In Relationships, People Care More About What’s Wrong With You Than What’s Right


He’s great, but he has no ambition. She’s wonderful, but she’s not very witty. New research says in choosing partners, we tend to weigh the negative far more than the positive. This sounds like kind of a bummer—but is it?

The Wall Street Journal reports on a series of six studies that shed some insight into the inner workings of our minds when it comes to dating. Namely, she notes that “in mating, people pay more attention to what’s wrong with a would-be partner than what is right.” Oof. Other takeaways from the research:

  • Ladies have more deal-breakers than dudes.
  • People who think they are a great catch have more deal-breakers because they feel they can afford to.
  • Men and women agreed that the worst traits include “disheveled/unclean,” “lazy,” and “too needy.”
  • More men than women have issues with “low sex drive” and “talks too much.”
  • More women than men rated “bad sex” as a no-go, as well as “lacks a sense of humor.”

As social psychology professor Gregory Webster told WSJ rather memorably: “Basically, for short-term partners, if they have a toothbrush, they’re good to go.” (Here is a handy chart of the breakdown on those “nonstarters.”)

While none of this is shocking, it does fascinate, because in general we tend to hear “tall, dark and handsome,” rather than “not short, not pale, not ugly.” But part of the reason people tend to recommend dating around is that it’s just as important to figure out what you don’t want as what you do. It’s easy enough to be attracted, to spend time together, have decent sex, and settle into a dating scenario; but there are so many other things that crop up in the long term that can derail happiness, and you can’t always know what you don’t want until you’ve experienced it.

“Think of it as the relationship version of the economic loss aversion theory, which holds that people prioritize avoiding risk over acquiring gains,” Bernstein offers. Among the people she interviewed about their deal breakers, she found a lot of stuff people didn’t want.

Many people said they draw the line at a partner who smokes, drinks excessively, lies, talks too loud or doesn’t know how to communicate. Lots of people refuse to date someone who won’t spend time with their family. Some aren’t interested in a person who has a dog or cat. Others won’t date someone without one. My own list of deal breakers has included poor grammar, stonewashed jeans, and a stack of self-help books on the nightstand.

Some of this stuff matters because it’s a deep reflection on values, intelligence, culture, curiosity, discerning taste, and so on. But don’t ever underestimate the power of garden-variety pickiness! For some people, little shit matters; they can’t imagine spending a lifetime looking at someone’s ugly feet (something WSJ says came up a lot on lists of deal-breakers).

Falling in love is a strange brew of mysterious forces and as much as we like to tell other people to stay open-minded about the more superficial stuff, narrowing down potential mates on our own is a natural and normal part of the process. But your personal set of deal-breakers are still worth interrogating, and potentially re-evaluating. If you know you want your partner to have a stable career, what happens if, after 20 years, that person decides to chuck it all to work at a coffee shop and write a novel? Are you out? Or might you decide that career stability isn’t everything it’s chalked up to be; if you’re with someone who otherwise makes you really happy?

Or if you fall in love with someone who doesn’t want children, and you don’t either, and then you change your mind? It can happen. We may realize over time that some of our most cherished deal-breakers aren’t things we actually care about that much. So by all means keep your deal-breakers—just try not to take them too seriously.

Image via ABC/The Bachelorette.

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