In our search for a romantic partner, most of us have a long list of attributes that describe our perfect mate. These preferences go from general traits (e.g., smart, kind, funny, adventurous, understanding) to specific skills and interests (e.g., good cook, loves baseball, politically active, likes to travel). But we realize that we can’t find everything in one person — We’ll have to make some compromises. What are the most important things you should look for if you want to have a happy and successful relationship? Decades of research examining relationship satisfaction and longevity points to several qualities that you may be able to spot early on that make someone a better partner.
1. Focus on kindness, loyalty and understanding, not looks, status, and excitement.
When people are asked to list the most important qualities in a potential partner, kindness, physical attractiveness, an exciting personality, and income/earning potential tend to top the list.1 But some of these traits are more important than others once people actually get involved in relationships. Research I described in detail in an earlier post found that those whose partners meet their ideals in terms of warmth and loyalty are more satisfied with their relationships. Whereas meeting ideals in terms of physical attractiveness, excitement, status, and wealth is much less correlated with overall satisfaction. This research also found that having a having a partner who fell short on attractiveness, status, and excitement did not affect satisfaction if that partner was highly warm, kind, and loyal. So those more “superficial traits” were not important at all, for those whose partners were kind, understanding, and loyal.
You should look for someone who is similar to you. A large body of research shows that we are attracted to people who are similar to us, especially those who share our attitudes and values. And in fact, similar couples are happier. Research has shown that couples who share tastes, interests and expectations tend to encounter fewer conflicts.3,4 When you like the same kinds of food, movies, or hobbies and have the same attitudes toward work-leisure balance, child-rearing, and handling social obligations there is just a lot less to fight about. There is also evidence that spouses that start out more similar in terms of educational attainment, age, and desired number of children are less likely to get divorced.5
In addition, seeking a mate who is similar to you may sometimes have you searching for traits that are more idiosyncratic — improving your chances of landing someone who has those qualities. Almost everyone wants a mate who is kind and good-looking, so kind and good-looking people are going to be in high demand on the dating market. But if you really want someone who shares your passion for ballroom dancing and your obsession with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the competition is likely to be less intense.
You should find someone who is reliable. Conscientiousness is about being practical, reliable, rule-following, and organized. This may not sound like the sexiest package of traits, but it’s a good package in a long-term mate. People who are conscientious tend to bring that trait into their relationships and are more dependable and trustworthy.6 People who are less conscientious are more difficult to deal with in a relationship – They cancel plans, they don’t fulfill their obligations around the house, they act carelessly, and they fall through on their promises. So that unpopular kid in high school who always got his or her homework done early and followed all the rules could make a trustworthy, and dependable spouse in the future.
4. Emotional stability.
The one personality trait that affects our relationships the most is emotional stability — In the psychological literature, it’s often referred to by its opposite: Neuroticism.7 Those who lack emotional stability tend to be moody, touchy, anxious, and quicker to anger. All of this makes them more difficult to live with. Those high in neuroticism are much more likely to have negative and argumentative interactions with other people, including their romantic partners.8,9 They also tend to be more jealous and less forgiving.10,11 Not surprisingly then, those high in neuroticism are more likely to end up divorced.12 So in the early stages of dating, watch out for someone who seems excessively touchy and anxious, as it could be a sign that a relationship with them will be rocky.
5. The belief that relationships take work.
When you’re just starting a relationship with someone, it’s hard to anticipate how things will change after months or years together and how this person will deal with the inevitable bumps along the road. But you can get a sense of how hard they will work to maintain a happy a relationship and resolve conflicts. How? You need to understand their general philosophy about relationships.
Researchers have identified two sets of beliefs about relationships: Growth beliefs and destiny beliefs.13 Those with destiny beliefs think that relationships are either meant to be or not. They believe that once two soulmates unite, everything will be great. If a relationship is meant to be, then everything will just work out. If there are problems, that’s just a sign that you’re with the wrong person. In contrast, those with growth beliefs think that relationships take hard work and that a strong relationship is something that you develop over time. They believe that all relationships will encounter problems and that having a stronger relationship means working hard to cope with difficulties that arise.
These different attitudes toward relationships have major implications for how people cope with relationship difficulties. When people with destiny beliefs hit a bump, they assume it’s a sign that the relationship is doomed. So they tend to avoid conflicts and become angry if they must acknowledge their partner’s faults (because that would mean the relationship is not meant to be). And when the going gets tough, they give up, rather than working to repair damage to the relationship. In contrast, those with growth beliefs are more open to discussing problems, and respond positively to challenges in the relationship by working to resolve them.
These are just a few qualities that you can look out for early in a relationship. Of course this is not an exhaustive list, as there are other qualities also associated with relationship success. And many important factors won’t show up until later in your relationship (the way they deal with conflicts, how they get along with your family). Is your relationship doomed if your partner doesn’t have all of these qualities? — Certainly not (that sort of thinking is a destiny belief!). But all of these factors have been shown to be associated with having happier relationships. And they are things that you can figure out pretty quickly as you get to know a new partner. So keep these 5 qualities in mind the next time you’re starting a new relationship.
Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College, who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior. Read more more articles by Dr. Seidman on Close Encounters.
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13 Knee, C. R. & Petty, K. N. (2013). Implicit theories of relationships: Destiny and growth beliefs. In J. A. Simpson & L. Campbell (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of close relationships (pp. 183-198). New York: Oxford University Press