How We Choose Romantic Partners, and How We Can Do It Better
We have 3 common approaches, but 2 are fatally flawed.
Posted Jul 24, 2014
Detecting negative qualities is more valuable
"Some people think having large breasts makes a woman stupid. Actually, it's quite the opposite: a woman having large breasts makes men stupid."—Rita Rudner
The greater power of negative events over positive ones, also known as “the negative bias,” is found in all major realms of life, including close relationships. Negative emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good. Accordingly, we are more motivated to avoid bad events than to pursue good ones (Baumeister et al., 2001).
Detecting negative events has greater evolutionary value, since failing to do so is more significant than failing to notice positive events: In the first case, we may be killed, while in the second case we may merely miss an opportunity to improve our situation. Accordingly, negative emotions are more differentiated than positive emotions—we have more words to describe negative emotional experiences than positive ones. Similarly, the amount and duration of rumination elicited by negative events are usually far greater. It is no wonder that people tend to recall negative experiences more readily than positive ones (Baumeister et al., 2001).
Detecting Negative Qualities in the Romantic Realm
Why did Adam and Eve have a perfect marriage? He didn't have to hear about all the men she could have married, and she didn't have to hear about the way his mother cooked.—Unknown
Is detecting negative qualities more important in the romantic realm as well? It seems to be. Negative qualities can kill a relationship—and in extreme cases, can actually kill a partner. On the other hand, people may get accustomed to the lack of positive qualities. While the negativity bias is a universal phenomenon often explained in evolutionary terms of survival, in the realm of finding a romantic partner, the bias is stronger among women—a bad partner can prove more harmful to a woman than to a man (Saad & Gill, 2014).
As no one is perfect, it may often be easier to detect a negative quality in someone else than a positive one. But if we reject all those who have some flaws, we might remain single for the rest of our life or end up marrying a person who has fewer positive qualities than someone we met at the beginning of our search. A search for negative qualities can lead us to miss positive qualities. Even if the negative bias exists, we should be careful not to ignore positive qualities, even if we accord them lower weight.
Let's examine the role of the negative bias in three common methods of searching for a romantic partner:
1. Checking Your List
George: Beautiful women are invisible.
David: Invisible? What the hell does that mean? Invisible? They jump out at you. A beautiful woman, she stands out. She stands apart. You can't miss her.
George: But we never actually see the person. We see the beautiful shell. We're blocked by the beauty barrier. Yeah, we're so dazzled by the outside that we never make it inside.—from the movie, Elegy
Establishing a checklist of desired qualities for a partner is a common practice, but it has two major flaws: It typically does not involve an evaluative hierarchy which would give each negative or positive quality a different weight; and it does not give significant weight to the connection between the two.
Our list of desired qualities is often quite long, and we may merely check the presence or absence of each—a simplistic, mechanistic method that pays no attention to the relative significance and extent of each quality. You may give height the same significance as kindness. Further, there are greater and lesser degrees of height and kindness, which is not expressed when ticking off mere presence or absence. The checklist’s attitude reduces the prospective partner to be a very simplistic machine with no internal hierarchy. It is obvious that an unattractive (in the subject's view) hair color cannot be given the same weight as being unkind. Putting all the qualities randomly in the same basket considerably decreases the value of such a romantic search.
Another problem with the checklist search concerns the optimal ratio between the positive and negative qualities. In her excellent book, Marry Him, The case for settling for Mr. Good Enough, Lori Gottlieb (2010) cites many single women as saying that even if 80 percent of the desired qualities are present—namely, 1 negative quality for 4 positive qualities—that is not sufficient for choosing this person as their partner. Surprisingly, various studies done by John Gottman (1994) show that this evaluation is basically realistic. Gottman has proposed that in order for a relationship to succeed, positive and good interactions must outnumber the negative and bad ones by at least five to one. If the ratio falls below that, the relationship is likely to fail and breakup (Baumeister et al., 2001). This high ratio expresses the mentality of “Take my way, or take the highway.”
In this regard Gerd Gigerenzer (2007) criticizes Benjamin Franklin's advice about finding a suitable partner. Franklin suggested to his nephew that in important life decisions, like finding a wife, he should proceed like a bookkeeper—list all the pros and cons and then decide, after weighing up everything for two or three days. Gigerenzer showed that computer-based versions of Franklin’s rational bookkeeping method—a program that weighed up 18 different cues—proved less accurate than following the rule of thumb of “get one good reason and ignore the rest of the information.”
The second major flaw of the checklist search for the perfect partner is that such a search typically focuses upon the features of a perfect person. Hence, it fails to take account of the connection between the would-be couple.
In Graeme Simsion's novel, The Rosie Project (2013), Don Tillman, a university professor looking for a wife, prepares a detailed list of the characteristics he desires in the perfect woman, such as intelligence, a good cook, always being on time, a non-smoker, a non-drinker, with a high level of fitness. He rules out many women till he meets Rosie, a bartender who smokes, drinks, and does not meet most of his criteria. Together they search for Rosie's biological father and in the process Don falls in love with Rosie. It is not her individual characteristics that generate his love. It is the harmony he feels with her that has made all the difference. Hence, perfect harmony is not a precondition for love, although love may assist in increasing harmony. Thus, we would not usually criticize a man who profoundly loves a certain woman just because we think he could have done better.
The nature of the connection between the two lovers is crucial for the continuation of the relationship and for its high quality. This cannot be computed simply by mechanistically detecting separate negative and positive qualities.
2. Detecting Major Flaws
"The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook."—William James
In comparison with the checklist method, the method of detecting major flaws is more sophisticated and realistic. It assumes the presence of flaws in each of us, and hence it focuses merely on major flaws. There is also the assumption here that whereas one can learn to live with minor flaws, major flaws pose a substantial danger to a profound long-term loving relationship.
Lori Gottlieb (2010) tells the story of Madathil, an Indian-born researcher in the USA, whose parents arranged her marriage. When she met her prospective husband, there was no spark. Although Madathil could have met as many men as she wanted until she found the right match, she nevertheless decided to marry him. Her reason was that “there was nothing wrong with him.” Now they are totally in love with each other.
Madathil’s search is also focused on detecting negative qualities, but she has a hierarchy of values that excludes a mechanistic count of merely the number of negative qualities. The search here intends to determine whether the person is “harmless” and this becomes a significant reason for giving the person further chance.
When using this method of searching for a partner, it is not that external appearance has no importance; rather, it is not the most important quality in a long-term relationship. Thus, Madathil said: “Physical appearances matter—I thought, yeah, he looks cute. But he didn’t have to be gorgeous” (Gottlieb, 2010: 245-8). Indeed, McNulty and colleagues (2008) found that in contrast to the almost universally positive effects of increased levels of attractiveness on new relationships, there is hardly any significant association between levels of attractiveness and the subsequent quality of the marriages.
Focusing upon the major flaws seems to be a wise decision, but it involves a more complex search, since detecting profound qualities, such as kindness, is more difficult that detecting superficial qualities, such as external appearance. Detecting profound negative qualities sometimes requires a longer acquaintance. One-night stands, or for that matter even one-week stands, are often of little or even negative value in detecting major bad qualities.
There is no doubt that detecting incompatibility in the spirit of “there is nothing wrong with him” is valuable, but it seems insufficient in many cases.
3. Bringing out the Best in You
“You've got to accentuate the positive/Eliminate the negative/And latch on to the affirmative/Don't mess with Mister In-Between.”—Johnny Mercer
I have indicated that detecting negative qualities is more valuable than detecting positive qualities, but this does not mean that detecting positive qualities is of no value at all. In determining the loving connection between the two, profound positive qualities are of great significance, especially for the long term. A positive quality that is particularly valuable for maintaining and enhancing the connection is if the prospective partners are likely to bring out the best in each other.
Research has demonstrated that when a close romantic partner views you and behaves toward you in a manner that is congruent with your ideal self, you move nearer toward your ideal self. This has been termed the "Michelangelo phenomenon." Just as Michelangelo released the ideal form hidden in the marble, our romantic partners serve to "sculpt" us in light of our ideal self. Close partners sculpt one another in a manner that brings each individual closer to his or her ideal self, thus bringing out the best in each partner. In such relationships, personal growth and flourishing is evident and is typically demonstrated in claims such as: “I'm a better person when I am with her” (Drigotas 2002).
Detecting profound positive qualities that are valuable for the long-term relationship is complex, in part because they are more clearly revealed through shared activities that take place over time. Since at the beginning of a relationship, we do not have all the relevant information concerning these profound positive qualities, trying to predict the partner’s future behavior by calculating the qualities in the checklist method is ineffective. Instead we may have to do what experts do: use rules of thumb (heuristics, common sense rules) that increase the probability of solving problems without deliberate thinking, which cannot be used when we lack relevant information. Unlike deliberate thinking, which examines all the pros and cons of each alternative, Gerd Gigerenzer (2007) claims that a rule of thumb “tries to hit on the most important information and ignores the rest.” One such rule of thumb is “get one good reason and ignore the rest of the information.”
Here the decision is made by assuming a hierarchy of values and focusing on the significant ones, whether it is a positive or a negative quality. If you realize that your prospective partner is likely to bring out the best in you, you have a very good reason to choose this person as your life companion.
Many prevailing methods of choosing a romantic partner aim first to detect negative qualities: The checklist method focuses on superficial negative qualities, while seeking to identify major flaws offers more profound results. A third approach, discerning whether a partner will bring out the best in you, focuses on your interactions and helps predict significant positive traits in the relationship. Today, the greatest weight is commonly given to the first method, then to second and the third. The order should be reversed, without neglecting any information gained in each method.
Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323–370.
Drigotas, S.M. (2002). The Michelangelo phenomenon and personal well-being. Journal of Personality, 70, 59–77.
Gottlieb, L. (2010). Marry Him, The case for settling for Mr. Good Enough. New York: New American Library.
McNulty, J. K., Neff, L. A., Karney, B. R. (2008). Beyond initial attraction: Physical attractiveness in newlywed marriage. Journal of Family Psychology, 22, 135-143.
Saad, G. & Gill, T. (2014). The framing effect when evaluating prospective mates: an adaptationist perspective. Evolution and Human Behavior, 35, 184–192.
Simsion, G. (2013). The Rosie project. New York: Simon & Schuster.