If you’re sensible, you probably select your romantic partners based on looks, character, and compatibility. But you might be surprised to learn that you also unconsciously choose a partner for a few other reasons that are important to be aware of.
Mate selection is as old as our species, and quite honestly not much has changed. Our ancestors picked viable partners for survival and procreation purposes, and although we would all like to think that we have evolved beyond those primitive instincts, we are still picking our short- or long-term partners for some of the same reasons.
Before technology came to dominate all our social interactions, there was something called flirting. Remember that concept? You would see someone across the room, have a moment of connection, and send a whole slew of signals that could easily be interpreted as interest. But what is it that pulls you toward that one potential mate instead of all the others in the room (or on your current dating website)?
Many people would say that the most important part of selecting a partner is chemistry. People have to feel attracted to the person before they’ll even consider them as a viable option.
It turns out that what we call chemistry is a bit more interesting than simple sexual attraction, though.
I recently attended a relationship conference with a keynote presentation by Helen Fisher, Ph.D., a biological anthropologist who has spent an enormous amount of time studying pair bonding and the human relationship as it relates to love and desire.
She describes romantic love as the most powerful brain system, and her research has shown that it’s not any different from our pre-wired fear system. Not surprisingly, romantic love is universal, it’s not gender specific (although men fall in love faster), and it’s actually considered to be a physical drive just like the one that tells you to eat.
Fisher presented her research-based findings on why we pair bond. It turns out that 97 percent of mammals don’t pair up at all, so this idea of choosing a life partner is almost unique to the human species. Originally our ancestors partnered up because survival and raising children would be nearly impossible alone, but we now know that this primitive form of partnership has evolved into much more—with greater demands on each partner’s role and the level of needs that have to be met.
Although our conscious reasons for choosing that special someone have evolved along with the modern-day purposes for a life partner, there is still this unconscious evolutionary selection process happening beneath the surface, and it’s based on three motivations.
Number One: Genetic Incompatibility
Major histocompatibility complex (MHC) refers to a particular set of genes you inherit in your immune system, which are your body’s chemical defense system against intruding aliens. Each of us inherits our own version of this complex set of genes.
According to Fisher we are regularly attracted to individuals who have a different genetic profile to ensure that we bear more varied young and that we can co-parent with a wider array of parenting skills. We do this through the sense of smell, so we can literally “sniff out” the partner who has the greatest chance of being the most different genetically. In other words, this is a way to prevent inbreeding, and it also ensures that your children will be healthy and have strong immune systems.
Number Two: Procreation
One of the main reasons you choose a partner is because you are designed to have children whether you want them or not. Although you can shut down your conscious desire to produce offspring, your instinctual system is still at play, pulling you toward a partner who will give your children the best genetic advantage and chance of survival.
When you find yourself attracted to someone, part of your evolutionary system is focusing on build, body type, facial shape, and ability to either provide (hunt/gather) or nurture (caregiving). This is something to keep in mind when you find yourself attracted to a particular type that may not actually be the best fit for you.
Number Three: Brain Chemistry
Some of the most interesting work Fisher has done involves understanding the brain chemistry behind romantic love. Certain parts of the brain and particular neurochemicals get triggered when we feel attracted to someone and ultimately fall in love.
The neurochemical dopamine—part of the “reward” system in your brain—triggers the sex drive and the desire that pulls you toward a lover. Ultimately the reward transitions into bonding and attachment, and this is when a real relationship is formed. This system of brain chemistry evolved for the survival of our species, and it still kicks in today regardless of your longer term intentions or how you ultimately feel about the person.
These factoids on your love life may not be too romantic, but it’s always helpful to understand what’s going on beneath the surface so you can be more in control of your behavior, emotions, and decisions when it comes to finding a suitable partner.
Too many of us end up in the wrong relationship with someone who appeared to be right only to realize that what we saw in them didn’t turn out to be what we got.