SETTLING 101: Traits For A Mate

Dear Duana,

I’m dating Viv, a woman who is never satisfied with what I can give.  Either I work too much and don’t spend enough time with her, or I work too little and there’s not enough money for everything she wants.  And she wants a lot.  I love her, but I’m unhappy and I don’t think this will change.  Am I being too picky and tossing away my best shot at love if I leave, or is staying settling?  Should I find someone I mesh with better?    


Dear Charles,

Dating is the time to pick the one who makes your heart sing, not the one who’s got you singin’ the blues.  Based on your chronic unhappiness with Viv’s chronic dissatisfaction, it’s tempting to advise dropping this relationship like a dinnertime telemarketer.  But you are the expert on you and your needs.  Let’s leverage that expertise to help you answer your own questions so you can get a relationship that is more joy than job—whether with Viv or someone else.    

How can you tap into your own expertise? 

Identify your Traits For A Mate:

  1. If you don’t know what you want, you’re unlikely to get it.  Make a list of everything you can think of that you want in an ideal mate+.  Yes, really.  Put in the stuff about how your ideal woman loves backgammon and sumo wrestling, thinks you’re hilarious but takes you seriously, wants or doesn’t want 2.5 kids, possesses or ignores particular religious and political affiliations, and prefers certain sexual acts a specified number of times per week/month/year. 
  2. Next, separate your list into two categories: Must-Have’s and Wants.  The Must-Have’s are just that, and absence of even one makes the relationship a no-go for you.  You might have some Must-Have’s other people would not include, such as “non-drinker” or “Lutheran”; the key is to be honest about where the lines are drawn for you so that you can adhere to this Standard even when it’s tempting to turn a blind eye to a deal-breaker.  And the Wants are all the qualities you’d like in an ideal mate, but could compromise on if you were otherwise happy, such as “willing to move to Greenland” or “hates golf”. 
  3. Keep this list where you can periodically read and revise it.  The computer is perfect, because you can revisit your list any time to keep true to your Must-Have’s, and you can make edits easily; for instance, after Viv, you might add to your list, “is satisfied with what I can give.” 

Everyone’s list is different, of course.  But science does designate two Universal Deal-Breakers: 

— No Haters.  Research clearly shows that relationships can’t survive happily without Kindness.  And a person who is mean-spirited when they don’t get their way, or cruel to those who can’t retaliate (animals, children, the wait-staff), will eventually mistreat you.    

No Chronic Criticizers.  One of the best-validated long-term love findings is that receiving and showing basic Respect for a mate is a necessity, not a nicety.  Respect can create love where there was none, but habitual character assassination will kill even the most fervent romance. 

Test your List for appropriate Standards: 

Now, let’s discern whether you’re just being Too Picky and should Settle for what you’ve got.  Put a check mark next to every list item that describes you.  If you put “likes golden retrievers” and *you* like golden retrievers, that’s a check mark.  If you wrote “is a science nerd” and *you* are a science nerd, that’s another check.  (Oh wait, that’s from my list.)

Seriously, if you’re anything like the hundreds of people I’ve done this exercise with over the years, almost everything on your list has a check-mark next to it.  And that’s a good thing; it means you have Excellent—not too high, not too low, juuust right— Standards

Those are the Standards to stick with, because abundant science shows that the happiest dating, engaged, and married unions are made between Equals—people who are a great match in almost every regard, from having about the same level of good looks and intelligence and education, to having similar social and economic backgrounds, to enjoying the same activities, to sharing similar core values, goals and lifestyles.  It’s not true that it takes a 100% match to achieve harmony; every couple has differences.  But it is true that differences—not similarities—tend to be sources of conflict.  So Birds Of A Feather flock together…and opposites usually detract. 

Then again, if you insist on a Megan Fox look-alike, that Standard really *is* too high.  Yes, sometimes, a “10” lands a “2”—not that you’re a “2”!  But all over the world, that notable exception occurs when the gorgeous “10” trades her youth and beauty for a male “10’s” wealth, and versa-vice.  The good news?  Abandoning that particular Standard in favor of finding a woman about as good-looking as you are opens you up to making a happy match, and reduces your odds of being cheated on or dumped by She Who Is Out Of Your League.   So says science. 

Test your Relationship for a fit with your Standards:

Now that you know what you want and you know you’re right to want it, let’s evaluate your current relationship.  Does Viv match up on every one of your Must-Have’s?  Is she kind, respectful, and respectable to you?  And in the absence of deal-breakers, does she meet enough of your Wants that you can be happy?  Or does the pain outweigh the pleasure? 

My suspicion is that Viv isn’t passing the test, but it’s still really tough for you to leave.  That makes sense.  You love her, and most of us have been told that love is rare and all-powerful—so we’d better hold onto it if we find it.  Yet in reality, falling in love with poor matches is commonplace, and love alone is not enough.  Love requires support, too.  The kind that comes from finding the right person now—and being the right person thereafter. 

And the right person is someone a whole lot like you, Charles.  Your List will help you stay available for and recognize her, and leave off pursuing false leads.  Your right person won’t be perfect—but she might just be perfect for you.  And that is lasting Satisfaction. 



I thank the following authors and/or scientists for bringing to light the necessity of compatibility, kindness, respect and love in creating and sustaining romantic attachments: 

+—Susan Page, author of what is, in my opinion, the best dating advice book of all time, If I’m So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Single? , from which the Traits For A Mate exercise in this article is derived.  Ms. Page is not a scientist, but science backs up nearly all that she writes.  I highly recommend that singleton Love Science readers read and apply her book to their lives.    

John Gottman and Julie Gottman, authors of my favorite long-term love relationship books, And Baby Makes Three and The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work .  Their books are grounded in decades of science, yet they are easily applied to daily life, with marked effects. 

David G. Myers, textbook author extraordinaire, who synthesizes Social Psychology to separate the logical from the actual in a voice resonant with warmth and wisdom. 

If this article surprised, alarmed or otherwise interested you, please click “Share Article” below to link it with your favorite social media website.

 Do you have a question for Duana?  Contact her at Duana@LoveScienceMedia.com

 All material copyrighted by Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., 2009

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Reader Comments (22)

Reading this has shed a new light on past failed relationships
I guess I have always had standards but never stuck to my standards
in the hopes that the person would eventually conform to my needs and wants
I always thought love was enough, and that love at first sight meant forever.
Now, I see that the hardest part is finding the "perfect for you" mate, and once
you do that, the relationship won't have to feel like a job you go to everyday because you have to.


December 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth wollitz

Love it, love it! Another great article by Duana for my daughter's dating in-box. Also, I am living proof that this exercise will work.

Some years back when I was young, divorced, and seeking to remarry, a very wise friend told me to write down on index cards each characteristic I sought in a mate. So I happily filled out a big stack of cards, one desired trait per card. I had a big wish list - you know: handsome, financially successful, intelligent, considerate, conservative values .... interest in Macrobiotic cooking (um, I was in to that, at the time).

Then my friend asked me to priortize the cards into my top 10. Whoah ...that took some deeper thought and heavy editing. Suddenly my minor wishes (Macrobiotic chef, Adonis god) didn't make the cut. And the interesting thing is that neither did "financially successful." After all the top 9 slots were filled with vital (to me) characteristics such as kindness, honesty, wants children, etc., I had to choose between "spirtual/religious" and "financially successful" and ....I'm very happy with my average-paid, spiritual man :-)

Best wishes to you Charles!

December 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGillian

The problem with trying to "score" someone of equal good looks is that how do you score yourself if you are a man? Am I a 6 or a 9? Did the girls not go out with me because I wasn't in the "popular" crowd? Or was it my personality? I certainly am not ugly or overweight but for some reason I never had a girlfriend throughout high school or college.

I know a lot of it was shyness, I was embarrassed to ask a girl out for fear of rejection. I could just imagine them gossiping, "Can you believe<x> asked me out?" and hearing it passed around campus. I could not have stood the humiliation. So, literally, that part of my life (dealing with females) never developed until my late 20's, and by then I settled for what I thought was a fair trade, an averaging of all the desired traits (still married by the way) because I thought I could never do better. Don't get me wrong, I still love the wife. But I feel cheated out of what could have been, that I had to settle for something less than my ideal. But we'll never know will we, because what are my looks scored at by a woman?

December 1, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterjim

Dead on, Duana. I have almost made a game out of watching my friends get married and divorced and remarried over time. I had come to many of the same conclusions you reach here from watching which marriages worked (very few, sadly) and which ones blew up. I was best man for one of the few that worked (and which I predicted would work - yay!). Some time later, at her birthday celebration, I toasted the two of them with this:

"At your wedding, I told Jasenn that I thought he had chosen well. I only hope that when my time comes, I choose as well as he did."

I really think that choosing well - which involves all of the items you list - is the real secret to lasting happiness. John Lennon said "All you need is love." John Lennon was wrong.

December 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel

Thank you Love Doctor!

I have to applaud those that replied with such brutal honesty. I hope everyone "chooses well" in the future if that choice is still to be made.

December 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBarbara

Dear Elizabeth, beautifully said. Love at first sight does happen to as many as 10% of women and men, according to one study; but it happens without regard for whether anything but the love is there.

As Susan Page writes in her wise and heartening book If I'm So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Single (link above), "The secret of finding love is to clarify what you want and then to pass up everyone who does not fit the bill." So starting with love is beginning backwards; it's much easier on one's heart, clock and bank account to start with Standards, date only those who seem like they might fit, and choose the one you fall in love with as your mate.

I know a man who reached this conclusion on his own--and put it to extremely efficient use. After identifying his Standards, he "shopped" online through more than 1,000 profiles, and contacted 100. Of those 100, he went on first dates with the three women who were the best match with what he sought. Of those three, he asked one on a second date. A few months later, they were wed, and I know for a fact they've been happy--because I was the lucky one he picked.

December 1, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Hi, Gillian, I hope that someday, the Traits For A Mate exercise helps your daughter as much as it has helped you, and I thank you for sharing your story. You were fortunate not only to have a wise friend, but to actually create the List rather than letting her suggestion fall by the wayside.

When students and clients are resistant to this activity, I tell them it's possibly the most important thing they will do in their dating life. This one List helps men and women, young and old, gay and straight, and people from most any culture, economic level or political or religious background to:
--Identify their own Standards
--Evaluate whether their Standards are realistic (most are--but that's important to acknowledge, given how many have been told to lower their standards, stop being so picky, settle, etc.)
--Avoid wasting a lot of emotion, time, energy and money (and chances to meet Mr./Ms. Right) on people who will never work out
--Funnel their candidates so that only realistic Contenders get close enough for Love to happen
--Recognize when a possible Life Mate Candidate comes along
--And cherish that person like the gold they are.

Not a bad set of outcomes from one measly list, is it?

December 1, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Dear Jim, Welcome to Love Science, and thank you for sharing what must be a hard thing to tell.

One of the hopeful messages about the matching phenomenon (as scientists term it) is that lasting happiness is not only an option for the brilliant, brainy, and/or beautiful. It is available to most anyone kind, respectful, loving, and faithful who will delineate and adhere to their Standards--as long as their Standards seek someone very like themselves.

All over the world, men as well as women are actually very good at assessing others' appearance, even though men often deny it. Given a file of photos (whether headshots or body-shots), there's high agreement among total strangers regarding who are the male and female "10's", the "8's", etc. For instance, perhaps Megan Fox is not your personal ideal, but most anyone can see she's a "10" even if not *your* "10". And people usually also have an implicit understanding of their own looks, too. We're just taught not to say so.

So if you and your wife have often been told (or were told during courtship) that you "look so good together" or "look right together", those are external signs that you're a good match on the physical plane. Of course, that's just one facet of a good match. And I should mention that once people are married, their level of appearance match is no longer a great predictor of happiness--because it's so rare for people to intentionally commit to someone vastly less physically ideal than themselves (except for the looks-for-wealth trade-off scenario described in the column). Just as weight doesn't predict the best linebackers in the NFL because they *all* weigh a ton, physical matching doesn't predict marital happiness because non-matches on that dimension are unusual.

The larger issue, though, is your feeling of being cheated out of a better match by shyness and perhaps some low self-esteem--of having settled because you didn't grasp your worth at the time, or didn't believe you could do better. I wonder whether some of that came from common (and woefully wrong) cultural messages that clients and students often say they've experienced, such as:
--You're just being too picky
--You should settle on the first reasonable match who happens along
--If you have love, count yourself lucky, and the rest will take care of itself
--It's selfish to expect genuine happiness
--It's unrealistic to expect a great match; who are you to think you can have it?

I even found an advice book that told people to marry anyone who met half of their Standards, because wanting more was unrealistic and greedy. That's just plain wrong. I hope this article helps as many people as possible to avoid the pain you've been through with feeling that you didn't really get what you wanted--and that you can find happiness yourself through focusing on the long history of successes and friendship with your wife, as well as the future you're working towards together.

December 1, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Thank you, Daniel and Barbara. I appreciate your insights and support. Daniel--sounds like you're still looking, and well-equipped for the search. And you nailed it--Lennon was Wrong! On the other hand, most scientists can't write singable songs...

December 1, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

This one is tough for me. I made the "traits for a mate" list about a year ago and find myself referencing it often. Just as often, however, I seem to excuse the exclusions or blatant discrepancies for the guy that I'm with.

Seems as though evaluating the relationship is easy, but buckling down and doing something about it...well, I'm with Charles in feeling like it may be settling, but this may be the best shot I've got.

December 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCourtney C.

Great advice, as usual!! I chuckle at the memory of my sweetie first meeting my family at the infamous Hearn Family Christmas Party. Mamaw hugged him in a haze of talcum powder and said, "He looks just like a Hearn." That sealed the deal. Friends of ours in the early years said we looked like brother and sister rather than husband and wife. I had finally reached the conclusion that I could not marry...too selfish and fickle. I actually prefer solitude, and I like to do what I want when I want, so....then I decided I wanted a date with that shy, adorable-looking man at the office. And the Rest is History. I haven't read the article on Opposites Attracting yet, too busy preparing for the onslaught of family at Thanksgiving, but I'm definitely interested in the Love Doctor's research on that subject! And Duana, the story of your Mating/Marriage was delightful...I ate it with a spoon. Smart guy :-)

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCarmen

Duana, I agree (and my personal experience confirms) that it's wise to marry someone similiar (Birds of a Feather Flock Together) and likewise that opposites detract. That's on the top layer.

Additionally, at least in my marriage, a subtext seems to exist: My husband and I do possess many "opposite" or shall we say "complimentary" traits, which simultaneously balance the marriage ... and drive us nuts.

For example:
*He is a plodder; I like to get things DONE. NOW.
*He prefers stability, predictability, and structure in a job; I'm an entreupenerial spirit (even though I can't spell it)
*He is quite conforming to his religion; I'm OK with that, but prefer a more inclusive, bigger picture
*He is not a risk taker; I enjoy a reasonable risk for a potential upside
*He didn't enjoy the academia of college; I loved it, stayed for an advanced degree, and later taught
*He is patient; I prefer people to get to the point, already.

I'm sure there are many more examples. But somehow it's all worked for 10+ years, and it keeps on working ...

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGillian

Great article and I have enjoyed the responses from so many. I actually had to turn on my own expertise years ago because I wasn't quite the subject matter expert I thought I was about traits that were prerequisites to what I defined as successful and compatible mates. I was 0 for ??? as every relationship ended and often due to traits I saw in the beginning but simply overlooked or THOUGHT were good but were not so much.

I have shortened that "Must Have" list to 3 things. Trust, Honesty and Sincerity. Sounds Hallmark-ish, I know. But all of the qualities I seek in a woman falls under that trifecta. If I get that, chances are I have at the very least given both myself and the person I am interested in to have a foundation to success. The rest is up to us to make good of it.

Thanks for initiating a great discussion!

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterQuinn

Duana, cool story about you and your man - what a smart guy!

By the way, I want to clarify that I submitted to the "Traits for a Mate" exercise only after my first marriage had failed. When marrying husband #1, I was much too much of a dreamer to do anything that practical. Despite clear warning signs of a mis-match, I proceeded with the marriage believing love could conquer all. NOT.

The second time around I was much more willing to be practical. Time was no longer on my side.

So what's wrong with making a list? And why did I resist it until life had pounded on me to clarify my standards?

I think our young girls today believe it's unromantic or unspontaneous or somehow "wrong" to actually plan for a happy life. Listing the attributes they want in a husband seems about as romantic as listing the attributes they want in a phone. In my young mind, that would be somehow evil or calculating or manipulative ... Love is just supposed to "happen."

Sort of like the way young girls might feel conflicted in the way they view sex: "Hmm....If I plan for it, then I am evil, immoral, calculating ... whatever. So I won't get any pills or buy any condoms. But, if I'm in the moment and it just happens ( and I wasn't planning on it ...) well, then it's ok." Well, then you are PREGNANT.

Seems to me we'd be better off simply acknowledging that planning is OK. It is practical. Sure, it entails sorting your beliefs and criteria, and I'm not certainly not advocating sex among our teens, but I am saying it's good to plan. For sex, and for attributes in husbands, and for happiness in life.

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGillian

I like the "Complimentary Traits" that Gillian referred to. I was looking for that very explanation for describing differences that make a relationship interesting not abrasive. Good job Gillian! Ya know i haven't read any books on the subject of dating but I have told some lady and guy friends about making a list of the traits that are a must. They have to be there in order to allow a couple to mesh and understand the others point of view when opinions differ. I've had friends who were married to people that hated being around close families yet the other lived for family. It caused a fatal rift!
That's a good next subject. I really want to know whats in the mind of partners who really hate being a part of close knit families. It is not uncommon because I know of three relationships that have died for that very reason.
And I also would like to add that there are also bad traits that shouldn't be matched, like finding other depressed people and other habitual drug addicts. I'm not kidding! I have heard someone say they loved their current partner because of their willingness to party hardy, to put it mildly! In other words destructive/negative traits, I would assume, should not be matched.
Finally, I totally agree that someone should not continue to see another who just brings on the blues and not the sunshine. Goes against logic. What is that saying when a person comes in to see the doctor and says to her, "It hurts when I do this." Doctor replies, "Well don't do that!" :)

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGabriel C

It is amusing, but not really, just how ignorant most of us enter the realm of relationship, both friendship and romantic. I unknowingly violated both Universal Deal-Breakers in my marriage the first time around, and while I have some apprehension about being able to accurately assess these and other characteristics before, rather than after, the marriage begins, I want to find someone who is as picky as I am. I am definitely better equipped as I enter this time around, and am glad to be able to draw on your studies as I continue down my path.

December 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKarl

All--I am in awe of the quality of heart and mind in your responses, and the openness with which you share your lives, including the difficult things. Thank you for not only telling your stories to me, but helping other readers through your experiences. You are what gives Love Science its heart and power.

December 2, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Hi, Courtney,

Although loneliness, self-doubt and cultural messages can undermine one's nerve and courage and persistence: I urge you not to settle. But instead of re-reading the article again, may I make a suggestion? Look around you at the other responders here. Elizabeth, Jim, Daniel, Carmen, Gillian, Gabriel, and Karl all offer invaluable hindsight perspectives on why Yes, It Is Tough To Adhere To Your Standards--but if you want to avoid the pain of a broken heart, and perhaps a broken home, it is Vital that you bolster your self-esteem and hold firm to your Must-Have's. They are your deal-breakers for a reason...and breaking the deal later on rather than right now is only going to add to at least two people's pain. And the divorce rate.

Besides, I have never met the Settle-ee who said to their reluctant, half-hearted mate: "Thank you for Settling for me." We All Deserve To Be Chosen. Enthusiastically. Wholeheartedly. If you don't want this person or know they're really not your match, someone else will both match and desire them. Don't deprive any of you of a great mate. Wrong match? Throw 'em back! You'll be glad you did. Eventually, so will they.

December 2, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Dear Gillian and Carmen and Gabriel, oh my! I am beginning to understand that you might like to read an article about whether, when, how and why Opposites Sometimes Attract (or at least don't kill one another)--and how to live happily with Differences. Lol! Consider it done. Well, not quite done--but in progress. I interviewed Helen Fisher, evolutionary anthropologist and author of some fascinating science-based books and scientific consultant to Chemistry.com, last Wednesday for that column, and have been working on it ever since. It is scheduled for release in another week and a half. That said--thank you for the gift of such enthusiastic, ardent, and proactive readers. I cannot ask for more.

Oh, and I thank all three of your for thoughtful, evocative and inspiring commentaries that border on the poetic.

December 2, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Dear Quinn, Nice to have you back. One of the reasons I ask people to be detailed in their thinking is that visualization helps with recognition of a possible Great Match. Of course, your Standards for trust, honesty and sincerity are Must-Have's that are bound to steer you in a happy direction.

Helen Fisher has sagely and scientifically noted that when we choose a mate, we get not just a person, but their lifestyle. I would add that we also inherit their ways of doing things, their people and pets and kids and parents and and and...

Which means that lifestyle aspects are important for most of us, and are well-included on lists. Do you ever want to marry, or would you rather cohabit permanently, or have a true love who lives in an apartment in the same complex? Important to know and make sure you and your honey see eye-to-eye on that aspect (aka Relationship Style). Do you want someone who will travel and explore cities with you...or is it okay for her to be home while you're away? These sorts of issues can range from the vital to the trivial--I just encourage people to think about them so they have the happiest, smoothest launch and lives possible. Thank you again for the good thoughts!

December 2, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Dear Gillian and Karl, Bravo and well-said. It does seem to me that the formerly heartbroken and divorced take the List exercise much more seriously than those who are looking at their first trip down Lover's Lane. It's sad, really, because Settling for a lack of kindness, respect or any absolute deal-breaker is going to break the deal. Just later on, when the deal might include children, a mortgage, mingled families, the busting up of careers...not to mention shredded emotions.

Practicality: Maybe it ain't sexy--but neither is divorce.

Oh, and Karl--Welcome and thank you and good luck. Stick with this crowd and you'll go far :). As for repeating mistakes of the past, I don't think that will occur. You're wiser, literally benefiting from your experience, and in addition, there will be a column at LS specifically devoted to how to assess the character of a prospective mate. Creating a Traits For A Mate List will also help you, because it will keep you true to yourself when tantalizing-yet-inappropriate prospects come along (and they will, lol).

December 2, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Hi, Gabriel, Regarding "Doc, it hurts when I do this..." "Then don't do that!"--
As you're pointing out, sometimes, the truth isn't what hurts. Failing to adhere to it, though, can be agonizing. Thanks for the insights. May they encourage others.

December 2, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.
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