If you are searching for a relationship partner, or if you are currently in a relationship, is it in your best interest to maintain high standards or to relax your ideals? Research suggests that it may be better for our relationships and for our own well-being to do a little bit of both.
Maintain High Standards
When we ask people which traits they see as essential in a romantic partner, individuals often cite characteristics such as respect, honesty, and trustworthiness (Fugère et al., 2016). In fact, these traits are associated with better relationship outcomes. Mutual respect is even more strongly linked to satisfying romantic relationships than feelings of liking and loving one another (Frei and Shaver, 2002). Further, not only does dishonesty often cause relationships to end, but increased honesty is associated with both better relationship outcomes and greater individual well-being (Brunell et al., 2010). On these essential traits, it is better for us as individuals and as couples to maintain high standards. But what about other important characteristics?
Relax Your Ideals
In a large international research project assessing mate preferences, respondents ranked their top three most important traits (Lippa, 2007). Across genders, sexual orientations, and cultural backgrounds, individuals rated intelligence, a good sense of humor, honesty, kindness, and good looks as the most important traits. However, there may be good reasons to relax our high standards with respect to some of these characteristics.
Some characteristics may not be as important to relationship initiation or maintenance as we think they are. As part of a research project, Eastwick and colleagues (2011) created a fake profile for an interaction partner. This profile matched each participant’s most desired or least desired traits. Intuitively, participants expected to like the partner who possessed their most desired traits and dislike the partner who possessed their least desired traits. When the participants met their partner in person, the partner delivered scripted remarks which did not reflect or contradict the assigned profile. The researchers found that after meeting in person, the participants’ most and least desired traits had no influence at all on participants’ actual liking for their partner. This research suggests that a match between one’s ideals and a partner’s actual characteristics is not a necessary precursor to attraction. Furthermore, in established relationships, we tend to downgrade the importance of our previous trait preferences when our mates do not possess those traits—and to upgrade the importance of the positive traits our partners actually do possess (Fletcher et al., 2000).
It may be particularly beneficial to our relationships to relax our standards relating to physical attractiveness. Individuals who are attractive themselves hold higher standards with regard to partner attractiveness than their less attractive peers. More attractive individuals not only rate others as less attractive but also expect that relationships with others will be less satisfying (Montoya, 2008). Moreover, Shaw Taylor and colleagues (2011) found that although online daters tended to contact dates who were more attractive than themselves, they were more likely to receive positive responses from dates who matched their own levels of physical attractiveness. Repeatedly being rejected by potential dates decreases our self-esteem and our perceived self-worth while also causing us to decrease our standards for relationship partners (Charlot et al., 2019). Furthermore, the more we reject others as potential partners, the more we may adopt a “rejection mind-set” which may lead to less openness to relationships in the future (Pronk and Denissen, 2019).
Do Lower Standards Increase Satisfaction?
In Thibaut and Kelley’s (1986) seminal book on interdependent relationships, the authors review social exchange theory, which stipulates that in any relationship we will experience both rewards and costs. However, not everyone views those rewards and costs in the same way. Thibaut and Kelley include the notion of a “comparison level” in their theory. A comparison level is roughly equivalent to your “standards” or your general expectations for your relationships. If you usually have high standards, you would tend to expect more rewards and fewer costs from your relationships, and you won’t be satisfied unless your relationships deliver increased rewards and fewer costs. You might suppose then, that individuals would actually be more satisfied with their relationships when they have lower standards. Indeed, a person with a low comparison level expects fewer rewards from their relationships and therefore can be satisfied with a relationship which reaps fewer benefits. However, lower standards may encourage some partners to stay in very unrewarding relationships.
On the whole, the research suggests that upholding some high standards and relaxing others may lead to the most rewarding relationship experiences.
Brunell, A. B., Kernis, M. H., Goldman, B. M., Heppner, W., Davis, P., Cascio, E. V., & Webster, G. D. (2010). Dispositional authenticity and romantic relationship functioning. Personality and Individual Differences, 48(8), 900-905. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2010.02.018
Eastwick, P. W., Finkel, E. J., & Eagly, A. H. (2011b). When and why do ideal partner preferences affect the process of initiating and maintaining romantic relationships? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(5), 1012–1032. doi:10.1037/a0024062
Frei, J. R., & Shaver, P. R. (2002). Respect in close relationships: Prototype definition, self-report assessment, and initial correlates. Personal Relationships, 9(2), 121.
Fugère, M. A., Chabot, C.,* Doucette, K.,* & Cousins, A. J. (2016, June). Similarities and Differences in Mate Preferences among Women and their Parents. Poster presented at the annual meeting of the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society, Nova Scotia, Canada.
Lippa, R. A. (2007). The preferred traits of mates in a cross-national study of heterosexual and homosexual men and women: An examination of biological and cultural influences. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36(2), 193-208.
Montoya, R. (2008). I’m hot, so I’d say you’re not: The influence of objective physical attractiveness on mate selection. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(10), 1315–1331. doi:10.1177/0146167208320387
Shaw Taylor, L., Fiore, A. T., Mendelsohn, G. A., & Cheshire, C. (2011). “Out of my league”: A real-world test of the matching hypothesis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(7), 942–954. doi:10.1177/0146167211409947.
Thibaut, J. W., & Kelley, H. H. (1986). The social psychology of groups. Piscataway, NJ, US: Transaction Publishers.