Why Having the 'Ideal' Partner Doesn't Mean You'll Be Happy

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In the search for a romantic partner, it seems reasonable to think that finding a man or woman who checks off many of the boxes on your list of "ideal mate" characteristics would lead to a happier relationship. But a new study finds that may not be the case.

Researchers found that people's satisfaction in their romantic relationships was not linked with how well their mate's qualities lined up with their ideal traits, according to the findings, published online April 12 in the journal Psychological Science.

Instead, relationship happiness depends not on finding the "perfect" mate but rather the best available one, said Daniel Conroy-Beam, a graduate student in psychology at The University of Texas at Austin and lead author of the study.

These findings suggest that people don't need to have their ideal partner to be satisfied in a relationship, Conroy-Beam said. "Having an ideal partner doesn't really make a person happier," he said. [I Don't: 5 Myths About Marriage]

Relationship satisfaction

Previous studies focused on finding which qualities men and women seek when selecting a potential mate, but researchers have paid less attention to the way such mate preferences may affect the feelings and behaviors of couples in established relationships.

In one of the experiments in the new study, the researchers recruited 300 people who were involved in long-term, heterosexual relationships and had them complete an online survey. More than half of the participants were married, one-quarter were dating exclusively, and the rest were either engaged, dating casually or living together. The average length of the relationships was about six years.

The survey asked each participant to rate, on a scale from 1 (meaning irrelevant) to 7 (meaning indispensable), the importance of 27 possible traits in their ideal long-term partner. The qualities included traits such as intelligence, kindness, dependability, financial prospects, physical desirability and health.

Rather than directly comparing the qualities of their actual mate to those of their ideal mate or to those of other potential mates, the participants separately rated, on a 7-point scale ranging from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree," the extent to which they felt these traits applied to their actual long-term partner as well as to themselves.

The results showed that the participants' satisfaction in their relationship was not dependent on how well their actual partner compared with their idea of the perfect mate. Instead, relationship satisfaction appeared to be linked to whether people thought that there were other people in the available mating pool who would be better matchesto their ideal preferences. [The Science of Breakups: 7 Facts About Splitsville]

Real-world romances

In the real world, people involved in romantic relationships might make similar calculations by comparing their preferences for their ideal partner to how well their current mate stacks up to them, Conroy-Beam told Live Science. Then, a person may decide that there is no point in leaving an existing relationship if there is not a better partner in the pool of alternative mates, he said.

As long as a partner is perceived to be the best available in that moment, people will be satisfied in the relationship, Conroy-Beam said.

However, it's not known how long this satisfaction will last over time, Conroy-Beam noted. Although the study included couples across all stages and lengths of ongoing relationships, it did not look at how people's satisfaction changed over the span of a long-term relationship, he said.

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Live Science Contributor

Cari Nierenberg has been writing about health and wellness topics for online news outlets and print publications for more than two decades. Her work has been published by Live Science, The Washington Post, WebMD, Scientific American, among others. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in nutrition from Cornell University and a Master of Science degree in Nutrition and Communication from Boston University.