How happy we are in love depends directly on our dating pool

Better than the other potential mates?
Better than the other potential mates?
Image: Reuters/ Lucas Jackson
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You might like to believe that happiness with your partner depends on falling in love, whether you’re soulmates, and general compatibility. But a study published in Evolution & Human Behavior earlier this month takes a more coldly practical approach.

Finding a suitable partner tends to be the result of tradeoffs and compromises, note psychology researchers from the University of Texas at Austin, as “potential mates do not come à la carte.” As a result, they write in the paper, few people find a perfect match:

“Most people on the mating market have a choice between an array of imperfect matches, each of whom satisfies and fails to satisfy different subsets of their mate preferences.”

The researchers asked participants to rank how much their romantic partners exhibited specific traits they valued. And the study found that satisfaction in a relationship was not related purely to how well mates fulfilled those preferences.

Instead, the researchers found that individuals who rated themselves as having fewer desirable traits than their mate (in other words, they thought their partner was a better catch than themselves) were generally happy with the relationships. Those who thought they were more desirable than their partner were less satisfied, but only if other potential matches in the dating pool did a better job of meeting their preferences. In other words, regardless of how well a partner fulfills preferences, relationship satisfaction was weak if the partner rated poorly compared to other potential mates.

This makes sense from a natural selection perspective, as it wouldn’t be evolutionarily advantageous to abandon a weak partner only to be left with an even worse match.

A “well-designed satisfaction adaption” would take into account “mate value discrepancies between actual partner and potential partners,” wrote the authors.

The study also found that relationship satisfaction was a predictor of “mate retention behavior”—in other words, how hard people work to maintain their relationship.

These findings came from three studies of 860 people, all of whom were in ongoing heterosexual relationships. The first study asked participants to complete a relationship satisfaction survey, to rate how much they valued particular traits in a partner, and how much both they and their partner met each trait. Researchers compared an individual partner to the dating pool by evaluating each partner’s trait scores compared to others in the survey.

The second study replicated these findings while also determining how relationship satisfaction affected behavior to maintain the relationship. The third study replicated both, while modifying questionnaire methodology in how participants evaluated mate preferences. This third study did find a link between how well a partner fulfills mate preferences and relationship satisfaction. However, the authors note that as this connection was only found in one of three studies, it could be “weak, unreliable, or moderated by other variables that varied a cross our samples.”

“Altogether, mate-value discrepancies appear to have a clear and theoretically consistent effect on relationship satisfaction but mate-preference fulfillment does not,” they add.

There are limitations to the study, particularly as the authors did not look at confined dating pools. This means the study could not distinguish between someone living in a remote town with only a small pool or partners to choose from, and someone who had a long list of potential matches. “Samples drawn from specific locations would likely allow better estimates of the partner-potential discrepancy participants experience because they would be derived from the pool of potential mates participants actually encounter,” the authors add.

Still, the practical findings from the study do make evolutionary sense, even if they don’t sound particularly romantic.