Most of us have a long list of attributes that describe our perfect mate, from general traits — smart, kind, funny, adventurous, understanding — to specific skills and interests — good cook, loves baseball, politically active, likes to travel. But we realize that we can’t find everything in one person; we have to make some compromises.
So what are the most important things to prioritize if you want to have a happy and successful relationship? Decades of research into relationship satisfaction and longevity points to several key qualities you may be able to spot early on:
1. 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 once you’re actually involved in a relationship, some of these traits become more important than others. 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. Having a partner who meets one’s ideals in terms of physical attractiveness, excitement, status, and wealth, on the other hand, is much less correlated with overall satisfaction. This research also found that having a partner who fell short on attractiveness, status, and excitement did not affect satisfaction if that partner was also highly warm, kind, and loyal. In other words, those more “superficial’ traits were not important at all for those whose partners were kind, understanding, and loyal.
You should seek 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 social obligations, there is just less to fight about. There is also evidence that spouses who 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 or your obsession with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the competition is likely to be less intense.
Conscientiousness is about being reliable, practical, rule-following, and organized. This may not sound like the sexiest set of traits, but it’s a good package for 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, fail to fulfill their obligations around the house, act carelessly, and fall through on their promises. That unpopular kid in high school who always got his or her homework done and followed all the rules could make a more trustworthy and dependable spouse in the future.
4. Emotional stability.
The personality trait that affects our relationships most is emotional stability.7 Those who lack it tend to be moody, touchy, anxious, and quicker to anger — all traits that make someone more difficult to live with. Those high in neuroticism (the opposite of emotional stability) are much more likely to have negative and argumentative interactions with others, including their partners.8,9 They also tend to be more jealous and less forgiving.10,11 Not surprisingly, then, individuals high in neuroticism are more likely to end up divorced.12 In the early stages of dating, watch out for someone who seems excessively touchy or anxious: It could be a sign that a relationship with that person will be rocky.
5. The belief that relationships take work.
When you’re just starting a relationship, it’s hard to anticipate how things will change after months or years together, and how a partner will deal with the inevitable bumps in the road. But you can get a sense of how hard they will work to maintain a happy relationship and resolve conflicts. How? You need to understand their general philosophy about relationships.
Researchers have identified two primary 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 soul mates unite, everything will be perfect — when a relationship is meant to be, everything will just work out. But 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 inevitably 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 their 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 the damage. 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. This is not an exhaustive list; there are other qualities also associated with relationship success. And many important factors won’t show up until later in your relationship, like the way they deal with conflicts, or 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 them in mind the next time you consider entering into 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 articles by Dr. Seidman on Close Encounters.