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How Do We Choose a Mate? Let Me Count the Ways!

Updated: Jun 26, 2023

By Dr. Nancy Fishman / Morgan Hill, Calif.

I’ve always been fascinated with stories of how two people meet and fall in love. Are pairings random? Or are there specific factors that create an attraction strong enough for people to risk disappointment and hurt in search of the right fit?

As a psychologist, I’m prone to analyze attraction and couplings by examining the emotional needs that drive individuals towards each other. In my May 28 article, Loneliness, a Human Plague, I talk about the avoidance of loneliness as the primary motivation in seeking a partnership, whether it be a love relationship, business association or friendship. This time, let’s focus on love relationships.

What magnetic forces are at work that bring people together? Is it a preconceived, idealized image of a perfect match, a single must-have trait, or a check list of qualities that influences the pairing? Perhaps it is love at first sight, damn the red flags.

Adrienne and Tony met at a coffee shop before work. Standing in line, Tony breathed in the essence of coconut from Adrienne’s still wet hair. She could see his muscular physique through his thin shirt. Their eyes met and each felt the moment electrify. The drive to connect took on a life of its own. No thought process could stop them from being together.

In the early stage of their relationship, neither asked if this were right. They could only declare, “We’re in love and that’s the only thing that matters. Love conquers all, and we’ll figure out the rest later.” Is it any wonder when love-at-first-sight pairings result in surprise endings? I am not saying these meetings are always doomed. Anything is possible!

Certainly, at some point we become aware of the characteristics present in potential partners; we tend to aggrandize some and rationalize away others. Unlike Adrienne and Tony, some people are more cautious daters, especially if they have already sent out their hearts a few times and been burned. They may even create a set of criteria in an attempt to predict a good pairing outcome. But these self-designed surveys are not always reliable.

Take Selma and Jeff, for example, who met on a dating website. The application was a questionnaire that requested a detailed wish list for one’s dream date. Over a few weeks, Selma and Jeff became acquainted by texting, talking, and identifying significant features they desired in a partner. A first in-person date led to many others.

Eight months later, things were looking quite positive for their future together. One Saturday afternoon, they made plans for a picnic in the countryside. In search of a romantic spot to enjoy the day, they happened upon a small mom-and-pop shop replete with cheese, bread, fruit and wine. As the gray-haired shop owner tallied their items, she accidentally forgot to ring up the wine. Jeff realized her mistake, winked at Selma, gathered the purchase and walked out the door. Selma broke up with Jeff that very day.

Even with extreme caution, we can’t always see a person’s true colors. My dear friend Esty gave me a great piece of advice years ago when I was dating. She said, “You can’t really be sure about people you date during the first six months because they are still conscious of good behavior, but if you wait a full year, they are likely to show you exactly who they are.”

Love at first sight or dating checklists are not for everyone. In some cases, people are looking for a mate with a single specific characteristic; its absence is a deal-breaker. Examples of these requirements are geographic proximity, compatible work schedules, a certain body type, or green eyes.

Back in the early ’70s, a time when there was a significant emphasis on appearance, and women and men were commonly objectified, I was at a party where the conversation turned to dating. One of the single guys announced unabashedly that he was in search of a woman to marry who was a natural blonde. Having had a few drinks, he revealed his penchant for blonde pubic hair.

Some months later I saw him on a date with a blonde-haired woman, whom I subsequently learned was on the hunt for a professional man to marry. Apparently, she had found Mr. Right, the guy who met her prerequisite.

To keep him on the hook, she told her new boyfriend she would not have sex with him before marriage. After a brief courtship during which his patience expired, she proudly became the wife of a CPA as had been her plan. On their honeymoon, her new husband was horrified to discover his wife was blonde by the bottle!

Most romantic attractions occur either because of strong physical magnetism, or because of some emotional need created during childhood. Some believe the former is merely a prelude to the unrevealed subconscious drive to be with a particular type of person. It’s hard enough to find the right mate when your eyes are wide open. Enter...the subconscious, that most influential part of us that works around the clock, prompting us to select potential mates who will fulfill our needs and wishes.

Whether we are acutely aware, or completely in the dark, about potential life partners, we continue the search; after all, we are social beings built for relationships. We will forge on looking for the right match. However we get there, remember...the last step is always a leap of faith!


Nancy Fishman, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist, consultant, and author. Visit her website for an extended biography and more information:



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