How Do We Know Who We Want?

What we say we want, and who we're attracted to, don't always match.

Posted May 11, 2015

Source: Hnatyk/Shutterstock

I have confessed before that I secretly love watching reality TV about relationships. One of my favorites is “Married at First Sight” on the FYI network, which just started its second season. On the show, individuals who wanted to get married but were having trouble finding a suitable partner were matched with each other to be married. During the matching process, the potential spouses discuss with a group of experts what they are looking for in a partner, or what an ideal spouse would look like for them.

Afterward, they are matched with a spouse whom they meet for the first time at the altar. The couples then marry, go on a honeymoon, move in together, and have to live as husband and wife for six weeks. At the end of the six weeks, they decide whether or not they want to stay married.

When I blogged about this show several months ago, I focused on the theories that people carry into relationships about what makes them work. This time, I'd like to focus on a different aspect of attraction and relationships—our preferences for the traits that our ideal partners should possess.

In “Married at First Sight,” all of the potential participants meet with the show’s creators to discuss what they would like their ideal spouse to look like, what values they’d like the person to have, and what general characteristics they are looking for. Thinking about our ideal type of partner is something that most of us have done at some point in our lives. Poets Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye even have a fabulous piece about it (“When love arrives”), in which they claim that at different points in their lives they “knew exactly what love looked like,” before listing off traits that they wanted their partners to possess such as “love wore a hemp necklace,” or “love wore a French braid.”

Closer to home, who hasn’t thought about the looks, interests, or characteristics of their “dream” partner?

The questions then are whether the ideal preferences we all have rattling around in our heads actually translate into the types of partners we eventually choose—and whether choosing a partner who is similar to our ideal actually makes for a successful relationship.

With regard to whether we actually do choose partners based on our ideal preferences, the findings are somewhat mixed (Eastwick et al., 2013). Generally speaking, we do express greater romantic interest in potential romantic partners to the extent that they possess traits that we say we desire (Eastwick, Finkel, & Eagly, 2011). However, this occurs only when viewing the potential partner “on paper,” such as on an online dating website or a written profile. When we meet potential partners in person, our ideals don’t seem to matter as much. Specifically, the researchers found that when they brought participants face-to-face with potential partners in an actual dating situation, the traits that participants reported wanting in a partner no longer predicted who they would be interested in going on another date with (Eastwick et al., 2011).

The same researchers also found that the match between our ideal desired traits in a partner and a partner’s actual traits predicted people evaluating a current partner more positively. However, this ideal match did not predict people evaluating a potential partner who they had just met more positively (Eastwick et al., 2011). It seems that, when choosing our partners, our ideal mate preferences don’t always predict who we want to be with.

In contrast, in ongoing relationships, greater matching between our ideal preferences and our partner’s actual traits predicts both enhanced relationship satisfaction and a decreased risk of the relationship ending within the next month (see Campbell & Fletcher, 2015 for an overview of these findings). It seems that having a current partner who matches our ideals is a good thing for our relationships.

But even this association has its nuances. It turns out that what matters for relationship well-being is the overall correlation (or pattern of associations) between the traits that we desire and the traits our partner possesses. One-to-one matching—wherein we want a partner who is high on trait X and our partner is not high on trait X—does not predict relationship well-being or the risk of breakup/divorce (Eastwick & Neff, 2012). Thus, for the health of our relationships, how well our partner matches our overall pattern of preferences matters more than whether or not they possess any one particular trait.

As the new season of “Married at First Sight” progresses, it will be interesting to see how well the ideal preferences of the various individuals are matched within their chosen spouses. The research suggests that, at least while they get to know each other, ideal mate preferences may not matter so much for how much participants like their new spouse. However, as their relationships progress, the overall pattern of matching between their ideals and their spouse may have implications for whether those relationships survive.

Campbell, L., & Fletcher, G. J. (2015). Romantic Relationships, Ideal Standards, and Mate Selection. Current Opinion in Psychology.

Eastwick, P. W., Finkel, E. J., & Eagly, A. H. (2011). When and why do ideal partner preferences affect the process of initiating and maintaining romantic relationships?. Journal of personality and social psychology, 101(5),1012-1023.

Eastwick, P. W., Luchies, L. B., Finkel, E. J., & Hunt, L. L. (2013). The predictive validity of ideal partner preferences: A review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 140, 623-665

Eastwick, P. W., & Neff, L. A. (2012). Do ideal partner preferences predict divorce? A tale of two metrics. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(6), 667-674.