- Mate evaluation theory offers four perspectives, or lenses, to help evaluate potential romantic partners.
- People often use one perspective, focusing on their "type" and the typical features they like in a mate.
- General, personal, and relationship-specific factors also impact attraction and compatibility.
A new theory offers a comprehensive explanation for how people evaluate potential romantic partners and find the right match. The theory was published in the April 2023 edition of Psychological Review by Eastwick, Finkel, and Joel, titled Mate Evaluation Theory. The authors encapsulated decades of relationship research into four "lenses," or perspectives about mate evaluation processes.
Mate evaluation theory (MET) then uses those four lenses to explain the confusion around who we pick as mates—and points to solutions! Thus, to understand MET and its proposed solutions, we first need to know its four lenses. They are as follows:
- Common lens. A wide variety of people share this perspective, which applies to all people within a group or culture. It comprises social scripts within a culture about relationships and shared evolved mechanisms that govern mating. Put simply, it is the general set of cultural, religious, and biological rules that a group of people follows about mating. So, some of the things we look for in a mate are more universally determined by biology and culture.
- Perceiver lens. Each person's perspective is unique, but this perspective applies to all potential partners. The individual's personality and expectations around mating form it. This lens includes things like a person's level of self-esteem, sensitivity to rejection, and expectations based on past relationships (e.g., feelings of attachment). Thus, our experiences with relationships, our personalities, and our outlooks on life determine some things we look for in a mate.
- Feature lens. This perspective is unique to each person and is applied selectively to some partners based on the features of each partner. It comprises the individual's unique ideals and preferences for specific features in a mate. In short, this is a person's "type," detailing traits they repeatedly feel are attractive and compatible in a partner. Therefore, the features we like or don't like in a partner determine some things we want in a mate.
- Target-specific lens. This perspective is specific to each relationship. It is created by the shared and special experiences with a specific partner and the stories shared within the relationship about those experiences. It also comprises the unique traits and features a partner shares as intimacy grows, which become distinctive aspects of attraction and compatibility over time. As a result, some of the things we like about a partner are the special experiences and history we share with them.
Missing Perspectives in Mate Evaluation
From those four perspectives, we can better understand the confusion and difficulty of evaluating potential mates. Put simply, the problem arises because most people largely focus on the feature lens when evaluating potential mates. In other words, they look for their ideal "type" and the features they like in a mate.
While that is not wrong, it minimizes or leaves out the other three perspectives above. So, sometimes the mate chosen is incompatible from a cultural or evolutionary standpoint (common lens). Other times, the partner may not mix well with the individual's personality or past relationship experiences (perceiver lens). Further, the specific relationship interactions may fall flat (target-specific lens). Thus, by only focusing on the ideal features of a potential partner, it is possible to miss the other things that impact attraction and compatibility. As a result, we get the common lamentation of, "I really thought they were the one for me, but then I found out XYZ."
Evaluating From Multiple Perspectives
Given the above, it is clear that a successful evaluation of potential mates requires multiple perspectives. Fortunately, I discussed the specifics of those perspectives in my book, Attraction Psychology, and in many posts over the years. So, to help you apply MET and better evaluate mates, I provide more details on those four perspectives and link to the relevant articles below.
- Start with the common lens. These are the big things that can make or break a relationship. For example, some broad features and behaviors make someone attractive overall and are why we fall in love. Overarching social concerns can also significantly impact compatibility, such as whether you and your partner agree on relationship roles and follow the same social scripts. Therefore, you can save a lot of time and heartache by first evaluating partners on general characteristics that are physically, psychologically, and socially compatible.
- Next, use the perceiver lens. Your feelings and experiences are important factors in any relationship. Specifically, personal factors like low self-esteem or difficulties trusting a partner can impact how someone sees potential mates. If you have a punishing relationship history or experienced rejection, it is not your fault. Nevertheless, it is important to consider and address those experiences to find more satisfying partners in the future.
- Then consider the feature lens. Now, we get to "your type" of partner. You probably have some idea (or even a list) of what you want from this perspective. That is generally good and productive. Nevertheless, it is important to realize that mating preferences are also trade-offs. So, it can help to be satisfied with some essentials and avoid chasing after perfection. Otherwise, you may become chronically dissatisfied with every partner and never build the type of relationship you want.
- Include the target-specific lens. Finally, as you get to know a particular partner, consider the specific things they bring to the relationship. What type of relationship story are you creating together? Also, what unique features do you find appealing in them as an individual? Those special connections can make a relationship sacred, which helps ensure compatibility (and fidelity) in the long run!
© 2023 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.
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Eastwick, P. W., Finkel, E. J., & Joel, S. (2023). Mate evaluation theory. Psychological Review, 130(1), 211–241. https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000360