Whether you are in the early stages of what may become a long-term relationship, or you’ve been with your partner for years or even decades, the two of you have probably asked the other some version of — so why do you like me? Upon reflection, that is a fascinating and complex question. Even if you don’t buy into love at first sight, there has to be some kind of initial attraction that allows you to open up to one person and not the dozens or maybe hundreds of possible partners you may meet in the course of a year.
I’ve written about how choosing a partner requires a mature level of security in your identity, manifested in part by your attachment style (“How Did You Choose Your Partner”). But there is much more to the subject. Writing for Psychology Today, Noam Shpancer, Ph.D. explores the classic divide between how nature and nurture affect a person’s decisions. He cites evolutionary theory as the nature half of the equation, “which claims that behavioral tendencies, physical characteristics, and personality features that promote our chances to survive and reproduce become, by that virtue, desirable to us. In addition, biological and anatomical differences between organisms will dictate different optimal solutions to the same problem.” Fundamentally, he says, and perhaps unconsciously, this leads men to be attracted to young and consequently fertile women, and women to be attracted to men who can provide protection because they need help during pregnancy. Even as social norms change, studies consistently show that men are attracted to youth while women take status parameters into consideration.
Looking at the nurture half of the equation, Shpancer discusses social role theory, which places more importance on social rather than biological processes when it comes to selecting a mate. This theory has gained more adherents in recent years as studies show that men are beginning to take into account the woman’s social and economic status in response to more women entering the work force in the last 50 years.
Shpancer goes on to detail the common laws of attraction that seem to have held up in studies since the 1940s. These include:
Exposure and Familiarity. In short, the more time you spend with someone, the more likely it is that you’ll develop a relationship.
Physical Attraction. Finding someone physically attractive is one of the foundations of a long-term relationship. Thank goodness, then, that beauty is in the eye of the beholder — otherwise there would be a slew of people destined to be single their whole lives.
Proximity. The old descriptor, geographically undesirable, has a kernel of truth. If it’s difficult to get together for a date, chances of that relationship blossoming keep diminishing over time.
Similarity. Some people find this revelation from recent research surprising but it shouldn’t be. “On almost every parameter of background, personality, values, and experience,” Shpancer writes, “we prefer someone who has a lot in common with us over someone who is totally different from us, and also over someone who “completes” or complements us. The ocean wants the ocean, not the beach, and not the boat. One reason for this preference is that it’s easier for us to communicate, understand, know, and trust someone who speaks our language, gets our culture, shares our values, or believes in our God.”
Shpancer continues his deep dive into recent studies and their implications for choosing a mate, including a look at research from American researchers Todd Shackelford, David Schmitt, and David Buss that analyzed the responses of more than 9,000 women and men from 37 countries. Read his full article here.
In the end, though, his conclusion may be more revealing than all the scientific research combined: “The winner — the final selection among all the worthy candidates — is decided by a subjective internal process that is obscure and whimsical and does not necessarily obey the dictates of rationality, evolutionary mandates, cultural pressures, or even our own conscious will, plans or intentions. At the end of the day, as the philosopher Blaise Pascal said, the heart has reasons that reason doesn’t understand.”