What Men and Women Really Want in a Partner

Is there a simple answer to what men and women really want in a partner?

Yes, there is… but I’m going to take some space to state what it is and how I got there. The simple answer will admittedly seem stereotypical to some readers, but it’s absolutely accurate — men want physical affection and respect and women want emotional and economic stability.

We know this from research on how men and women flirt and interact with each other. While flirting is a relatively under-researched area in psychology, there’s clearly a group of facial expressions and gestures that are commonly labeled “flirting behaviors” by scientists and nonscientists alike.  As courtship signals these nonverbal behaviors serve to attract and maintain the attentions of a potential partner. Likewise, rebuffing a partner also has been found to be conducted through nonverbal communication channels.

Many experts (2,4,5,6) have characterized courtship and rejection in humans, despite the possession of verbal fluency, as predominately nonverbal rather than verbal. However, it is important to note that this characterization was offered in the context of face-to-face (offline) interactions. With the rise of the Internet in the early 1990s, the advent of online dating and social networking services has radically expanded the opportunities and venues for flirting (1,7). Research by Dr. Monica Whitty (7-9) suggests that while physical bodies are not present online, representations of the body still matter. Whitty (8) specifically compared the self-reported offline and online flirting behaviors in a large, multinational sample and found that men and women flirted in distinctively gender-defined ways – both offline and online – and that these ways were generally consistent with evolutionary perspectives on courtship and mating.

Evolutionary perspectives stress the potential resources that men and women contribute to producing offspring (3). They suggest that women contribute their physical bodies, which should therefore indicate good health, youthfulness and fertility. In contrast, some of the important desirable characteristics for men include physical dominance and an ability to provide resources for the mother and offspring, for example social status, ambition and high income. Numerous empirical studies support these views8. Further paralleling this evolutionary model and suggesting that gender roles are reasonably robust across both offline and online interactions, Whitty reported that women were more likely than men to flirt online and offline by employing nonverbal signals, laughing and emphasizing physical attractiveness. In contrast, men were more likely than women to emphasize socioeconomic status (SES).

Of course, how people flirt is one thing; what qualities daters prefer in romantic prospects is an entirely different issue. This separate topic is one recently addressed in a research partnership between my research team (Integrated Knowledge Systems: www.iknowsys.com) and Markus Frind of Plenty of Fish (www.pof.com). We surveyed over 5000 online daters of all ages, gender and income levels about a great deal of issues that had to do with the broad buckets of Communication, Physical Chemistry, Drive, Accomplishment and Disposition. Specifically, we asked about what qualities or characteristics in a romantic partner were most important to them, and then we used powerful statistics to rank order these traits. This exercise was part of a larger study to develop a new relationship coaching test for the Plenty of Fish dating site.

The results were clear, undeniable and unsurprising…  the men most strongly valued the traits, behaviors and attitudes related to Physical Chemistry (sex, appearance, potential for healthy children), whereas the women most valued the traits, behaviors and attitudes related to Accomplishment (success, career, wealth and money).

It sure seems that — knowingly or not — men and women do seem to conform to the basic principles of the evolutionary view of human mate selection. So what does this mean for online daters?   For the men, in your profiles and communications with other daters, by all means talk to prospects about your dreams, aspirations and accomplishments. Let the women know that you have the qualities to provide emotional and economic security for a family. For the women, in your profiles and communications with other daters, by all means talk about your capacity to provide physical affection and comfort, as well as touch upon your philosophy about health and fitness. Let the men know that you have the qualities to provide support, motivation, acceptance and approval for a family.

The idea is to talk about what you can bring to a relationship over the long-term, not just the short-term. Too often people focus on the short-term, rather than thinking about how they intend to work at maintaining or sustaining a romance over time. It’s easy to hook up, but it’s more difficult to keep someone satisfied throughout his or her life. Serious daters simply want to know if you have what it takes to do exactly that.