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How to Pick a Better Boyfriend or Girlfriend

Research reveals the qualities you should really have on your list.

Key points

  • Studies have found that both self-control and conscientiousness appear to play a role in keeping promises in romantic relationships.
  • Individuals who "fly by the seat of their pants" or "just wing it" are not conscientious.
  • Individuals with both high self-control and conscientiousness get things done. They accomplish and achieve.
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

A big part of dating is attracting a partner. Once you've done that, however, another major task is figuring out whether you should keep them. This process is sometimes known as "testing," "screening," or "qualifying" a date. Essentially, it is the "interview process" of dating.

Most people have some sort of rough outline of what they are looking for in a partner. Some even have a detailed "list" of traits, abilities, and characteristics. These usually include various physical attributes, intelligence levels, and personality quirks. Most of these are deemed important to the individual doing the qualifying. But are they really important to the success of a relationship over time?

The fact of the matter is that your "list" might be missing a few important items. In fact, you might be wasting your time with some of the things you're looking for in a partner—and missing the real variables that really count. Fortunately, that's why we do research.

Research on Individual Characteristics and Relationship Quality

To find important qualities to consider in a dating partner, you need to look no further than the May 2011 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The issue has no less than four articles on the impact of partners' self-control and conscientiousness on relationship quality. Here are brief points from each:

  • Across three studies, researchers found that partners' self-control ability was an important factor in staying faithful to a lover (Pronk, Karremans, & Wigboldus, 2011). Apparently, those with a better ability to control themselves can resist temptation—even the temptation to stray when someone cute is flirting with them.
  • Somewhat related to the above effect, partners of individuals high in self-control trust those partners more (Richetti & Finkenauer, 2011). Thus, self-control makes for a more secure relationship for both partners.
  • Conscientiousness, a characteristic akin to self-control, also appears important to relationship functioning. In two studies, researchers found that conscientiousness plays a role in motivation to correct relationship mistakes, constructive problem-solving, and relationship satisfaction (Baker & McNulty, 2011). This was particularly true for conscientiousness in male partners.
  • Finally, both self-control and conscientiousness appear to play a role in keeping promises in romantic relationships (Peetz & Kammrath, 2011). Across four studies, the authors found that self-control and conscientiousness predicted follow-through on relationship promises, while feelings towards a romantic partner did not. Apparently, people don't keep promises because they "love" you; they do it because they have the self-control to complete the task they promised.

What This Means for You

These studies all point to one common idea: Regardless of how much someone "loves" you, they may very well make mistakes if they don't have enough self-control. This is a bit counterintuitive, as many people look for love in a potential partner as the "fix" which assures a partner's faithfulness, trustworthiness, and motivation to keep the relationship going. This doesn't appear to be the case, however: Love is not enough.

If you really want to find a good relationship partner—someone who won't drive you crazy, mess up all the time, or cheat—then you should look at their "ability" (e.g. self-control), rather than their emotions (e.g. love).

So, what types of things should you look for to assess self-control and conscientiousness? Here are a few:

  1. Attention Span. Self-control is used in directing and focusing attention. So pay attention to how well your date pays attention to you. Keep an eye out for examples of this in other areas of their lives too. Does your date have to pay attention to small details in a job or hobby? Are they easily distractible all the time? If they are distracted, unfocused, and all over the place, they may not have high self-control. Such distractibility may make communicating, sharing, and relating in a relationship very difficult.
  2. Delayed Gratification. Self-control also allows us to put things off that we want until we can reasonably acquire them later. It lets us be patient. If your date is freaking out because dinner is late, pay attention. Similarly, if they have a lot of credit card debt, be on alert. Essentially, people who cannot delay gratification need everything now. They have very little patience. So, if making your date wait makes him or her especially grumpy, then you may want to rethink waiting around for them.
  3. Planning. Conscientious individuals can make a plan and stick to it. These plans don't have to be elaborate. But, they always include at least a general idea. In contrast, individuals who "fly by the seat of their pants" or "just wing it" are not conscientious. Their spontaneity may be fun at first, but it seems less charming later when you have to plan something big and you can't get a straight answer out of them.
  4. Achievement. Finally, individuals with both high self-control and conscientiousness get things done. They accomplish and achieve. This doesn't mean that they are all millionaire CEOs. But it does mean they finish what they start. If your date has a dozen half-finished projects, plans, or dreams, you may want to ask more questions. Chronic talkers who never follow through usually have low self-control and conscientiousness. A relationship with them might become just another half-finished project.


When deciding to "keep" a dating partner around, love just isn't enough to build a workable relationship. Neither are the physical attributes or mental qualities on your usual dating interview list. Your date needs to have the ability to be a good partner. That ability comes from good self-control and conscientiousness. Look for those characteristics, and you will find yourself a true partner.

© 2011 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.


Baker, L. R., & McNulty, J. K. (2011). Self-compassion and relationship maintenance: The moderating roles of conscientiousness and gender. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(5), 853-873.

Peetz, J., & Kammrath, L. (2011). Only because I love you: Why people make and why they break promises in romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(5), 887-904.

Pronk, T. M., Karremans, J. C., & Wigboldus, D. H. J. (2011). How can you resist? Executive control helps romantically involved individuals stay faithful. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(5), 827-837.

Righetti, F., & Finkenauer, C. (2011). If you are able to control yourself, I will trust you: The role of perceives self-control in interpersonal trust. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(5), 874-886.