Gery Karantzas Ph.D.

The Science of Love

The 3 Things People Look for in an Ideal Partner

Science can help us understand what we want in that special someone.

Posted Mar 13, 2019

Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

Whether you pick up a glossy magazine or comb the internet for advice on relationships, you are bound to read something about what to look for when seeking the perfect partner. Although much of this is opinion-based, there is a scientific basis to the kinds of qualities that we value when seeking out that special someone.

What are these qualities as determined by the science of relationships? Research conducted in both evolutionary psychology and social psychology suggests that people lock in on three important broad characteristics. These characteristics are: (1) whether a partner is warm and trustworthy, (2) whether a partner displays vitality and attractiveness, and (3) whether a partner possesses status and resources. We evaluate potential mates across these three characteristics, because these qualities are indicators of whether a prospective partner is of “good stock” (they have good genes) and is a “good investment” (they are responsible, caring, and willing to invest in a relationship) (Fletcher & Simpson, 2000; Fletcher et al., 1999).

Let’s look at each of these three characteristics in more detail:

1. Warmth and trustworthiness are characteristics that include qualities such as being supportive and a good listener, showing kindness and understanding towards another, as well as being faithful and dependable. Although some people may value some of these specific qualities more than others, in general, both men and women rate warmth and trustworthiness very highly (Fletcher et al., 1999). For a relationship scientist such as myself, this comes as no surprise. As social beings, we all have the need for human connection — we want to feel loved, we want to experience comfort in the arms of another — a warm and caring person is therefore likely to fulfill our fundamental emotional needs. Also, we all want someone we can trust, as this reduces our uncertainty about what the future may hold with a potential partner. 

2. Vitality and attractiveness are characteristics that not only include a person’s physical attractiveness, but also whether they seem to be a healthy and energetic individual. Because of this, people value additional qualities, such as being adventurous, outgoing, and exuding charisma. What all these qualities have in common is that they signal that a potential partner has good genes. Put another way, they are likely to be able to produce healthy offspring so that one’s genetic lineage will continue.

3. Status and resources are also regarded as important partner characteristics. But it’s not about the extent to which a potential mate has a lavish house or a high-paying job. Status and resources are about a partner’s ability to “provide” for another and one’s future family. What we mean by status and resources is that a person has a certain degree of social standing and resources that can be invested into a relationship to ensure financial security, and that basic goods and services can be obtained and maintained. From this perspective, status and resources include qualities such as having financial security, maintaining a home or apartment, and keeping a decent job.

Do men and women want the same thing?

Many people believe that men and women hold quite different views about what they want in an ideal partner. The reality is that although there are some sex differences, men and women are more similar than one might think. When seeking out a long-term relationship partner, both sexes place the highest importance on a partner who exhibits warmth and trustworthiness, but this is closely followed by vitality and attractiveness as well as status and resources. So the reality is that all three partner ideals matter to both sexes. When sex differences are identified, it’s usually that men place greater importance on vitality or attractiveness over women, while women place greater importance on status or resources over men (Eastwick et al., 2014; Fletcher et al., 2004). But these differences are generally small and often depend on other factors, such as whether one is seeking a long-term or short-term relationship (Fletcher et al., 2013; Fletcher et al., 2004).

Do we really want a partner who has it all?

Although we place relatively high importance on all three characteristics, when it comes to actually partnering with someone, research suggests that we generally don’t pair up with partners who have it all. This begs the question: “Why not?” Firstly, it can be difficult to find potential mates that exhibit all three characteristics to a great extent. Second, if someone considers themselves as being high on all three characteristics, then they are unlikely to be interested in someone who doesn’t possess all these characteristics themselves (Campbell et al., 2001). Finally, even if a person succeeds in partnering with someone who has it all, then it may be difficult to retain this partner, as others may also find him or her attractive. So a person would have to expend much effort and time maintaining the relationship. This exhaustive amount of time and effort may be too much for some people.

When a partner doesn’t measure up

Aside from research investigating the importance people place on these three partner qualities, studies find that people who see their current romantic partner as falling short of these characteristics tend to judge their relationships more negatively than those who see their partner as embodying these qualities (Lackenbauer & Campbell, 2012; Fletcher et al., 1999).

This finding is especially pronounced for people who set very high ideals and are not willing to adjust their ideals downward when a partner falls even slightly short on these characteristics. In contrast, people who are able to demonstrate some flexibility or compromise regarding their partner ideals report greater relationship quality than those who cannot adjust their ideals (Campbell et al., 2001).

So when looking for that special someone, ask yourself three questions:

1. To what extent does a potential partner exhibit the characteristics we all so value (are they warm and trustworthy, appear attractive and exude vitality, and possess status and resources)?

2. Does a potential mate meet your ideals or expectations?

3. Are your ideals realistic? Remember, it’s natural to place importance on the three partner characteristics I’ve outlined. But, if you set your standards too high or expect one person to have it all, then no one — not even the almost perfect partner — will ever be Mr. or Mrs. Right.

References

Campbell, L., Simpson, J. A., Kashy, D. A., & Fletcher, G. J. (2001). Ideal standards, the self, and flexibility of ideals in close relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(4), 447-462.

Eastwick, P.W., Luchies, L.B., Finkel, E.J., & Hunt, L.L. (2014). The predictive validity of ideal partner preferences: A review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 140, 623-665.

Fletcher, G. J., & Simpson, J. A. (2000). Ideal standards in close relationships their structure and functions. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9(3), 102-105.

Fletcher, G. J., Simpson, J. A., Campbell, L., & Overall, N. C. (2013). The science of intimate relationships. NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Fletcher, G. J., Simpson, J. A., Thomas, G., & Giles, L. (1999). Ideals in intimate relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76(1), 72-89.

Fletcher, G. J., Tither, J. M., O’Loughlin, C., Friesen, M., & Overall, N. (2004). Warm and homely or cold and beautiful? Sex differences in trading off traits in mate selection. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(6), 659-672.

Lackenbauer, S. D., & Campbell, L. (2012). Measuring up: The unique emotional and regulatory outcomes of different perceived partner-ideal discrepancies in romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(3), 472-488.