Early Romantic Love & Selecting Mates

Explorer, mess-maker

Explorer, mess-maker

A few weeks ago, my infant daughter found a stash of old letters I’d written to my wife (longhand!) when we first started dating in college many years ago. With a big grin on her face, she pulled several of them out and scattered them all over the floor. As I began to clean up the mess, I pulled one out at random and started to read it. [Long story short: early romantic love is gross.] 

The handwriting was instantly recognizable, but it had been so long since I wrote the letter that it almost seemed like I was reading someone else’s words. That would probably be true about anything I wrote that long ago, but given the tone of the letter, I assumed that it would all come back to me instantly. Some of it did, but with the passage of time, much has been forgotten. A quote from Joan Didion seems appropriate here: “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.” (But there is always room to become re-acquainted).

Frankly, I couldn’t even read the entire letter, which was cringe-worthy in places. One day I will re-read all of them, even the poems. (Yes, there were poems; no, you will never see them). For now, forty year-old me, with the benefit of age and a little more knowledge, understands that younger me was clearly in the grips of early romantic love for the first time. This is often a messy — sometimes even overwhelming — experience (see here and here). I’m certain that not everyone experiences this in the same way; after all, variation is the norm and “there are all kinds of love in this world, but never the same love twice.” But there are consistencies. From the outside, those early stages of love can appear highly irrational. And from within, they can be disorienting. Certainly, life would be duller without it, and I think that overall it’s worth all the messiness, even the cringe-worthy parts.

I bring these things up now because on his Psychology Today blog, Noam Shpancer had a recent post about what people look for in a long-term mate. In fact, it was one of the most read posts on the site, which got my attention. Shpancer then compiles a list of traits that people seek in potential mates: physical attraction, familiarity, personality, similarity, dependability, social status, etc. At one point, I made a similar list here. Of course, much of this probably depends on where we live, and the degree of romantic freedom we have in making our own choices. For example, in cultures with arranged marriages, personal preferences become secondary or even altogether irrelevant.

Shpancer also reviewed two approaches to understanding why people seek the traits they do in a long-term mate: an evolutionary perspective, and social role theory. As I’ve written before, I do not think the two are mutually exclusive. Instead, we can conceive of a hybrid approach, where evolution may have sculpted our biological impulses, but individuals learn cultural norms as to the various ways those impulses might be appropriately expressed. In turn, individuals can also reinterpret their inherited social norms and traditions, reconstructing them for themselves and subsequent generations. 

For example, many studies have found how profoundly our social environments impact our mate choices. A recent article by Isabel Scott et al. (2014) reported that preferences for highly masculine or feminine faces varied widely across cultures, suggesting that Western preferences “may be relatively novel.” Batres and Perrett (2014) found something similar in El Salvador, where individual preferences for facial masculinity/ femininity and body fat correlated with whether they had internet access. Therefore, a ‘digital divide’ may be influencing, in part, which traits are perceived as attractive.

Finally, Anne Helen Petersen put together a non-scientific, but thoughtful, look at how people make nearly instantaneous impressions of others on online dating sites based on a few key signifiers. She wrote that: “we find someone ‘hot’ based on unconscious codes of class, race, education level, religion, and corresponding interests embedded within the photos of their profile.” Those signifiers allow us to form an idea of what a person’s overall background and life story might be like, which then feeds back into our personal perceptions (and cultural norms) of whether they would make a good match.

Perhaps the most interesting part is that, for all of our lists and attempts to understand how people choose mates, there is no perfect equation. Instead, it often seems non-linear, even impenetrable, at least on an individual basis. We may have a list of traits we would like to see in a mate, but at some level the choice is not completely within our conscious control. Shpancer concludes:  

“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.”


Batres C,  Perrett DI. 2014. The Influence of the Digital Divide on Face Preferences in El Salvador: People without Internet Access Prefer More Feminine Men, More Masculine Women, and Women with Higher Adiposity. PLoS ONE vol. 9 (7) p. 6 Link

Scott IM, Clark AP, Josephson SC,  Boyette AH, Cuthill IC, et al. 2014. Human preferences for sexually dimorphic faces may be evolutionarily novel Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences vol. 111 (40) p. 14388-14393. Link

7 thoughts on “Early Romantic Love & Selecting Mates

  1. Thanks for not publishing those letters, Patrick!

    As for selecting a mate. Charles Darwin took almost as long to do so as to publish ‘The Origin of Species’. Before zooming in on specifics, he had to decide whether to have one at all. He made out a list of pros and cons (this is published) and decided that on balance and bearing in mind that he would get older rather than younger, he would go ahead.

    But I would say that ‘normal’ people spend much more time selecting a new car than in evaluating a mate. Perhaps that has logic. After all, get a good car and you can keep it for several years…

    • Ha. Yes, I remember Darwin’s pros and cons of marriage list. Perhaps all choices have tradeoffs and opportunity costs. On the one hand this, on the other hand that. But unlike choosing cars, the powerful psychology of romantic love tosses all that rationality into the background and forces our hand. Though I suppose it’s possible to fall in love with a specific car too, in a way.

      As for my letters, you don’t have to worry. If they were published as much of Darwin’s personal writing was, I’d be mortified (even after I was literally mortified).

  2. plus, of course, men marry their mothers and women their fathers. It doesn’t seem like it during the early romantic time, but it looks more like it as we approach the ages our parents were when we were old enough to know them . . .

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