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Study: 3 Options to Consider When Dating Seems Hopeless

Research suggests what to do when you can't find a satisfying romantic partner.

Finding a satisfying romantic partner is not easy. Dating can sometimes be a punishing experience, leading to anxiety and feelings of rejection. Also, figuring out who you consider attractive and compatible as a mate can be challenging—not to mention the difficulties of figuring out whether someone likes you back too!

Given that, what do people do when they come to feel like dating is hopeless? How do they cope when there do not seem to be any good mating choices? What options do they consider, in order to still try and find a satisfying romantic partner?

Fortunately, in the recent issue of Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, some inquisitive researchers asked those very questions...

Research on Strategies for Solving Mate Shortages

Jonason, Betes, and Li (2020) conducted two studies to explore the various ways that individuals deal with a possible shortage of appealing partners—for both short-term flings and long-term relationships. In the first study, participants were asked to imagine that they were having difficulty finding a long-term (or short-term) partner and to select the most appealing option to them to address that difficulty. Those options were:

  • Traveling Further: "I would rather increase the distance I am willing to travel."
  • Lowering Standards: "I would rather lower my standards."
  • Abstention: "I would abstain from such a relationship at this time."

Results showed that men and women dealt similarly with an inability to find a long-term mate. Both were most likely to travel further to find a long-term partner (59 percent and 63 percent), or abstain if travel was not possible (25 percent and 24 percent). Neither was likely to lower their standards in that long-term context, with only 16 percent of men and 13 percent of women choosing that option.

Nevertheless, men and women did differ in their approach to dealing with a short-term mating shortage. In that context, women were most likely to abstain (63 percent), or travel (28 percent), with only a few willing to lower their standards (10 percent). Men were split more evenly in their approach, with the most choosing to travel (38 percent), then lowering standards (33 percent), and then abstaining (29 percent). Given that, the biggest difference in preference appears to be that more men will lower their standards for a fling, whereas more women choose to abstain from short-term mating altogether.

In the second study, Jonason, Betes, and Li (2020) evaluated whether these preferences might relate to the mating value and attachment styles of the participants themselves. Thus, in addition to measuring their preferences on the options above, participants were also evaluated on their short and long-term value as a mate—as well as whether they were generally anxious or avoidant of relationships too. Results here indicated that, while most participants were unwilling to lower their standards, those who felt they were undesirable as a mate or who were anxious about finding a relationship were more likely to do so. In contrast, those who were avoidant were more likely to abstain, particularly in the short-term. Finally, those who believed they were attractive, especially as long-term mates, were likely to not abstain—and to travel to find a suitable long-term partner.

Overall, Jonason, Betes, and Li (2020) state:

"There are systematic patterns in the choices men and women make in how they opt to solve the adaptive problem of mating scarcity. Women remain biased against lowering their standards in general but were especially unwilling to do so in the short term. Men, in contrast, were especially willing to lower their standards for short-term relationships. Traveling farther is an appealing option for long-term partners as it likely offsets the related costs of the other two, but it is unappealing in the short-term given delays in mating, costs, and even a conflict with the sexual gratification motives behind casual sex."

Dealing With Mate Scarcity

Given the above, depending on your relationship goals, if you are currently having a problem finding a relationship partner, you may want to consider one of the following options:

1. Traveling Further: Overall, this appears to be the most popular option—especially for finding a suitable long-term relationship partner. One of the easiest ways of employing this option is to consider online dating and using a larger search radius. Research indicates that some dating apps, like Tinder, appear to be helpful for finding short-term and long-term partners too. Beyond such an easy online fix, for suitable long-term partners, you may want to consider moving to a different area (or country) as well. Specifically, consider places where potential partners share your political preferences, as well as your perspective on social norms and gender roles, to give yourself the best chance of finding a satisfying mate.

2. Abstention: When people are unwilling (or unable) to travel to find a partner, they often consider abstaining instead—at least temporarily. Although this option may result in some frustration and loneliness, it does offer the benefit of freeing up your time, energy, and resources to pursue other goals. Specifically, if you intend to eventually get back into dating, temporary abstention can give you a chance for personal development and reflection.

On the one hand then, by focusing on things like developing your attractive traits and skills, a "dating break" can actually increase your chances of finding a partner in the long run. On the other hand, taking some time for self-reflection can help you identify the things you want in a partner more clearly, which will help the search when you start dating again too.

3. Lowering Standards: Generally, this appears to be the last option considered by most people. Given that, if you tend to jump to this solution quickly, then you may want to take some time to first consider your self-esteem. Essentially, people with low self-esteem tend to sell themselves short in relationships. If that seems to hold true for you, then taking some time to abstain from relationships, work on personal development, and improve your self-image might be worth a try first (see point 2 above).

Having said that, in reality, there are some individuals who have standards that are too high as well—and are specifically out of proportion to what they are willing to give back in return. So, if you find yourself being "too picky" and thinking no one is good enough, then you might want to consider whether your standards could be made more reasonable. Specifically, it can help to evaluate the suitability of a partner by whether they simply meet a minimum standard to be satisfying, rather than whether they are "the best" overall.

This helps to create a more reasonable evaluation, given that no one is perfect. As a result, everyone generally makes trade-offs about what they want in a mate (including the trade-offs potential partners will be making about you as well). Therefore, while it is reasonable to have preferences and deal-breakers, desiring perfection (or close-to-perfection) is likely only to leave you dissatisfied with everyone—and ultimately abstaining indefinitely—rather than finding the love you really want.

© 2020 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.


Jonason, P. K., Betes, S. L., & Li, N. P. (2020). Solving mate shortages: Lowering standards, searching farther, and abstaining. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 14(2), 160-172.

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