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What Matters Most When Meeting Someone New

... and which single flaw is the ultimate deal-breaker.

Key points

  • People have clear ideas about what they want (deal makers) and what they don’t want (deal breakers) in a potential partner.
  • Deal breakers depend on the respondent’s gender and whether they want a committed relationship or casual fling.
  • People mainly focus on deal makers, and they tend to discount deal breakers once they’ve found someone they’re attracted to.

What do you look for in a potential sex partner? Of course, your response will depend somewhat on whether you’re a male or a female and whether you’re looking for a long-term relationship or a casual fling. However, research shows that most people, regardless of gender or relationship goals, especially value the characteristics of emotional warmth, physical attractiveness, and social status.

Psychologists refer to these positive traits of a potential partner as the “deal makers” of a relationship. Plenty of research has explored the deal makers of relationships, and researchers now have a good handle on what people find desirable in an intimate partner. In addition to the three just mentioned, other commonly desired partner traits include intelligence, emotional stability, passion, and dominance. Of course, the exact mix and rank order preferences depend on the individual. Still, we can make good predictions if we know the person’s gender and relationship goals.

In addition, to deal makers, there are also deal breakers, namely traits that are to be avoided in selecting a potential mate. These are not as well understood, so in a series of studies, Czech psychologist Zsófia Csajbók and Hungarian psychologist Mihály Berkics (2022) decided to investigate the deal breakers of a potential romantic partner. They discussed the results of this research in an article they recently published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

What Are the Deal Breakers?

In the first study, Csajbók and Berkics asked 155 heterosexual adults to name characteristics that would be deal-breakers for either a long-term or short-term sexual relationship. From these responses, they culled a list of 96 frequently mentioned characteristics.

Next, the researchers asked a different sample of 2,445 heterosexual adults to rate each of the 96 deal breakers on a scale from one to seven, where one meant they wouldn’t rule out a relationship based on that trait, and seven meant they would definitely rule out the potential mate. These data were then analyzed using a statistical procedure known as factor analysis, which arranged these 96 traits into seven categories.

These seven deal breakers were:

  • Unambitious, which included traits such as being indecisive, dependent, and purposeless.
  • Hostile, which included traits such as being malicious, grumpy, and unfriendly.
  • Filthy, which included traits such as being dirty, slovenly, and stinky.
  • Arrogant, which included traits such as being opinionated and egotistic.
  • Unattractive, which included traits such as being ugly and having an undesirable body type.
  • Clingy, which included traits such as being insistent, wanting commitment, and being sentimental.
  • Abusive, that is, being aggressive and violent.

The rank order of these depended somewhat on the gender of the respondent and the type of relationship they were seeking. For all participants, however, filthy was an absolute deal-breaker. In contrast, clingy was only a deal-breaker for a casual fling, whereas unambitious was only one for a long-term relationship.

Which Deal Breakers Are More Important?

In the third study, Csajbók and Berkics used what is known as a budget allocation task to determine how much of a deal-breaker each of the seven factors were. The researchers recruited 1,175 heterosexual adults online and provided each with 21 “mating dollars,” which they could use to build their perfect mate. The more mating dollars they assigned to each trait, the more important it was that their potential partner did not have that trait.

For men, the two biggest deal breakers were unattractive and filthy, regardless of whether they were looking for a long-term or short-term relationship. Likewise, the two of the biggest deal breakers for women, regardless of relationship type, were filthy and abusive. However, if they were seeking a casual fling, then unattractive was the biggest deal-breaker of all.

In the final study, the researchers explored whether deal makers or deal breakers are more important when evaluating a potential intimate partner. They gave 442 heterosexual adults the opportunity to learn about a potential romantic partner, one characteristic at a time.

The respondents saw a list that included the seven deal makers determined from previous research (warm, attractive, high status, intelligent, stable, passionate, and dominant) and the seven deal breakers (hostile, unattractive, unambitious, filthy, arrogant, clingy, and abusive) elicited in the current set of studies. They ranked the items on the list in the order they would like to learn about them.

Why Do Deal Makers Outweigh Deal Breakers?

A general finding in relationship science is that the negatives outweigh the positives. For example, if you make a negative remark about your partner, it will take three or more positive comments to undo the bad feelings. Given this trend, the researchers expected people to be more interested in knowing about potential deal breakers before considering deal makers. However, this isn’t what they found.

Although the rank orderings depended on the gender of the respondent and the type of relationship they were seeking, the respondents were generally more interested in finding out about the deal makers than the deal-breakers. At least, in this case, the negatives seem not to outweigh the positives.

In hindsight, these results make sense. Plenty of research shows that people tend to ignore “red flags” early in relationships, focusing instead on what they find desirable in a new partner. Moreover, people will often rethink their deal breakers once they find someone who meets their deal-maker requirements.

In other words, we may well know what qualities we’d prefer a potential partner not to have, but once we find ourselves falling for someone, those deal-breakers just don’t matter as much anymore.

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Csajbók, Z. & Berkics, M. (2022). Seven deadly sins of potential romantic partners: The dealbreakers of mate choice. Personality and Individual Differences. Advance online publication.