What Is It That We Really Want From Our Partners?
... and the 4 major choices everyone has to make.
Posted Nov 30, 2015
Welcome back to The Attraction Doctor.
When we think about human mate preferences, our own unique and specific preferences first come to mind. After all, each of us can speak to what we personally find attractive and compatible in a partner. For some, that might be a person who is handsome or beautiful in a particular way. For others, it might be a special, positive personality characteristic. Regardless, we tend to think that each of us seeks some trait or combination of traits that is completely different and distinct.
Beneath that, however, there are certain categories of features that we all consider when choosing a romantic partner. In other words, we all pick something unique, but after selecting from some standard types of partners and traits.
Therefore, by knowing the general categories people evaluate in a mate, you can make better specific selections with your own partners—and be more desirable to others, too.
Research on Human Mate Preference
The idea that there are universal ideals or dimensions in mate preference emerged from research by Fletcher and associates (Fletcher et al., 1999). In two studies, the team asked undergraduate students to list and then rate ideal romantic partner characteristics. Using factor analysis on the results, the researchers found three underlying dimensions that the participants considered when describing their mate preferences.
- Warmth-Trustworthiness. This category contained descriptions such as: understanding, supportive, considerate, kind, good listener, sensitive, trustworthy, warm, affectionate, reliable, friendly, communicative, honest, mature, stable, romantic, broad-minded, easygoing, and self-aware.
- Vitality-Attractiveness. This category contained descriptions such as: adventurous, nice body, outgoing, sexy, attractive, good lover, attractive lifestyle, sporty, athletic, confident, independent, ambitious, interesting, spontaneous, good fun, sense of humor, and assertive.
- Status-Resources. This category contained descriptions such as: good job, financially secure, nice house/apartment, appropriate ethnicity, successful, dresses well, and appropriate age.
Further studies by Fletcher and associates (1999) confirmed and validated these three categories. In addition, they also showed a relationship between these categories and actual partner satisfaction: The more a partner matched an individual's ideals, the more positively the individual evaluated their current relationship.
Shackelford, Schmitt, and Buss performed another analysis of mate preference dimensions (2005). They re-analyzed an older data set, containing mate preference ratings provided for 18 characteristics by several thousand participants from cultures around the world. Although this research found some similar categorical results as Fletcher and team (1999) above, the larger data set seemed to indicate that preferences aligned on certain dimension of trade-offs as well, specifically:
- Love vs. Status/Resources. People make psychological trade-offs to seek out either a partner who is ambitious, has good financial prospects, and is of high status, or who is loving and attracted to them.
- Dependable/Stable vs. Looks/Health. Mate seekers also look for a lover who is primarily either stable and mature, or good looking and healthy.
- Education/Intelligence vs. Desire for Home/Children. Individuals pick a mate who is either more highly educated and intelligent, or more oriented toward desiring a home and children.
- Sociability vs. Similar Religion. Finally, people appear to either focus on finding a partner who has a sociable and pleasing disposition overall, or someone who has a similar religious background.
Additional results showed that men and women often differ in how they resolve these trade-offs: Specifically, men regularly choose to look for a loving partner who is good looking and healthy, and wants a home and children. Women, in contrast, frequently prefer a mate who has status and resources, and is dependable, stable, educated, and intelligent. There was no gender difference in expressing a preference for sociability or religion.
Identifying Your Ideals and Trade-offs
Given the research above, it seems that we all do consider the same general categories of features when choosing romantic partners. Nevertheless, each of us also has different preferences and makes individual trade-offs among those categories to meet our unique needs.
If you are unclear about what you want and need in a romantic partner, considering the categories and trade-offs above is a good place to start. Try to think about the following:
- Define ideal partner characteristics. First, consider what characteristics you prefer within the general categories above. Would you like your partner to have a generally pleasant personality, a more romantic nature, or an easygoing disposition? Do you find a nice body, an athletic look, or an assertive style beautiful or handsome? Do you want a partner to have the status or resources to give and invest in you too?
- Decide on preferences and trade-offs. Everyone has a different balance of features—and no one's approach is perfect. Therefore, it is important to decide which features are essential for your satisfaction, and which you like but could do without. Given the choice, do you want someone who cares for you emotionally, or provides tangible resources? Do you prefer they focus on a partner's physical health and attractiveness, or their mental health and stability? Should they spend their time on education and career achievement, or managing a loving home and caring for children? Would you rather a mate who is generally social and compatible, or who shares your deeper values and religious ideals?
- Assess yourself, too. Relationships are a trade and exchange. Therefore, potential partners will be looking for a match for their own ideals and making their own trade-offs, just like you. As a result, it is important to evaluate what you have to offer back to a partner: How have you made yourself attractive? What is positive and warm about your personality? What resources and skills do you have to share? Along the way, what trade-offs have you made in developing yourself as an individual and partner?
Overall, while we each desire a unique combination of features in a partner, we all choose from among the same basic categories and trade-offs. We work with those categories and compromises as we make choices about who we will also become as partners. Therefore, when considering what you want in a romantic partner and what you will give in return, it is helpful to keep those basic criteria in mind—and decide on the specifics from there.
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- Fletcher, G. J. O., Simpson, J. A., Thomas, G., & Giles, L. (1999). Ideals in intimate relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 72-89.
- Shackelford, T. K., Schmitt, D. P., & Buss, D. M. (2005). Universal dimensions of human mate preferences. Personality and Individual Differences, 39, 447-458.
© 2015 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.