“If you love someone, let them go. If it’s meant to be, they’ll come back to you”, “opposites attract”, and “absence makes the heart grow fonder”. Everyone’s guilty of having used generic phrases like these at least once. Even though we might think that they have a certain truth to them, our opinions on relationships, and the advice that we dish out, changes all the time. So what is the truth?
Research in attraction has supported that some aspects of relationships are simpler than we may think. Proximity, mere exposure, familiarity, and perceived similarity to someone have been found to generate liking. We are more likely to be attracted to, or form a relationship with, someone that we see more often, and that we think we have things in common with. Simply seeing someone more increases how attractive we think they are (apparently). So, do opposites attract? Not really. It’s not that similarity sparks attraction. It’s that dissimilarity triggers repulsion.
Mate selection in evolutionary psychology talks a lot about survival of the fittest. So, do we want someone who’s just fit, or whose features signal good health and survival of our babies, and other good daddy prospects? We have a bias for beauty. The majority of studies have found that men rank physical attractiveness higher on their list of important characteristics in a partner compared to women. But, as with every controversial topic, there are findings that go against this. So who knows what the truth really is? It has been suggested that certain faces are more attractive than others, because of things like symmetry, or a man with stubble (signs of good health).
So, do we go for brains or beauty? Research shows women want slightly above average intelligent partners for a single date. As commitment to a partner increases, the desired intelligence increases. Men also want relatively intelligent women to date and marry, but have really low intelligence standards for purely sexual partners. One study had students go up to someone of the opposite sex and ask either if they wanted to go out with them, wanted to come back to their apartment with them, or if they wanted to go to bed with them. About half of both sexes said yes to the date. About 10% of women said yes to going to their apartment, and none said yes to the sexual invitation. Men were actually more likely to say yes to going to someone’s apartment, or to having sex with them (about 80% of the time), compared to saying yes to a date.
Don’t worry, there are studies that don’t make women look that great either. A universal clue to the control of resources is social status, and that is exactly what women look for in men. This eventually signals better offspring survival. Apparently, women want those good financial prospects. When asked how selective they were in terms of how much their man should earn, their minimum amount was almost double as much as the men’s answers. There has also been a ‘cads vs. dads’ mating theory (very controversial!) stating that women want a good guy for long-term relationships, but prefer bad boys for flings, basically distinguishing ‘Mr. Right’ from ‘Mr. Right Now’.
So, do we accept the love we think we deserve? Actually, yes. When people were asked whether they want a partner who thinks positively or negatively of them, they answered positively when they also had high self-esteem, but answered that they actually want a partner who sees them negatively when they see themselves that way. This boils down to people wanting to be understood, rather than flattered.
Do we pick partners that are like our parents? While this is terrifying and kind of disgusting, there is a certain truth to it. Studies have found strong links between a person’s opposite-sex parent and their partner. Research also supports that it’s not just how our parent looks that unconsciously appeals to us, but also our relationship with that parent. If we have a healthy, loving, and supportive relationship with them, then we will look for a partner that will treat us the same way. If we find negative characteristics in our partner that remind us of things we hate about our parents, then our relationship satisfaction plummets. I’m not saying that the Oedipus complex is true, but research supports that we subconsciously look for an appearance and familiar traits and characteristics that may resemble our lovely parents.
The psychology behind modern-day relationships is so complex that it is still difficult to tell what is wrong or right. Nevertheless, it is comforting to know that there are (more intelligent and qualified) people out there, researching the phrases and ideas that we nonchalantly throw around. I get what researchers are going for, and I have read through the evidence, I just don’t know if I want to make conclusions based on it. If someone has ever pointed out a person that they thought was god-like and super attractive, and you just think ‘wow, no thanks’ then you know what I mean.
Maybe one day you’ll have a psychological answer with evidence as to why someone bailed on you, never called, or got way too attached, or why you can’t get out of a toxic relationship. Maybe our dating behaviour can be improved by all this research. Just know that even if he doesn’t have beautiful stubble, or if she doesn’t look like your mother, they still might be the one for you.