteria, and as time goes on, you’ll hold it up to the light of your ideals for a good relationship. In either case, your ideals will guide which attributes of your partner or the relationship you consider relevant. Ultimately, your ideals will also determine the meanings you give to who your partner is and how the two of you relate.
By identifying your own partner and relationship ideals, you can become sensitized to your own values and standards. Perhaps more importantly, you can come to understand your own prejudices and stereotypes about what a partner and relationship “should” be. As you gain this understanding, you can become better able to evaluate the potential of someone new and accept the reality of the person you’re with for the long haul.
Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Knee, C. R., & Bush, A. L. (2008). Relationship beliefs and their role in romantic relationship initiation. In S. Sprecher, A. Wenzel & J. Harvey (Eds.), Handbook of relationship initiation. (pp. 471-485). New York, NY US: Psychology Press.