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Do Relationship Standards Change Once You Meet Someone?

New research explores differences between ideal and actual partner perceptions.

Source: Wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

All of us have traits that we're seeking in an ideal romantic partner. And research shows that several traits are universally desirable, such as warmth and physical attractiveness. But do our partners tend to match up with those ideals, and do our ideals or our opinions of partners change over time? A new study by researchers in the Czech Republic examines the extent to which people's romantic partners match up to their ideal standards, and how this matching might differ for new versus established couples.

If over time there is a closer match between our ideal romantic partner and the person we're with, that suggests two possibilities:

1. We might enter a relationship thinking that certain traits are important, but ultimately change our mind once we come to love someone who doesn't fit those ideals. For example, imagine a woman who thinks that a man's looks are especially important, but ultimately finds herself falling for an average-looking guy. She might decide that looks are not as important as she thought they were.

2. Another possibility is that we might change how we view our partners, so that they meet our ideals. So perhaps that woman meets a man she believes is less attractive than her ideal. But ultimately, as she falls for him, she starts to see him as more attractive than she did before.

In the new study, researchers surveyed 408 adults from English-speaking countries (mostly the U.S., but also Canada and the UK) and asked them to rate the extent to which various traits described their ideal romantic partner and their current partner. People who were single at the time of the survey were contacted again six months later and asked to rate their current partner, if they had entered a new relationship since the first survey. This gave the researchers 285 continually coupled individuals, 90 newly coupled, and 33 singles.

The participants rated their current and ideal romantic partners on four different trait categories:

  • Warmth/trustworthiness: Empathic, kind, good sense of humor, honest
  • Status/resources: Ambitious, professionally successful, well-educated
  • Vitality: Physically strong, physically able to protect me, able to take charge of a group
  • Physical attractiveness: Physically attractive, sexually appealing

First, the researchers examined differences between how participants rated their current partners and how important they felt those same qualities were in their ideal partner. Overall, continually coupled participants had a closer match between their ideal standards and their actual partners than the new couples. But was this because people changed their ideals, or because they changed how they saw their partners? The researchers found no differences in actual partner ratings between the established and the new couples, suggesting that how they viewed their partners did not change over time. However, when it came to ideals, the continually coupled participants had lower standards. Interestingly, among established couples, the length of their relationships was unrelated to either their actual or ideal partner ratings, suggesting that these adjustments to ideals take place very early in the relationship.

The authors raise the possibility that there was a closer match between ideal and actual partners among those in established relationships, because the continually coupled participants rated their actual and ideal partner in the same survey, while newly coupled individuals rated their actual and ideal partner six months apart. The researchers contend that this was not a serious issue, since the actual partner ratings were similar for the established and new couples. However, it is still possible that rating their partners and ideals in the same survey caused them to change their ideals, as they realized during the survey that there was a discrepancy and tried to minimize it. Even if that is the case, it still suggests that people are willing to move their ideal standards around in order to make them more consistent with how they see their partner.

Another interesting finding was that both types of couples tended to perceive their partners as falling short of their warmth/trustworthiness ideals. This could spell trouble, since other research has shown that having a partner who meets these ideals is especially important for relationship satisfaction. However, of all four ideal categories, warmth/trustworthiness was the highest rated, so it might be that there is almost no limit to how warm people want their partners to be, making it more likely that partners will fall short of such high standards. (The established couples actually rated warmth/trustworthiness as less important than the new couples, reflecting a change in standards.) Vitality was rated as the least important of the four ideals and the continually coupled participants actually rated their partners as exceeding their ideals in this area.

Our ideal standards seem to change, and this is likely part of the general tendency to see our romantic partners through rose-colored glasses. What's not clear from this research is why people change their ideals. Do they realize that the things they once thought were important are not as important as they seemed? Or are they merely convincing themselves that they don't care about those ideals as much as they thought they did and emphasizing other qualities in order to justify being with their current partner? Perhaps it's a bit of both.