Illustration by Erin Taj

Science Explains Why We’re Willing to Sacrifice for ‘The One’

When we perceive our partners as more desirable than ourselves, we’re willing to put in more work

“That’s bullshit, John,” my friend told me.

As with many people in their 20s, my dating life had come to be defined a long string of short-lived, ultimately meaningless relationships. I would meet a woman and get excited, only to lose all interest after a period of one to six months, many times for reasons not even I could discern, and stop putting forth any effort. I was beginning to think this would be life forever. I’d casually date women for short periods of time, ad infinitum, until I either died alone or got married out of boredom. I wasn’t necessarily upset about this potential life path — I really enjoy bachelorhood — but I was confused. Why was I continually breaking up with highly dateable women? More importantly, Why was I consistently unwilling to at least try to cultivate a meaningful relationship? I had zero desire to settle down, but I wanted to know I was capable of doing so. (You know, just in case.)

I lamented all this to my recently-coupled friend rightly scolded me for thinking that way.

“As long as you keep getting out there, you will eventually meet the one you actually like.” And he suggested that then, and only then, would I be willing to put the necessary work in.

Normally, I would have disregarded any interpersonal advice from this friend. He had devolved in recent years from a fun-loving party animal to the kind of narcissistic, white-collar sociopath only Bret Easton Ellis could love. Except when he was with his new girlfriend — with whom he was warm, generous and attentive. That was enough for me to give him the benefit of the doubt; more recently he has been vindicated by a psychology study published in a reputable journal.

In a paper published in this month’s Evolution & Human Behaviors, researchers surveyed 300 people in “long-term, heterosexual relationships” about their “mate retention behaviors” — how hard they work to maintain their relationships, and what motivates those actions. The participants were asked questions about their ideal partners, and the results proved my friend’s theory: When participants viewed their partners as more desirable than themselves, they put more work into the relationship. “Participants mated to higher mate value partners were satisfied regardless of available alternatives,” the study reads. And “relationship satisfaction showed a significant positive relationship with mate retention behavior.”

Conversely, when people thought of themselves as more desirable than their partners, satisfaction, trust and retention behavior levels were all lower.

The findings suggest that when we find a partner we see as more valuable more than ourselves, satisfaction increases, which in turn increases retention behaviors. This makes obvious sense — if you’re lucky enough to date someone out of your league, you’re going to be overjoyed and more willing to make the relationship thrive.

“Satisfaction and happiness are not as clear cut as we think they are. We do not need ideal partners for relationship bliss. Instead, satisfaction appears to come, in part, from getting the best partner available to us,” lead researcher Daniel Conroy-Beam told Futurity.

So my friend was right: My indifference was less a deep-seated psychological flaw than an indication of my lack of interest in those specific partners. You’re not willing to put forth the effort necessary for a meaningful relationship until you meet someone who makes that effort worthwhile, essentially.

“All the wrong girls actually help you find the right one,” my surprisingly wise friend told me last week when I revisited this topic with him. “It just makes it that much easier to realize it.”

In an interesting twist, I recently started a relationship in which I feel invested. Our long-term prospects are TBD, but for the first time in a long time I am at least trying to make it work. And, as the study might suggest, I can’t imagine dating anyone better. Much as my friend predicted, the work I’m putting in doesn’t even feel like work.

And what does that work entail, exactly?

“You will want to hang out with her on weekend nights instead of going out with your boys. You will put her in your Instagrams. You’ll even want to bring her to your family parties,” he continued.

Or as he later put it, it’s all the “lame, loser shit” you used to mock your male friends for. So much for his transformation into a romantic.

John is a staff writer at MEL, where he recently interviewed digital media entrepreneur Jon Steinberg about how to nail a job interview.