What we want in our partners (it's more simple than you think)

August 26, 2014

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There's a lot of conflicting information out there regarding who wants what out of a relationship. But there are three things that almost everyone, across all cultures seem to value more than anything else.

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This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.

What people look for in their partners is a question that produces material for hundreds of ebooks and websites like this one. Many answers miss a quite pronounced and replicable finding, first reported in the 90's in response to a somewhat discomfiting evolutionary account of sexual attraction. All over the world, from 'developed' nations to hunter-gatherer cultures, people will generally focus on three groups of qualities:

  • Traits related to trustworthiness, intelligence and warmth
  • Characteristics relating to vitality and physical attractiveness
  • And finally ones that reference the ability to gain resources and social status

This might not be surprising to you. What is more interesting is that those three clusters of factors are ordered according to how important they are to people. Warmth, intelligence and trustworthiness are consistently found to be the most important to people, with physical attractiveness and status/resources coming in (close) second.

The findings come from multiple sources, and various methods, but more often than not come to this conclusion.

For example, David Buss and his colleagues did a systematic analysis of people's rankings of important partner traits across thirty seven cultures. Things like understanding, intelligence and kindness beat out what he called 'earning power' (status) and physical attractiveness for both men and women. More recently, in 2007, Richard Lippa did an online survey where more than 100,000 people from fifty-three countries were asked to choose three of a list of 23 items relating to important partner characteristics, and the top nine came back to things like intelligence, kindness and physical attractiveness.

That's not to say there is no criticism. Garth Fletcher and his colleagues, among other critics were worried that giving people lists of traits would limit people from describing what's important in their own words. So, they asked people to write down and rate ideal characteristics of partners. Using factor analysis (a statistical method that clusters things according to underlying 'latent' or hidden variables), they were able to see how people grouped these things and the analysis again discovered our three factors, all neatly in order regardless of gender or relationship status.

So I'd say it's fairly conclusive. Warmth and intelligence, then physical attractiveness and vitality, then status and resources are the most important characteristics people look for in relationships. It might not be so surprising. But in a world increasingly leaning into the promotion of physical attributes and wealth on Instagram and whatnot, it's a little bit of reassurance to keep you warm (pun intended).

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