TIME relationships

Stop Obsessing Over Finding The Perfect Partner

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Tim Robberts—Getty Images

When it comes to relationships, we disagree over who makes the ideal mate

Evolution tells it straight: Some people make more desirable partners than others. Current theories on mate value go a little like this: People who have it all, including good looks and status, can land a partner who also has it all. The people who don’t, well, they’re going to have to settle. But new research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests what anyone who’s fallen for a pretty face knows: finding the ideal partner for you is much more complicated. In fact, the more we get to know someone, the more our opinion of their desirability changes.

To reach these findings, the researchers at the University of Texas at Austin conducted three studies in which they asked participants to rate a group of people for their perceived value. Some of the factors were basic, like how attractive they are, or how outgoing. Other factors went deeper, with participants ranking whether a person seemed likely to be a good, committed partner.

In the first study, participants rated people they’d never met; in the second study they rated people they’d known for a few months; and in the third study they rated people they had known for at least three years. When people ranked individuals they didn’t know, people tended to agree on who was a catch and who wasn’t—it came down to superficial markers like good looks and likability. But researchers also found that as people got to know each other, perceptions changed and people tended to disagree about who seemed like a good partner and who didn’t.

“[As we spend more time with someone] we stop agreeing on how desirable or undesirable they are,” says study author Dr. Paul W. Eastwick, an assistant professor in the department of human development and family sciences. “We start to have very idiosyncratic opinions of one another.” The findings show that who we ultimately determine to be an ideal mate is unique, and we can greatly differ in our opinions of who is attractive, intelligent, popular, and who would make a good relationship partner.

So when it comes down to it, sure: At “hello,” some people have a leg up on others. But once someone is a known quantity, their desirability isn’t so clear-cut: Attractiveness and social status give way to compatibility and how suitable someone is for an actual relationship. “These findings are a good thing if people don’t care about getting the [conventionally ideal] mate, but care about finding the mate that is good and compatible for them,” says Eastwick.

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