Most singles have a list of qualities they want in a potential romantic partner. And the top things on that list are often relatively similar: Good looks, intelligence, warm and sensitivity. This makes competition on the dating market fierce, and not everyone will end up with the perfect partner of their dreams. But do people change their standards as they get older, and have spent more time dating? New research by Susan Sprecher and colleagues, just published In the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, addresses this question.
There are two ways that our standards for a romantic partner could change:
First, we might expect people’s standards to change over time, in general. Will people become more or less picky as they get older? Younger people might be pickier because they can afford to be pickier — They have plenty of time to search for that perfect partner. They may also have higher standards because they have less dating experience, making them less realistic about who is available and who they can get. It may take a substantial dose of dating reality for those years of watching idealized relationships develop in romantic comedy movies to wear off. On the other hand, if you consider people who are currently single, older singles may actually be especially choosy, which is why they are single at an older age.
Second, we might expect the specific traits that people find important in a partner to change over time. Being friendly and having a pleasant personality might become more important, while looks become less important. As people get older and have more experience with relationships, they might find that intrinsic traits, like warmth, matter more than relatively superficial traits like good looks.
In a new study, Sprecher and colleagues surveyed 738 single adults (66% female) between 18 and 40 years old. Participants were asked to evaluate how important different qualities (e.g., physically attractive, kind, outgoing, ambitious, financially secure) were in a romantic partner. The range of responses was as follows: 1 = "average on this characteristic would be fine for me", 2 = "prefer someone slightly above average on this characteristic," 3 = "prefer someone somewhat above average on this characteristic," and 4 = "prefer someone very above average on this characteristic; a person needs to ‘stand out’ on this characteristic." This rating scale makes the assumption that all participants think the trait is generally good, so this avoids the problem of everyone giving high ratings to a trait merely because it’s positive.
As they expected, the researchers found that older singles were less picky then younger singles. This was especially true for men. In general, older singles’ lower standards didn’t differ by trait. So older singles were less picky about looks, status, and personality. However, one trait stood out as especially unimportant to older singles: The extent to which the partner was approved of by their friends and integrated into their larger social network.
It’s also possible that external factors play a role in people’s standards, as they age. The researchers examined two factors: Shyness and mate availability. Those who are shy have difficulty forming relationships and thus might lower their standards. People’s perceptions of what kind of partners are available to them is also likely to have a big impact on standards. If you think there are plenty of fish in the sea, that gives you room to be choosier.
The researchers found that for women, both shyness and mate availability mattered. Once they took shyness and mate availability into account, age was unrelated to women’s standards for intrinsic traits (e.g., warm, kind) and financial security. This means that age per se is not the factor that makes older women less picky about the personality and financial resources of their potential partners. These women were more likely to be shy or think they had limited romantic prospects, and this explains why they had lower standards.
Finally, the researchers also asked their respondents how much they thought their preferences had changed over the past 2 to 3 years. For each trait, participants indicated if it became less important to them, more important, or unchanged. Overall, people were more likely to think that they had raised their standards for the characteristics most associated with relationship success (that is, personal characteristics, like warmth) and for resources and success.
This new study provides some evidence that older singles are less picky about who they date, and this might be partially explained by the fact that they are shy or believe their mating prospects aren’t that good. It is also possible that one’s own desire to find a partner affects one’s standards. If you generally enjoy being single, you might be willing to wait around for the perfect partner, but if you feel lonely and isolated when you’re unpartnered, you’re likely to hold potential partners to a lower standard.
This study also only provides a small step in helping us understand how people’s dating standards change over time. If we really want to see how these standards change, researchers would need to do longitudinal studies on people who were currently single and focus only on those who remained single in the future. Younger people are more likely to be single, so a group of 18 to 21-year-old singles can’t really be directly compared to a group of 30 to 35-year-old singles, since many of those 18-21 year-olds will be in long-term committed relationships by the time they are in their 30s. That is, there may be many differences in personality or life circumstances between the typical 20-year-old single and the typical 30-year-old single, including factors that may explain why some people are single in their 30s.
This new research suggests that older singles are less picky in their search for a mate, and that people tend to become somewhat less superficial over time in terms of which traits they value in a partner. Think about your own standards – Have they changed over the course of you dating life?