What Women Value in a Potential Mate

Source: Photo by Chris Benson on Unsplash

We often have the feeling that “some things just never change.” For example, each year I give lectures to university students about gender stereotypes and expectations. Traditionally, people expect that men should be more work-oriented and agentic (e.g., assertive, rational), and not too family-oriented and communal (e.g., caring, sensitive). Research has shown that men who do not conform to these gender expectations risk negative consequences, such as being seen as “not a real man,” incompetent, and receiving fewer rewards at work. My students swear that things must be changing, but I have to break it to them that research shows that gender stereotypes and expectations have been surprisingly stubborn over time.

One recently published study suggests otherwise, however – at least in the relationship sphere. Researchers at the University of Leuven and the Research Foundation Flanders (Belgium) investigated whether women really do prefer men who are work-oriented and agentic, or whether they might actually prefer men who are more family-oriented and communal. They reasoned that, as more women pursue careers of their own, they might actually seek a partner who can help them to balance work and family life, and thus who will chip in and be a good parent, too.

The research

In Study 1, female undergraduates read about a fictitious man who had recently become a father. In one group, designed to depict a family-oriented man, he was described as staying home longer than the legal paternal leave period. In the other group, designed to depict a work-oriented man, he was described as going back to work before the legal paternal leave period. After reading the description, the participants rated their impressions of the man.

Overall, the young women perceived the family-oriented man as more attractive than the work-oriented man. Specifically, they perceived the family-oriented man as more communal and a better parent, and this in turn contributed to him being perceived as more attractive. 

In Study 2, female undergraduates were asked to think about their life in 15 years, in terms of work, family, and their ideal partner. Then, they completed questionnaires about themselves and their ideal partner.

Overall, the young women sought a partner who was more communal and family-oriented than work-oriented. The degree to which the young women sought a communal man increased the more that they themselves were work-oriented.

Last, in Study 3, heterosexual couples between 22 and 59 years old completed questionnaires about how important they found family and work. The women also completed questionnaires about work and family conflict (e.g., that work often keeps them from activities in their family life), and how satisfied they were with their life.

The key finding from Study 3 is that the more that a woman’s partner valued his close family (partner, children), the less work-family conflict she experienced and the more satisfied she was with her life. Interestingly, both women and men rated family as being more important in their life than work.

The take-home message

These studies show that young women prefer and seek communal and family-oriented men. In addition, young women find family-oriented men more attractive precisely because they think they are more communal and better parents. Women who are already in a heterosexual relationship with a more family-oriented man experience less work-family conflict and are more satisfied with their life.

The researchers stated that “although gender norms prescribing men to be agentic and work-oriented rather than communal and family-oriented are well-documented and relatively stable over time […], our findings show they may be toppling in relationship contexts” (p. 10).

Why might this be? Research more broadly shows that the identities we take on are not only determined by what we ourselves find important, but also by what other people find important, especially the people that we care about, like our (potential) partner. So, the more women’s roles shift toward including not only family but also a career, the more they will value and seek a partner that compliments these roles. Consequently, men’s roles might shift toward including family and more communal traits. These shifts will benefit both women and men, as research has shown that engaging in family and communal tasks is related to men’s health and well-being, and can allow women to pursue their career ambitions while still experiencing a satisfying family life.  

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