There are several theories that try to explain why we chose the mates we do.
Psychodynamic theories emphasize the influence of childhood on one’s choice of mate.
Parent Image Theory is a psychodynamic theory supported by Sigmund Freud. He called it the Oedipus or Electra complex — when a person married someone like his or her mother or father. Mothers and fathers are generally our first love objects, and this theory suggests that sons and daughters model after the parents of the same sex by selecting partners similar to the one the parent selected (i.e. mother/father).
Another psychodynamic theory is the Ideal Mate Theory. In this theory, one marries an ideal mate based on early childhood experiences. We choose someone who meets our every need and responds quickly and totally. The problem is when this mate does not live up to our expectations after marriage, which can certainly cause a lot of disappointment in a relationship.
Needs Theory is another psychodynamic theory which states that we select a partner who will fulfill our needs. Winch (1958) promoted the Complementary-Needs Theory stating that we pick those whose needs are opposite, but complementary to, our own — the opposites attract theory. Also, couples may have similar needs but at different levels or times during a relationship. You want to get a Master’s Degree, but your mate wants a PhD. You both want to do advanced study, but your levels of energy and aspiration are different.
The Exchange Theory is another theory of mate selection. In this theory one will get at least as much from the relationship as it will cost. The aim is to maximize the rewards of marriage. The rewards are the behaviors (your partner looking at you with eyes of love), words (saying, “I love you”), resources (being beautiful or handsome, having a car, condo, or money), and services (cooking, cleaning, exciting sex every night) your partner provides for you that which you value and thus influences you to continue the relationship. The costs are the unpleasant aspects of a relationship. A woman might identify the costs associated with being involved with her partner as: “He abuses drugs, doesn’t have a job, and lives nine hours away.” The costs her partner might associate with being involved with this woman might include: “She nags me, she doesn’t like sex, and she wants her mother to live with us if we marry.”
When the rewards exceed the costs a profit occurs. Unless the couple referred to above derive a profit from staying together, they are likely to end their relationship and seek someone else that could yield them a higher profit margin. Loss occurs when the costs exceed the rewards. Another reason one might stay in a relationship even if there is no profit is because there is no alternative – no one currently available who offers a higher profit margin.
In the personal ads on the internet and via dating services, men and women are generally looking for the social attributes of someone – men often want young, slim, attractive woman; women often want someone who is a devoted husband and father, ambitious, and economically successful. Once you identify the person who offers you a good exchange for what you have to offer, other bargains are made about the conditions of your continued relationship. What other things are you willing to compromise on? This is when the Principle of Least Interest comes in. The person who has the least interest in continuing the relationship can control the relationship. If you have the least interest then you have nothing to lose, while the person with the most interest has everything to lose if the relationship does not last.
Another type of mate selection theory is the Developmental Process Theory. This theory is a process of filtering out ineligible and incompatible people until one person is selected using family background factors, propinquity, and attraction. When I catch episodes of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette I see this filtering process in motion.
Filters – we begin with a wide range of eligibles who then go through a series of filters (propinquity, attraction, homogamy, compatibility) so that the numbers are reduced each time, then cohabitation or engagement, and if they make it through this filter, they get married. Couples vary in the emphasis they place on different filters.
Field of Eligibles – shortage or abundance of the opposite sex available to marry. During World War II so many men were away at war that there was not much choice left.
Propinquity – geographic nearness or the tendency to marry someone who lives and works in the same social context. Living, working, or going to school near someone provides an opportunity to see that person regularly. In addition, being at the same school, working at the same job, worshiping at the same place, or living close to another person may be related to sharing similar interests, frustrations, values, and life experiences.
Attraction – people are drawn to those whom they find attractive, both physically and to specific personality traits.
Homogamy – choosing a mate who shares personal and social characteristics, such as race, age, ethnicity, education, socioeconomic class, and religion.
Heterogamy – choosing a mate different from oneself.
Race – of the over 55 million married couples in the US, over 95% consist of spouses who have the same racial background (Statistical Abstract of the US: 2000, Table 54). Blacks are more likely than Whites to report that they are open to involvement in an interracial relationship. This may be because there are more benefits for a Black to join the majority than vice versa. There may be more Whites available to Blacks and a greater exposure of Blacks to White culture than Whites to Black culture. In Black families, the mothers are more likely to determine acceptance of a partner of another race and in White families, it is more likely the father that determines acceptance. College students are more accepting of cohabitation and interracial relationships, than non-college age people. Those who have dated interracially were more open to doing so again.
Age – the median age of first married females and males are 24.5 and 26.7 respectively (1996). The older one is when they first get married, the greater the chances that they will remain married. Men generally tend to marry younger women.
Education – the very pursuit of education becomes a value to be shared. Going to college provides an opportunity to marry someone with a college education and increases one’s chance that only a college-educated partner is acceptable as a potential cohabitant or spouse. The older the woman the more likely she is to marry a partner with less education.
Social Class – you have been reared in a particular social class that reflects your parents’ occupations, incomes, and education as well as your residence, language, and values. The Mating Gradient is the tendency of husbands to be more advanced than their wives with regard to age, education, and occupational success, although this is changing in our society today. This can cause some high-status women to remain single. These women sometimes only receive approval from their parents and peers if they marry someone of equal status, so instead of dropping their standards, they remain single. Conversely, if you improve your educational and economic opportunities, it also improves your likelihood of marrying a man of means.
Religion – a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices. This is generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects. Spirituality is the belief that the spirit is the seat of moral or religious nature, which guides one’s daily behavior. Religion is a major force in marital stability. The more regularly a couple attends church, the higher the marital satisfaction, with shared beliefs they are more likely to try everything possible to make their marriage work. They feel that they are letting their community and their Higher Power down if they don’t make it work. Another reason that religion is a large factor in marriage is the basic tenet of religion is forgiveness. This forgiveness becomes incorporated into the marriage and helps sustain it over time. The old adage, the couple that prays together, stays together is more than just a cliché.
Marital Status – singles tend to marry singles, divorced people tend to marry other divorced people, and those widowed tend to marry others who are widowed.
Mental Health – spouses with panic disorders, phobias, generalized anxiety, and drug dependence are more likely to select other spouses with the same disorders.
Personality – similar personalities report high well-being. For example, conservatives with other conservatives, liberals with liberals, risk-takers with risk-takers tend to have higher marital satisfaction.
Time Perspective – another filter is whether a person is past, present, or future-oriented. We tend to choose those that are similar or opposite in this regard.
Compatibility – temperament, attitudes and values, needs, role conceptions and enactment, and personal habits. We want people who are compatible in these areas. Role expectations should be discussed before marriage, and to overcome troublesome habits, open communication between spouses is essential. I was thinking this morning that the toothpaste industry has eliminated one major source of behavior that made compatibility difficult. They have attached the tops to the tubes of toothpaste and you no longer have to deal with a partner who always leaves the top off! There are still other issues though, do you squeeze from the end or the middle of the tube of toothpaste, do you put the paper forward or backward on the toilet paper holder, or do you leave the seat up or put it down after use?
Certainly plenty of issues to discuss with a potential life partner! So much to consider! No wonder making a thoughtful and wise decision about choice of a “significant other” is difficult!