Looking back at the different romantic partners we may have had , it’s often hard to decide what it was that first drew us to this person or that .Overall, the process of finding a new partner and forming a strong relationship tends to be gradual since it (usually) takes time to determine whether or not real chemistry exists. It also highlights that many people may be seeking different things from their relationship i.e., is this a short-term fling or is it meant to be something more? As date is followed by date and the relationship deepens, both partners continue to question how they feel about one another and whether they share the same relationship goals.
This is where relationship aptitude often comes into play since our ability to form a successful relationship is often shaped by the relationships we had in the past, whether for better or for worse. In theory, this means that people who have a history of successful relationships have positive qualities that make other people more likely to choose them as potential partners. On the other hand, people with negative traits such as being neurotic or abrasive appear more prone to unsatisfying relationships.
But is it really possible to identify key traits that can explain why some people do better than others, relationship-wise? Based on previous research, perhaps not. Studies asking opposite sex friends and acquaintances to rate one another in terms of romantic desirability found little real consistency in terms of what people are looking for in a partner. Even when looking at attributes such as physical attractiveness, humour, or personality, people are far more subjective in their judgements than you might think.
The third study by Eastwick and his associates explored the different judgements people may make about romantic partners using a rather unique database: a website first established in 2014 allowing women to give anonymous ratings of current and former romantic partners on a range of different attributes. Much like the rating systems seen on sites such as Uber or Airbnb, the site (which wasn’t named in the study) apparently began as a way of protecting women from bad relationships. Though the included Facebook accounts, along with photographs, the men who were listed weren’t asked their permission to be featured.
Not surprisingly, this site didn’t last long in its original format and legal threats led to changes in its open policy as well as making it less accessible. Still, for the few months that the site was operational, it provided a unique forum allowing direct comparison of how different women rated specific men and the data collected during those early months were used in the study..
The four hundred men for whom data was collected all had ratings by two or more women who identified themselves as current or former partners and who had a picture that showed their faces clearly. Along with information on age, relationship status, and which college they attended (all of which was available on Facebook), men were rated on a five-point scale for the following qualities: appearance, humour, manners, commitment, ambition,
Men were also rated on two aspects of sexual satisfaction (how well they kissed as well as quality of sex). Finally, women were allowed to select best and worst qualities from a list of several hundred hashtags. The list included positive hashtags such as #NoIssuesHere, #Trustworthy, #Trailblazer, #CaptainFun, #CuddlesAfter and negative hashtags such as #NeverLetsMeWin, #DeathBreath, #HeLovesMeNot, #StripClubVIP, #NoStyle, etc.
Overall, female partners/ex-partners showed little real agreement in terms of whether each man in the study was romantically desirable or sexually satisfying. They also disagreed on the number of positive and negative traits each man had. About the only trait that showed any sign of clustering dealt with physical attractiveness though the effect size was not significantly different from zero. In other words, even past and present partners didn’t necessarily agree that a man was physically attractive or not. When comparing how women rated their current romantic partners as opposed to ex-partners or short-term hookups, they tended to be more positive overall but the ratings were still highly subjective.
So how important are stable factors such as attractiveness, intelligence, and humour in terms of romantic happiness? And what can we conclude from these different studies carried out by Eastwick and his colleagues? Then there are the different theories of mating which I described last week including including evolutionary psychology and assortative mating. How can we be so subjective when it comes to choosing a partner?
As the authors point out in discussing their findings, there is no one Mr./Ms. Right out there and we could, at least in theory, form a stable relationship with a far greater pool of people than we might believe possible . But we are only ever going to meet a small subset of that total population based on where we happen to live/work/attend school, etc. As sociologists and philosophers have long pointed out, “mating requires meeting.”
Also, if you exclude the number of people you meet with whom you have no romantic interest, there is also the question of whether any of the people in the remaining subset has a romantic interest in you. All of these different considerations are going to whittle down the number of possible partners you are going to have in the course of an average lifetime.
There is also the fact that our partnership preferences are going to change over the course of a lifetime. Qualities that might attract us to this person or that when we are teenagers or young adults may vary significantly from what we might want when we are older. This certainly helps explain the “what was I thinking?” moments we might have in considering past romantic pairings and why evidence for clustering cn be so hard to find.
Also, while stable factors such as physical attractiveness, etc. will continue to play a role who we might consider as potential partners, it is important to recognize that it doesn’t end there. Once potential partners get to know one another, these stable factors become less important and whether the relationship survives often depends on how compatible they really are. Again, since relationships grow and mature over time in the same way we do as individuals, that can mean that couples often grow apart as they are no longer the same people who once fell in love with each other.
Eastwick and his co-authors acknowledge the limitations of their different studies given the problems that can arise in trying to capture something as personal as romantic love or partnership choices. While research looking at partner selection will continue to focus on active and passive stable factors, it may not be possible to to predict romantic love based on these qualities alone.
In fact, some researchers have proposed using chaos theory to explain human mate selection. In much the same way that nonlinear dynamic factors make accurate weather prediction difficult, chaos theory suggests that human relationships may also be prone to sudden shifts and new relationship patterns over time, so even “perfect” relationships may change rapidly.
Whether or not there is a “butterfly effect” that can explain the partner choices we happen to make, we need to recognize that forming a new relationship and keeping that relationship going is continuing process with no short cuts and no guarantees.
Much like everything else that’s worthwhile in life, really.