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Chapter 08 - Dating and Mate Selection

This book has been updated. The new version of this chapter is located at FreeSociologyBooks.com

Sixty years ago if you were of marrying age, you'd most likely select someone based on how your parents felt about him or her, how healthy the person appeared to be, how good/moral his or her character appeared to be, and how stable his or her economic resources appeared to be. Today we search for soul mates. Look around you in the classroom. How many potential mates are sitting there? In other words, how many single females or males are there in the same classroom? Now, of those, how many would you be attracted to as a date and how many can you tell just by watching them that you'd probably never date? These are the types of questions and answers we consider when we study dating and mate selection.

Figure 1. Potential Mate Collage

In the United States there are millions of people between the ages of 18 and 24 (18-24 is considered prime dating and mate-selection ages). The U.S. Statistical Abstracts estimates that 9.5 percent of the U.S. population or about 15,675,000 males and 15,037,000 females are in this age group (retrieved 3 November 2009 from www.census.gov/compendia/statab/tables/09s0010.pdf). Those numbers should have been very similar in the 2010 Census. Does that mean that you could have 15 million potential mates out there somewhere? Yes, potential yet not in realistic terms. You see, it would take more time than any mortal has in their life to ever interact with that many people. Besides, dating and mate-selection is not about volume, it's about quality and intimacy in the relationship. To help you better understand this, let's learn a few key principles that apply to the realistic processes we use to date and select mates.

When we see people, we filter them as either being in or out of our pool of eligibles. Filtering is the process of identifying those we interact with as either being in or out of our pool of people we might consider to be a date or mate. There are many filters we use. One is physical appearance. We might include some because of tattoos and piercing or exclude some for the exact same physical traits. We might include some because they know someone we know or exclude the same people because they are total strangers. Figure 1 shows the basic date- and mate-selection principles that play into our filtering processes. (This inverted pyramid metaphorically  represents a filter that a liquid might be poured through to refine it; e.g., a coffee filter.)

Figure 2. Types of Filters Used to Eliminate or Include Potential Dates and Mates

That couple in the photo is my wife and I on a field trip to the Association for Applied and Clinical Sociology in Ypsilanti, Michigan. She and I travel without our children at least twice per year, and we have been attending professional conferences together for more than a decade. We met in college in 1985. I was the maintenance man for all of the women's dorms, and she lived in the dorms (I met many female friends through my work). We dated, became engaged, and were married in the same year. We worked together for seven years to put me through my associate's, bachelor's, master's, and doctorate degree programs and then my post-doctoral fellowship. My wife now has her bachelor's degree and is shopping for her master's. Higher education is a theme that emerged within our life experiences and has spilled over into our children's lives now with three of them in college at this time. All of the principles discussed in this chapter applied to how my wife and I met, became friends, and chose to marry. They will likely apply to you and your experiences.

Propenquity is the geographic closeness experienced by potential dates and mates. It's the proximity you might experience by living in the same dorms or apartment buildings, going to the same university or college, working in the same place of employment, or belonging to the same religious group. Proximity means that you both breathe the same air in the same place at about the same time. Proximity is crucial because the more you see one another or interact directly or indirectly with one another, the more likely you see each other as mates. I often ask my students how they met and when they tell their stories I help them identify the geography that was involved in the process.

Physical attractiveness is subjective and is defined differently for each individual. Truly, what one person finds as attractive is not what others find to be attractive. There are a few biological, psychological, and social-emotional aspects of appearance that tend to make an individual more attractive to more people. These include slightly above-average desirable traits and symmetry in facial features.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (www.CDC.gov), the average man in the United States is 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighs about 177 pounds. The average woman is about 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighs about 144 pounds. Did you just compare yourself? Most of us tend to compare ourselves to averages or to others we know. That's how we come to define our personal level of attractiveness. It is important to understand that we subjectively judge ourselves as being more or less attractive, because we often limit our dating pool of eligibles to those we think are in our same category of beauty.

If you are 6 feet tall as a man or 5 feet 8 inches tall as a woman, then you are slightly above average in height. For men, universally desirable traits include manly facial features (strong chin and jaw and somewhat prominent brow), slight upper body musculature, and a slim waist. For women, larger eyes, softer facial features and chin, fuller lips, and an hour-glass figure are more universally desirable traits.

So, here is the million-dollar question: “What if I don't have these universally desirable traits?  Am I excluded from the date- and mate-selection market?" No. The principle I have found to be the most powerful predictor of how we make our dating and mating selection choices is not universally desirable traits but homogamy. Homogamy is the tendency for dates, mates, and spouses to pair off with someone of similar attraction, background, interests, and needs. This is true for most couples. They find and pair off with persons of similarity more than difference. Have you ever heard the colloquial phrase, “opposites attract?” To some degree they do, but typically opposites don't form committed, long-term relationships together.

One of my students challenged this notion in the case of her own relationship. She said, “My husband and I are so different. He like Mexican food, I like Italian. He likes rap and I like classical music. He likes water skiing and I like camping and hiking . . .” I interrupted her and said, “So you both like ethnic food, music, and outdoors. Do you vote on similar issues? Do you have similar family backgrounds? Do you come from similar economic classes?” She answered yes to all three questions.

Now, don't misunderstand me. Couples are not identical, just similar. And we tend to find patterns indicating that homogamy in a relationship can be indirectly supportive of a long-term relationship quality because it facilitates less disagreements and disconnections of routines in the daily life of a couple. I believe that we filter homogamously and even to the point that we do tend to marry someone like our parents. Here's why: people from similar economic classes, ethnicities, religions, political persuasions, and lifestyles tend to hang out with others like themselves. Our mates often resemble our parents because we resemble our parents and we tend to look for others like ourselves.

Heterogamy is the dating or pairing of individuals with differences in traits. All of us pair off with heterogamous and homogamous individuals, with emphasis more on the latter than the former. Over time, after commitments are made, couples often develop more homogamy. Some develop similar mannerisms, finish each other's sentences, dress alike, develop mutually common hobbies and interests, and parent together.

One of the most influential psychologists in the 1950-60s was Abraham Maslow, with his famous Pyramid of the Hierarchy of Needs (Google “A Theory of Human Motivation”). Maslow's pyramid has been taught in high schools and colleges for decades. Most of my students tell me they've seen the pyramid or studied Maslow in more than one previous class. Maslow sheds light on how and why we pick the person we pick when choosing a date or mate by focusing on how they meet our needs as a date, mate, or spouse. Persons from dysfunctional homes where children were not nurtured nor supported through childhood would likely be attracted to someone who provides that unfulfilled nurturing need they still have. Persons from homes where they were nurtured, supported, and sustained in their individual growth and development would likely be attracted to someone who promises growth and support in intellectual, aesthetic, or self-actualization (becoming fully who our individual potential allows us to become) areas of life. It may sound selfish at first glance, but we really do date and mate on the basis of what we get out of it (or how our needs are met).

The Social Exchange Theory and its rational choice formula clarify the selection process even further:

Maximize Rewards - Minimize Costs = Date or Mate Choice

When we interact with potential dates and mates, we run a mental balance sheet in our heads. She might think, “He's tall, confident, funny, and friends with my friends.” As she talks a bit more she might say, “But, he chews smokeless tobacco, only wants to party, and just flirted with another young woman while we were still talking.” The entire time we interact with potential dates and mates we evaluate them on their appearance, disposition, goals and aspirations, and other traits -- this while simultaneously remembering how we rate and evaluate ourselves. Rarely do we seek out the best-looking person at the party unless we define ourselves as an even match for him or her. More often we rank and rate ourselves compared to others and as we size up and evaluate potentials we define the overall exchange rationally or in an economic context in which we try to maximize our rewards while minimizing our losses.

The overall evaluation of the deal also depends to a great extent on how well we feel matched on racial and ethnic traits, religious background, social economic class, and age similarities. Truly the complexity of the date- and mate-selection process includes many obvious and some more subtle processes that you can understand for yourself. If you are single, you can apply them to the date- and mate-selection processes you currently pursue.

Bernard Murstein wrote articles in the early 1970s where he tested his Stimulus-Value-Role Theory of marital choice (see “Physical Attractiveness and Marital Choice,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 22(1): April 1972, p. 8-12, or Who Will Marry Whom? Theories and Research in Marital Choice, New York; Springer, 1976). To Murstein, the exchange is mutual and dependent upon the subjective attractions and the subjective assets and liabilities each individual brings to the relationship. The Stimulus is the trait (usually physical) that draws your attention to the person. After time is spent together dating or hanging out, Values are compared for compatibility and evaluation of maximization of rewards while minimization of costs is calculated. If after time and relational compatibility supports it, the pair may choose to take Roles, which typically include exclusive dating, cohabitation, engagement, or marriage. Figure 2 shows how the Stimulus-Value-Role Theory might overlap with a couple's development of intimacy over increased time and increased interaction.

Figure 3. Depiction of Stimulus-Value-Role Theory with Intimacy and Over Time & Interaction

How do strangers transition from not even knowing one another to eventually cohabiting or marrying? From the very first encounter, two strangers begin a process that either excludes one another as potential dates or mates or includes them and begins the process of establishing intimacy. Intimacy is the mutual feeling of acceptance, trust, and connection to another person, even with the understanding of the individual's personal faults. In other words, intimacy is the ability to become close to one another, to accept one another as is, and eventually to feel accepted by the other. Intimacy is not sexual intercourse, although sexual intercourse may be one of many expressions of intimacy. When two strangers meet, they have a stimulus that alerts one or both to take notice of the other.

I read a book by Judith Wallerstein (see The Good Marriage, 1995) in which a woman was on a date with a guy and overheard another man laughing like Santa Clause might laugh. She asked her date to introduce her and that began the relationship that would become her decades-long marriage to the Santa-Clause-laughing guy. I've had people tell me personally that in their relationship, there was a subtle connection that just felt safe, like a reunion with a long-lost friend, when they first met one another. I've had many indicate that they thought the other was so very hot and good looking, “and I couldn't wait to get burned,” one female student said.

In the stimulus stage, some motivation at the physical, social, emotional, intellectual, or spiritual level sparks interests and the interaction begins. Over time and with increased interaction, two people may make that journey of values comparisons and contrasts that inevitably includes or excludes the other. The more time and interaction that is accompanied by increased trust and acceptance of one's self and the other, the more the intimacy and probability of a long-term relationship.

Even though Figure 2 shows that a smooth line of increasing intimacy can occur, it does not always occur so smoothly nor so predictably. As the couple reaches a place where a bond has developed, they establish patterns of commitment and loyalty, which initiates the roles listed in Figure 2. The roles are listed in increasing order of level of commitment, yet the list does not indicate any kind of predictable stages the couple would be expected to pursue. In other words, some couples may take the relationship only as far as Exclusive Dating, which is the mutual agreement to exclude others from dating either individual in the relationship. Another couple may eventually cohabit or marry.

It should be mentioned that what you'd look for in a date is often different from what you might look for in a spouse. Dates are temporary adventures where good looks, fun personality, entertainment capacity, and even your social status by being seen in public with him or her are considered important. Dates are short-term and can be singular events or a few events.  Many college students who have dated more than once develop “A Thing,” or a relationship noticed by the individuals and their friends as either beginning or having at least started, but not quite having a defined destination. These couples eventually hold a DTR. A DTR is a moment in which the two individuals Define The Relationship openly to determine if both want to include each other in a specific goal-directed destination (e.g., exclusive dating) or if it's better for everyone if the relationship ends.

Ever had one of these? Many describe them as awkward. I think awkward is an understatement. A DTR is extremely risky in terms of how much of one's self has to be involved and in terms of how vulnerable it makes each person feel. In the TV series "The Office," Jim and Pam experience a number of DTRs that early on in the relationship ended with either or both of them wanting more closeness and commitment but neither of them being capable of making it happen. "The Office" is fiction, but the relationships clearly reflect some of the human experience in an accurate way.
Notice that Jim and Pam were from the same part of the country, had very many social and cultural traits in common, and met in a setting where they could see each other on a regular basis and have the opportunity to go through the Stimulus-Value-Role process. Homogamy, propenquity, need matching, compatibility, and eventually commitment all applied in their story together. The cultural similarities of a couple cannot be emphasized enough in this discussion.

Many of those living in the United States share common mainstream cultural traits, regardless of ancestral heritage or ethnic background, and date and mate selection occurs for nearly all members of society. Figure 3 shows a list of cultural and ethnic background traits that influence how the inclusion and exclusion decisions are made, depending on how similar or different each individual defines themselves to be in relation to the other. Many who teach relationship skills in cross-cultural or trans-racial relationships focus on the similarity principle.

Table 1. Cultural and Ethnic Background Traits

  • Language
  • Religion
  • Traditions & holidays
  • Lifestyles and self-identification
  • Workplace skills
  • Educational aspirations and achievements
  • Age similarity
  • Physical appearance (skin color, facial features, body shape and size)
  • Food preferences
  • Political leanings
  • Economic similarities
  • Common shared experiences (e.g., military background)
  • Family cultural similarities and compatibilities
  • Physical attractiveness similarities
  • Hobbies and interest similarities
  • Life goals similarities
  • Others

The Similarity Principle states that the more similar two people perceive themselves to be, the more likely their relationship will continue and succeed. Notice the word perceive, because actual similarities are not as critical as an individual's belief that there are common characteristics. Also, certain individuals value one background trait over others. They may be more willing to overlook or ignore differences in traits that are not as similar.

In the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding (my wife and I saw this one three times together in theaters), the Greek-American woman who was the main character meets a strikingly handsome professional man from a different ethnic background. Much of the difficulty she had in including him as a mate was her perception that her cultural and family background was unattractive and could not be desirable to potential mates. He was deeply attracted to her family because it filled his need for family connection, tradition, and support. He changed his religion, learned the Greek culture, and adopted her family as his surrogate family.

In real life, most don't make such profound concessions when choosing a mate. The relationship is less likely to develop if there are few or no common traits and more likely if there are more common traits, especially in the areas of commonality that the individuals define as being very important.

Dating often turns into exclusive or boyfriend-girlfriend type relationships. These relationships are crucial in the lives of young adults because they allow each other to gain experience in the daily routines of intimate relationships. They don't always develop into a long-term relationship, but practicing in healthy relationships is far more valuable than the grieving from breaking up. There are a few key guidelines if you need to break up. These make sense but also have a tremendous amount of literature and science to back them up.

First, before you break up, do a maximize rewards and minimize cost pros-and-cons evaluation so you can make sure that breaking up is the best choice you can make. Second, break up clearly so there is no ambiguity about where the relationship might be headed. Third, avoid hanging out together after the breakup. I know you see this in TV shows and I know you have friends who probably still hang out after the breakup. But don't. It's the drama that fills soap operas, 911 calls, and dramatic shows on evening TV. And remember that a woman is more likely to be physically attacked by her intimate partner than by any other person (even strangers).

There are some rules that can be summarized about how we include dates or mates in our pool of eligibles, and these are shown in Figure 4. 

Figure 4. Five Rules of Date and Mate Selection

Rule #1 is Exogamy, which is the tendency to pair off with or marry someone outside of your own familial groups. Most people follow this rule with little or no formal instruction. Rule #2 is to find a compatible person who can have their needs be met by you and your needs be met by him or her. Rule #3 is to select someone who is a good find, a great deal, or a maximized-reward/minimized-costs formula. You are deserving of a date or mate who will reinforce your value as an individual and who will be pleasing to you.

Rule #4 is to maximize homogamy and look for commonalities that will smooth out the daily adjustments of the relationship. I doubt you'd ever find a perfect match on all of these traits, but make sure you find a good match of complementary personality traits and background characteristics.

Rule #5 is very important. You must learn to discern trouble and danger in a date or mate. Intimate violence is the worst and most deadly violence, especially for women. Their dates, mates, spouses, and life partners are more likely to cause them violent harm than will any other category of relationship in their lives. Figure 5 provides some criteria to identify as red flags, warning signs, or danger signs.

Figure 5. Risky, Dangerous, and Otherwise Unhealthy Traits in Potential Dates and Mates

Is critical to you about things you cannot change (your physical traits, personality, or quirks)                      
Shaming
Is physically violent toward others (family, friends, or strangers)
Angry
Flies into a rage when frustrated (very impatient or can't handle when things don't go his or her way)                                                                              
Violent
Stands you up for appointments without excusing him or herself Disrespectful
Makes everything about him or herself almost all of the time Intolerant
Can't tolerate your honest opinion (you have to walk on rice paper)                                                                                           
Blaming
Flirts with others in your presence Unregulated (not self-controlled)
Blames everyone but self (“never my fault”) Victim
Is extremely needy and demands that you take care of those needs Needy
Tries to take physical liberties with you regardless of your protests or concerns       
Bully
Minimizes rudeness and inconsideration with humor (often says “just kidding”)                                                                     
Mean
Shows little or no remorse when wrongs you or another Inconsiderate
Steals your things or your money
Selfish
Tries to isolate you from friends, family, and others Domineering
Schedules your activities and routines without consulting you Controlling
Fails to respect your decision to say no Unkind
Overdoes the substances (alcohol, tobacco, pills, etc.) Dishonest, Irresponsible

 

The risky and dangerous traits you might see in a potential date or mate can be early warning signals to raise red flags. In fairness, the presence of any one of these may just indicate a bad day. However, some potential dates and mates are predatorial. That means they search for types of people they can manipulate and control and try to pair off with them. The presence of a few of these traits could raise your suspicions enough for you to become a savvy shopper, a discriminating consumer, or even a detective of danger signs. Remember that when dating and selecting a mate, overcautious discernment is justified.

Most people never experience the extreme dangers of dating. For most, it's more of an emotional risk than a safety risk. Many chose to marry, and more marry in the warmer months of the year than in the other months. When relationships form and engagements are made and agreed upon, an entire social experience is initiated in which new social roles and networks begin to unfold. Engaged people announce their plans to family and friends and by so doing initiate a few processes within the social community of each fiancé.

Announcements of the engagement begin the process of exclusion of others. All other potential suitors and dates are excluded from the pool of eligibles while exclusive monogamy begins in almost every aspect of the couple's lives. She often wears a ring that ranges in value from $2,000 to $10,000. That ring deters most because it symbolizes her agreement to marry her fiancé. The couple often formalizes their wedding plans in a newspaper, mailed-out invitations to the reception, and/or online announcements.

The creation of extended kin ties is crucial to a successful engagement. In-laws are people you become related to by virtue of marrying into your fiancé's family network. I often joke with my students that you get in-laws and out-laws when you marry. Not all in-laws will get along with the couple as well as might be wished. To some degree in-laws are expected to at least be compatible with the new family member (fiancé) and if possible in another degree to establish close relational bonds. Engagement also signifies to the couple the ultimate direction of their courtship. Marriage and the merging of social networks, belongings, monies, physical intimacy, rights, children, and many other things becomes the focus. Unfortunately, many couples focus heavily on the reception and that becomes a great source of stress, which they must adapt to or be destroyed by if they're not careful to learn to face stressors in a united manner. Engagement provides the couple with opportunities to practice being married, in many different aspects of the relationship.

Most engagements end in marriage. But some end in a breaking up event in which the marriage is canceled. Sometimes couples realize that they were not as compatible as they originally thought themselves to be. Sometimes they are geographically separated by various circumstances and find that their commitment did not withstand the test of time and space. Other times in-laws and extended family incompatibilities work against the marriage. And finally, sometimes people just fall out of love or lose interest.

For those who are searching for a spouse, the market is an uneven playing field. The United States has what social scientists call a “marriage squeeze.” A Marriage Squeeze is a demographic imbalance in the number of males to females among those considered to be of marrying ages. There is also a phenomenon called the Marriage Gradient. The Marriage Gradient is the tendency for women to marry a man slightly older and slightly taller while men tend to marry a woman slightly more attractive.

Based on U.S. Census numbers presented above, there are about 15,675,000 males and 15,037,000 females ages 18-24. That boils down to 638,000 extra males in the marriage market. Since women tend to want to marry a man slightly older, the marriage market is squeezed because there are too few females for all the available males. In fact, this leads some men to marry women who are six or more years older than they are, women who already have children, and women four to six years younger than they are.

China and India have tremendous problems with their marriage squeeze issues. Because of sex-selection abortion, cultural preferences for males, female infanticide, and cultural definitions of “females being a burden” rather than a source of joy and rejoicing, they are missing tens of millions of females in these populations. For example in 2001 India had 35 million extra men nationwide (retrieved 5 November 2009 from www.prb.org/Articles/2001/2001CensusResultsMixedforIndiasWomenandGirls.aspx). In 2003 China was reported to also have about 35 million extra men (retrieved 5 November 2009 from www.prb.org/Reports/2003/ShortageofGirlsinChina.aspx).

As you've read through this chapter, you have learned a great deal about how we (perhaps even you) include or exclude people into or away from your pool of eligibles. In the latter part, I may have overemphasized the “buyer beware” approach that I wanted you to have as you move through the date- and mate-selection market. Fear not. Enjoy dating and mate selection. It is a wonderful time of your life that can be the best and simultaneously the worst of times. It may help for you to understand a bit more about yourself so that you can develop a strategy in being proactive and focused in your date- and mate-selection experiences.