We’ll work harder to keep high-value mates

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Relationship satisfaction and how much energy you’re willing to put in to keep a partner may have a lot do with how he or she compares to who else is out there and available.

When it comes to dating, people choose partners with qualities that are as close as possible to their ideal, prioritizing from a variety of traits like intelligence, health, kindness, attractiveness, dependability, and financial prospects.

“Few decisions impact fitness more than mate selection, so natural selection has endowed us with a set of powerfully motivating mate preferences,” says Daniel Conroy-Beam, a psychology researcher at the University of Texas at Austin.

“We demonstrate that mate preferences continue to shape our feelings and behaviors within relationships in at least two key ways: by interacting with nuanced emotional systems such as how happy we are with our partner and by influencing how much or little effort we devote to keeping them.”

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For the study, published in Evolution and Human Behavior, researchers simulated a mating pool from 119 men and 140 women who had been in relationships for an average of 7.5 years. Each participant rated the importance of 27 traits in an ideal mate and the extent to which they felt each trait described both their actual partner and themselves. Researchers then used the new method to calculate each of the participants’ and their partners’ mate value, or desirability within the mating pool, as determined by the group’s average ideal preferences.


“Few decisions impact fitness more than mate selection, so natural selection has endowed us with a set of powerfully motivating mate preferences.”

Participants also reported their relationship satisfaction and happiness. The study showed that satisfaction was not reliably dependent on how a partner compared with a person’s idea of the perfect mate, but rather whether others in the mating pool better matched a person’s ideal preferences.

People with partners who rated “more desirable” than they did were satisfied whether or not their partners matched their ideal preferences. But, participants with partners less desirable were happy with their relationship only if their partner fulfilled their ideal preferences better than most other potential mates in the group, Conroy-Beam says.

“Satisfaction and happiness are not as clear cut as we think they are. We do not need ideal partners for relationship bliss. Instead, satisfaction appears to come, in part, from getting the best partner available to us.”

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In a follow-up study, researchers again tested relationship satisfaction but also surveyed how much energy participants put in to keep the relationship going. People with partners difficult to replace, either because their partner was more desirable than themselves or their partner more closely matched their ideal preferences than others in the group, reported being happier and devoted more effort to mate retention. This included making themselves extra attractive for their partners and “mate guarding,” or shielding their partners from mating rivals to help keep their partners.

“Relationship dissatisfaction and mate guarding intensity, in turn, are key processes linked to outcomes such as infidelity and breaking up, both of which can be costly in evolutionary currencies,” says coauthor David Buss, professor of psychology.

“Mate preferences matter beyond initial mate selection, profoundly influencing both relationship dynamics and effort devoted to keeping partners. Mates gained often have to be retained to reap the adaptive rewards inherent in pair-bonding—an evolutionary hallmark of our species.”

Source: University of Texas at Austin

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