~ SEPTEMBER 2022 ~
When you’re looking for love, it can be frustrating to read what might seem to be overly specific research findings that may or may not apply to your love life—or lack thereof.
I admit that research is the key to relationship science, but reading an onslaught of findings about how to find love can be difficult for anybody to make sense of, let alone apply to dating.
Luckily, as psychologist Kurt Lewin once said, “There is nothing as practical as a good theory.” When it comes to finding love and hitting it off with a date, psychologists Eli Finkel and Paul Eastwick have identified four theories, as outlined in the APA Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology, to explain why people become romantically attracted to one another.
1. Reward Theory
Attraction occurs when partners meet basic needs.
Remember Mick Jagger singing the song “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”? He tries, and he tries, and he tries, and he tries… but he can’t get any satisfaction.
In this sense, single people tend to be a lot like Mick Jagger. They are often on the lookout for a romantic partner who can help them satisfy their basic needs, such as the need to feel good about themselves (self-enhancement), belong (social connection), and grow into a new or improved version of themselves (self-expansion).
Finkel and Eastwick suggest that dating someone who helps satisfy basic needs may be an especially rewarding, or pleasant, interaction. Imagine dating someone who appreciates your work, shares similar values, attends the same school or church, and positions you to learn or try new things, for instance. This date sounds ideal because each partner is satisfying one another’s needs for self-enhancement, belonging, and self-expansion.
Partners who only text when they are lonely may be dating for social connection, which is certainly an important need. But if dating leaves other needs unmet, then interactions will not be rewarding and attraction will be unlikely to develop.
2. Evolutionary Theory
Men and women are attracted to different traits.
Although men and women share many of the same preferences in a dating partner—such as someone who showers regularly—they do tend to differ in their preference for certain traits in particular.
According to evolutionary theory, men and women have historically faced different pressures related to survival and passing on their genes to future generations. Women, for instance, traditionally face challenges related to investments in childbirth and raising children. Therefore, women tend to be especially attracted to strong partners with access to resources that allow their partners to support and defend their families. In fact, many cross-cultural studies show women are often especially attracted to partners who appear ambitious and industrious, financially stable, and are slightly older than themselves.
Men, on the other hand, have traditionally faced challenges such as finding a partner to have children with and supporting the children they father. Whereas women are certain any child they birth is genetically related to themselves, men may not always be so sure. To avoid cuckoldry, or a father mistakenly raising a child that he is not genetically related to, men tend to be especially attracted to women who are physically beautiful, chaste, faithful, and slightly younger than themselves.
Thus, it may behoove single people to be upfront with their relationship goals, such as whether they desire to eventually start a family, and avoid misleading a potential partner, such as not lying about career aspirations or posting overly-filtered selfies.
3. Attachment Theory
Similar attachment styles are attractive.
In the first few years of life, kids answer an extremely important question: What does love feel like? According to some proponents of what’s known as attachment theory, how people tend to think, feel, and act in romantic relationships stems from how their parents, or primary caregiver, treated them as an infant. (It’s important to note, however, that the correlations between childhood attachment and adult behavior are far from perfect.)
If parents are responsive to their children’s needs, children tend to internalize beliefs that their needs are worthwhile and others can be trusted to help meet their needs. Children with less responsive parents may believe they are not good enough, and feel anxiously attached, or believe others cannot be trusted, and feel avoidantly attached.
Then kids grow up and start dating. According to attachment theorists, their attachment style will color every romantic relationship they will have. Anxiously attached adults, for example, tend to be clingy, fear rejection, lack boundaries, and jump from relationship to relationship seeking closeness and protection. Avoidantly attached people tend to be staunchly independent, emotionally distant, prefer not to depend on others, and more prone to one-night stands.
Importantly, people tend to gravitate towards romantic partners with similar attachment styles as themselves. For an anxiously attached person, dating someone who calls multiple times a day or gets jealous easily may make them feel like they are loved and valued. But an avoidantly attached person may be most attracted to someone who checks in infrequently and gives plenty of space for each person to live almost entirely autonomous lives.
Most people with secure attachment, who tend to be low in anxiety and avoidance, may feel loved by a partner who checks in regularly but trusts their partner when they are not around.
Because similar attachment styles are attracted to one another, it may be worthwhile to know your own attachment style and be on the lookout for matches who feel the same way about love as you do.
4. Instrumentality Theory
Attraction depends on whatever goal is most important.
Because reward, evolutionary, and attachment theories are all useful but somewhat limited in scope, Finkel and Eastwick propose instrumentality theory. They argue that people are motivated to achieve many different goals in life, such as feeling good about themselves, starting a family, or feeling safe and secure.
Whatever goal is most important at a given time, the dating partner who is most instrumental to achieve that goal would presumably be the most attractive. Future studies are needed to test instrumentality theory, but presumably who is deemed attractive may change depending on whatever goal a dater hopes to achieve.