It can be difficult to choose a romantic partner. Everyone weights the costs and benefits of different characteristics. Each individual wants something unique and special too. Beyond that, the characteristics we find attractive and those we find compatible are often two different things.
Given all of this confusion, a partner who seems like a great pick at first can become a problematic choice in the long run. In fact, some of the same characteristics and traits that are initially appealing can become irritating in time. These are known in the research literature as fatal attractions, because they are initially attractive qualities that ultimately sour and end a relationship. Fortunately, if you're aware of these qualities, you can make better relationship choices for long-term success.
Positive and Negative Characteristics
The main research on fatal attraction characteristics was conducted by Diane Felmlee (1995). Felmlee explored the qualities individuals found initially appealing in a partner, the qualities individuals ultimately found repellent in a partner, and the possible overlap between the two types. To examine these concepts, 300 college students were presented with open-ended survey questions about their most recently ended relationship. Specifically, participants were asked to describe the qualities that first attracted them to the partner — and the qualities they found least attractive about the partner over time.
The responses to the open-ended questions were categorized and summed. Overall, participants found the following 10 categories of characteristics initially attractive in a partner (with percentages):
- Physical (27.5 percent): Being physically attractive, sexy, having nice eyes or smile.
- Fun (17.8 percent): Having a good sense of humor and being sociable.
- Caring (15.6 percent): Being nice and attentive.
- Competent (11.7 percent): Having intelligence, confidence, and ambition.
- Similar (5.2 percent): Holding common interests and values.
- Exciting (5.1 percent): Being spontaneous and adventurous.
- Open (3.5 percent): Friendly and receptive.
- Dependable (3.3 percent): Honest and trustworthy.
- Easy-going (2.0 percent): Laid back and patient.
- Other (8.3 percent): Overall personality and other vague attributes.
Similarly, they found 10 general categories of characteristics that were unappealing and relationship-ending:
- Uncaring (28.3 percent): Being selfish, insensitive, and egotistical (opposite of Caring).
- Insecure (22.5 percent): Acting possessive and unintelligent (opposite of Competent).
- Undependable (12.1 percent): Being dishonest, immature, and irresponsible (opposite of Dependable).
- Physical (10.7 percent): Unattractive and unappealing physical features (opposite of Physical in the positive context).
- Differences (6.4 percent): Having different interests and values (opposite of Similar).
- Closed (6.0 percent): Unfriendly and not receptive (opposite of Open).
- Moody (3.4 percent): Acting uptight and impatient (opposite of Easy-going).
- Boring (1.4 percent): Being predictable and habitual (opposite of Exciting).
- Serious (1.0 percent): Having a poor sense of humor and not social (opposite of Fun).
- Other (8.3 percent).
As shown in these general categorizations, attractive and unattractive qualities often mirror each other; they are two sides to the same coin. Having a certain quality (like being fun or confident) is appealing, while lacking that same quality (being serious or insecure) is often a turn-off.
Beyond that, however, Felmlee (1995) noted that some positive characteristics turn negative over time as well. Specifically, partners who are attractive because they are fun may also turn out to be undependable, silly, and immature. Individuals who are especially caring may end up being insecure, possessive, and jealous. Competent and physically attractive mates may also become uncaring, selfish, and egotistical over time. People who are initially exciting and exotic may prove too different and dissimilar for a long-term relationship. Finally, folks who are appealing because they are easy-going and relaxed may end up being boring or undependable.
Subsequent analyses by Felmlee found that some initially attractive characteristics were more "fatal" than others: Individuals who were first attracted to a partner who was exciting or different were significantly more likely later to dislike those same qualities as the relationship progressed. Partners who were initially attractive because they were fun, easy-going, and competent were also likely to experience some negative down-turn over time. In contrast, partners who were picked because they were physically attractive, caring, open, and dependable tended to stay positively rated on those characteristics in long-term relationships.
Who Is Right for You?
The above research offers a few important points about attraction and picking a compatible partner. First and foremost, the variety of features that participants found appealing in a partner support the idea that there is more than one way to be attractive. In fact, the most popular attributes aside from being physically attractive — being fun, caring, and/or competent — align quite well with other studies exploring ways of flirting and attracting a mate. By accentuating their unique strengths, anyone can become more attractive to potential partners.
Second, the research also notes that a partner being uncaring, insecure, and/or not dependable are often the most unappealing qualities, which can end a relationship. This is because, underneath the emotional connection, romantic relationships are still social exchanges intended to meet the needs of both partners. Therefore, it may be more challenging and less satisfying to have a long-term relationship with a partner who exhibits such qualities, because they may be less likely to meet your needs. This notion is supported by studies looking at the important role a partner's self-control and conscientiousness plays in relationships, as well as studies looking at the negative effects of a partner's annoying habits.
Putting those two ideas together, it is important to consider what qualities will truly satisfy you in a romantic partner. Especially if you are searching for a long-term connection, it is important to look past the initial excitement of attraction to consider more stable and compatible characteristics. After all, as the research indicates, those fatal attractions were most likely to occur with partners initially chosen primarily because they were exciting, different, and/or fun. In other words, individuals get swept away in the moment, only to be disillusioned later, when they realize there are not enough tangible similarities, competencies, or emotional connections to build a longer-term connection. If you want more than a fling, focus on substantive qualities in a partner—and in yourself.
© 2017 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.
Felmlee, D. H. (1995). Fatal attractions: Affection and disaffection in intimate relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 12(2), 295-311.