Choosing a romantic partner is a tricky business as no clear criteria exist for making such a choice. One common criterion is to aim high: Do not settle for less than the best. This is a questionable tenet that often mistakenly leads to confusing the best person with the most suitable partner.
A good person and a suitable partner
“If you look for perfection, you'll never be content.” Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Paying attention to a person's individual qualities is necessary and valuable in a romantic search, but it is not sufficient for finding an optimal partner. There are many cases of people who consider someone to possess all the qualities they admire, but with whom they are not in love. Likewise, we would not usually criticize someone who loves her partner profoundly just because we think she could find a person with better qualities. When we focus merely on the other’s individual qualities, we risk overlooking the aspect as to whether this person is suitable for establishing a profound romantic connection with us.
The importance of the connection is manifested in the desire to be with each other. Here, the other is evaluated not merely as a person with various good qualities, but mostly as a partner with whom a flourishing connection can be established. Profound love includes shared experiences and joint interactions in which the partners feel they are personally flourishing within their thriving relationship.
The drawbacks of having a superior person
“You can't hurry love. No, you just have to wait. You got to trust, give it time. No matter how long it takes.” Diana Ross (and Phil Collins)
Focusing the search for a romantic partner on the person’s isolated qualities runs the risk of choosing a person who may seem to have superior qualities but is less appropriate as a partner. People who consider themselves superior to others are very likely to believe that they are entitled to invest less in enhancing the romantic connection and that they deserve a privileged status in the relationship; accordingly, they are not likely to be good partners.
Consider the following example. When I once walked (with my family) in Amsterdam’s Red Light District, I noticed that one average-looking woman was attracting more customers than her extremely beautiful neighbor. I explain this in light of the suitability and deservingness aspects. The beautiful woman, like other handsome people, thinks that she deserves more from people who are around her. Hence, she is likely to invest less effort in a relationship, believing that her partner should compensate her for being with an inferior person. The men in Amsterdam chose the less attractive woman as they assumed that she would invest more effort in pleasing them.
In the same vein, it has been said that Marilyn Monroe once complained to a friend that President John F. Kennedy’s love-making was always very brief and hurried. The friend replied that since he had to run the country, he probably had no time for foreplay. Powerful men like Kennedy might not invest much effort in love-making because they think they deserve good treatment without giving much back. Kennedy was not a good romantic partner, so we are told, as reciprocity was never on his mind during love-making.
Another relevant study emphasizing the relative status of each partner indicates that unequal status may encourage extramarital affairs (Prins et al., 1993). This is the case for both the “superior” person, who feels that she could do better, and for the “inferior” one, who feels indignant at being unappreciated by the partner. Involvement in extramarital relationships is more likely for these “superior” and “inferior” people than for those who are considered equal to their partner. The superior person may perceive extramarital relationships as something she deserves because she is getting “less” than she would in other circumstances. The inferior person tends to be involved in extramarital relationships in order to (a) escape the unpleasant state of inequity and (b) prove to herself and to her partner that she actually is equal to the partner and is regarded as attractive and desirable by other possible partners (Prins et al., 1993). Furthermore, research indicates that feeling superior or inferior to one’s partner is associated with less commitment, less satisfaction, and less love for the partner. The willingness to sacrifice for the partner is lower when reciprocity is absent (Impett & Gordon, 2008).
The same considerations are illustrated in the following story that Robert Frank (2006) recounted about a woman who asked her colleague the following question: “Why is it that the people I fall in love with are never interested in me, whereas the ones who do fall in love with me are never the ones I care about?” Her colleague replied: “You’re an 8 constantly chasing after 10s, and constantly being chased by 6s.” Someone who is evaluated as “a 10” is superior overall to a person evaluated as “an 8,” and if they are in a romantic relationship, the 10 will enjoy higher status.
One night with you: Fleeting glory and lasting satisfaction
“One night with you, Is what I'm now praying for, The things that we two could plan, Would make my dreams come true.” Elvis Presley
The tendency to aim very high, regardless of more mundane considerations concerning the quality of the ongoing connection, is compatible with the tendency to prefer brief intense encounters over lasting satisfaction. Indeed, if a single night will enable your dreams to come true, why bother with profound qualities essential for satisfaction through many days and nights? The saying “See Naples and die” carries a similar meaning: It is so fulfilling to see the beauty and magnificence of Naples that once you have done so, you have experienced everything that is really important in life. Similarly, in the movie, The Hours, the character of Virginia Woolf says, "A woman's whole life in a single day. Just one day. And in that day her whole life." There are indeed circumstances—e.g., the day that the two lovers first met—in which one day makes the whole difference. But romantic relationships are not based upon merely one night; they are about the ongoing development of the couple’s flourishing. Sometimes, a one-off or short-term experience may compensate for a long period of suffering, but our main concern should be how to promote the continual enjoyment and thriving of our everyday life.
Compromise is an ugly term in the romantic realm, but it is usually worth compromising on a few isolated qualities in order to find a more suitable partner. The need to make romantic compromises is considerably reduced in these circumstances, as the focus is not on the partner’s inferiority compared to other people, but on his contribution to your togetherness. We can love someone who is "objectively" not the most handsome or the wisest person in the world, but whose connection with us is profound and fulfilling (Ben-Ze’ev, 2011).
"I feel so miserable without you; it's almost like having you here." Stephen Bishop
The significant aspect in romantic relationships is not the person’s individual qualities as such, but the person’s functioning as a partner. Accordingly, the suitable partner might not be the perfect person about whom we are dreaming; rather, it is likely to be someone who is compatible and resonates with you and who is ready to invest a lot in developing the romantic connection. Hence, the most suitable partner, for life or sex, is not the most handsome, rich, or famous person (as Kennedy was), but is the one who is most compatible with you and is more likely to develop your personal and shared flourishing.
Frank, R. H. (2006). When it comes to a search for a spouse, supply and demand is only the start, New York Times, 21/12/2006.
Impett, E. A., & Gordon, A. (2008). For the good of others: Toward a positive psychology of sacrifice. In S. J. Lopez (Ed.), Positive psychology: Exploring the best in people (pp. 79–100). Greenwood.
Prins, K. S., Buunk, B. P. & Van Yperen, N. W. (1993). Equity, normative disapproval and extramarital relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 10, 39-53.