What We Need Most From a Relationship
Research finds that what matters most may not be what we expect at the start.
Posted Mar 25, 2015
When you think about your ideal romantic partner, it’s not hard to generate a list of traits that describes that dream man or woman—funny, kind, understanding, attractive…
Presumably, the closer your partner is to those ideals, the happier you’ll be. And in fact, research supports this common-sense conclusion.1,2,3 But not all ideals are created equal: Partners who meet your ideals on certain types of traits are more likely to make you happy.
Take a look at your own “ideal partner” list. You’ll probably notice that you can group those traits into two broad categories:
- Warmth/loyalty—kind, trustworthy, supportive, mature, and understanding.
- Vitality/status/passion—physically attractive, successful, exciting, interesting, funny, and outgoing.3
But the traits on the warmth/loyalty dimension are likely to be more important for relationship satisfaction because they are intrinsically valuable to relationships.4
When it comes to our goals in life, some aspirations are extrinsic and others, intrinsic.
- Extrinsic goals are those that depend on how other people react to you—such as financial success or making a good impression on others—and can be seen more as a means to an end.
- Intrinsic goals are about directly satisfying your own basic psychological needs, and are thus rewarding unto themselves.5 So kind and understanding partners are better at relationships, making those traits more intrinsically valuable in that context.
Traits in the vitality/status/passion category are often high on people’s lists of desired traits in a partner, but they don’t make people better at the day-to-day behaviors that make relationships successful. That is, those vitality/status/passion traits are more extrinsically, rather than intrinsically, valuable for our relationships.
So, does it matter which type of ideal traits your partner lives up to?
In a recent study, 195 undergraduate students, all currently involved in romantic relationships, completed a survey about their relationship satisfaction, their ideal standards, and the extent to which their partner met those ideals. The researchers assessed that ideal match in two ways: First, they directly asked participants to rate how much their partner met their ideals on a series of traits. Second, the researchers assessed this more indirectly, by having participants rate how important each trait was in their ideal partner and then separately rating how much each of those traits described their current partner.4
The results showed that having a partner who met their intrinsic ideals (warmth/loyalty) was associated with greater relationship quality than having a partner who met extrinsic ideals (vitality/status/passion)—and that intrinsic ideal match was just as important when extrinsic ideals weren’t met as when they were.
This means that it isn’t the case that a partner who meets your ideals on warmth and loyalty “makes up for” being less than ideal on extrinsic qualities—Instead, it means that whether or not a partner meets your extrinsic ideals is totally unrelated to your satisfaction if your intrinsic ideals are met.
But when partners were not meeting intrinsic ideals, then extrinsic ideals became more important. So these more superficial traits do matter when you don’t have deeper, more intrinsically valuable traits in a partner. But a partner who is perfect for you in terms of attractiveness, adventurousness, and financial success still won’t make up for falling short of your ideals for warmth and loyalty. And if your partner is perfectly kind, understanding, and supportive, their imperfections on extrinsic traits won’t affect your happiness.
The researchers also found that people who claimed that extrinsic qualities were especially important to them were less likely to feel that their partners were helping them meet their own personal needs for independence, competence, and connection to others. These results suggest that not only is having a partner who meets extrinsic ideals of little or no benefit to your relationship satisfaction, but seeking out these traits in a partner is likely to lead you to less fulfilling relationships.
The authors of the study acknowledge that their results are limited due to the young age of their participants and the fact that they only surveyed them once. But these results have important implications for what we should be seeking in romantic partners, and how we view our own value as a mate.
It may not be possible to be the “perfect” partner, but it’s easier to strive toward perfection on interpersonal traits than it is to achieve wealth, status, beauty, and a desire for adventure. So you can become a better partner when it comes to the traits that matter most in a relationship. And if you're seeking love, as long as someone meets your standards on extrinsic traits, you’ll be happier if you focus on finding someone who meets your ideals of kindness and understanding than if you focus on extrinsic ideals.
1 Campbell, L. J., Simpson, J. A., Kashy, D. A., & Fletcher, G. L. (2001). Ideal standards, the self, and flexibility of ideals in close relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 447–462.
2 Fletcher, G. J. O., Simpson, J. A., & Thomas, G. (2000). Ideals, perceptions, and evaluations in early relationship development. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 933–940.
3 Fletcher, G. J. O., Simpson, J. A., Thomas, G., & Giles, L. (1999). Ideals in intimate relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 72–89.
4 Rodriguez, L. M. Hadden, B. W., & Knee, C. R. (2015). Not all ideals are equal: Intrinsic and extrinsic ideals in relationships. Personal Relationships, published online before print. doi: 10.1111/pere.12068
5 Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (1996). Further examining the American dream: Differential correlates of intrinsic and extrinsic goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 280–287.
Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College, who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior. Read more more articles by Dr. Seidman on Close Encounters.