- Dealbreakers play an important, if under-appreciated, role in romantic interest.
- Research suggests seven primary dealbreakers that focus on personality and behaviors.
- "Filthy" partners are especially undesirable.
- A dealbreaker's importance can vary depending on whether a relationship is short-term or long-term.
What do you look for when looking for love? Someone who's funny, intelligent, attractive? As much as we might be able to list the specific characteristics that we desire in a wished-for partner, there's an equally interesting list, one that people talk about less frequently. What traits do you not want in a partner?
Relationship "no-gos" play a role in partner decisions
If you think about it, you probably have some critical "no-gos" for dating. Just like our "must-have" lists for partner preferences, our "must-not-have" lists include specific traits or behaviors that we use to guide our partnering decisions. Do you approach that stranger at the bar? Not if they [fill in the blank]. Whether we acknowledge these turn-offs or not, they are likely lingering in our minds as we evaluate potential partners.
Relationship researchers are now learning more about these dealbreakers, recognizing the importance of studying the strong turn-offs that repel people from otherwise desirable partners. Early work in this area identified an array of unattractive qualities that, at least hypothetically, end a relationship before it begins. These included health-related qualities (e.g., having an STD, poor hygiene), unattractive personality traits (e.g., anger issues, being untrustworthy), being "bad in bed" — especially for short-term relationships — and already having another partner (e.g., being married; Jonason et al., 2015). Do these dealbreakers ring true to you?
Turning the field's attention to dealbreakers was a critical contribution of this early work (Jonason et al., 2015). In addition, their findings suggested that dealbreakers may be more impactful on dating decisions than preferences. In other words, what we don't want may matter more than what we do want.
New research zeroes in on the top seven dealbreakers
Building on Jonason and colleague's (2015) work, new research dives further into the question of what people don't want in a relationship. In a rigorous set of four empirical studies, Csajbók and Berkics (2022) collected and analyzed undesired partner traits and then evaluated how they contribute, alongside desired partner traits, to romantic interest. Their work established the presence of seven dimensions of dealbreakers that people avoid when seeking new partners (Csajbók & Berkics, 2022).
- Unambitious. Looking for love? Indecisive, purposeless potential partners need not apply. For most people, an unambitious partner is an undesirable partner, particularly in long-term contexts. Indeed, for casual affairs, people care much less about ambition and it may not factor into short-term relationship decision making.
- Hostile. Being wicked, unfriendly, grumpy, or malicious is unlikely a successful tactic for securing a partner. People perceive hostility as highly undesirable... less undesirable than filthy partners, but more undesirable than unambitious partners.
- Filthy. People don't want dirty, messy, bad-smelling partners. For both men and women, this factor was the strongest turn-off both within short-term relationships and long-term relationships.
- Arrogant. When looking for a partner, best to leave your ego at the door. People are not interested in dating arrogant others, although men might be less concerned about arrogance in their long-term or short-term partners relative to women.
- Clingy. Overly dependent partners are a turn-off, but it seems this trait is not as problematic as some of the other primary dealbreakers. People find it undesirable, but rate other dealbreakers as more problematic; clingy is more of an issue in short-term than long-term contexts.
- Unattractive. It makes sense that if people want attractive partners, they probably don't want unattractive partners. The unattractiveness of a potential partner appears strongly influential in men's long-term and short-term relationship decisions. For women, unattractiveness was especially problematic in short-term relationships (less so for potential long-term relationships).
- Abusive. Having a potentially abusive partner is an especially strong non-starter for women seeking short-term or long-term relationships. Along with not wanting filthy partners (or unattractive in short-term contexts), not wanting abusive partners ranks as a number one "must not have" dealbreaker.
Dealbreakers are an important part of predicting romantic interest
What if you find a partner who has everything you want and only one thing you don't? How do you decide if you can tolerate the undesirable, to reap the benefits of all that you are excited to find in a partner?
As part of their research, Csajbók and Berkics (2022) established that dealbreakers work alongside "dealmakers" to inform people's romantic interests. Whereas some non-starters appear as opposites of desired traits (e.g., unattractive vs. attractive; hostile vs. warm), others are unique (e.g., clingy, filthy). Further, highly preferred traits like intelligence, are not represented in their opposite form among common dealbreakers. This suggests the need, as Csajbók and Berkics (2022) point out, to consider both what people want, and what they don't want, in an integrated model of romantic interest.
Further, unlike Jonason and colleagues' (2015) work, Csajbók and Berkics (2022) did not find evidence that dealbreakers are more impactful than dealmakers in informing decisions. Rather, they observed that people prioritize learning about a stranger's potentially attractive qualities over their unattractive ones. More research is necessary to figure out when dealbreakers, vs. dealmakers, take a leading role in partner decisions.
Dealmakers may be linked to context and person
Note that their samples included Hungarian self-identified heterosexual individuals. Culture and contextual factors, including SES, age, and aspects of self, may shape people's dealbreakers. If you are independently wealthy, for example, the "need" for an ambitious partner might be different than if you are lower in social power and financial means. If you're 20 versus 75, key dealbreakers might also change (e.g., wanting/not wanting kids might be less important). Consider also aspects of the self that might shape people's dealbreakers. Csajbók and Berkics (2022) observed that people with higher mate value and higher self-esteem generally rated their dealbreakers more strongly than those with lower mate value or lower self-esteem.
In sum, romantic attraction is not a story only of what is attractive. We also must consider what is unattractive—the dealbreakers that might make or break our path towards a satisfying relationship.
Facebook image: Martin Novak/Shutterstock
Csajbók, Z., & Berkics, M. (2022). Seven deadly sins of potential romantic partners: The dealbreakers of mate choice. Personality and Individual Differences, 186, Advanced online publication
Jonason, P. K., Garcia, J. R., Webster, G. D., Li, N. P., & Fisher, H. E. (2015). Relationship dealbreakers: Traits people avoid in potential mates. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(12), 1697-1711.