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Think You Know What You’re Looking For in a Relationship? Think Again

Apparently a checklist isn’t all that useful in finding love.
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Cover image via Penguin Press

Do you ever feel like your dream guy is just not out there? That finding a man who actually matches your dating criteria is like finding a needle in a haystack? Well, you might be surprised to find out that when it comes to whom you choose as a partner, research conducted by funny man Aziz Ansari (yes, of Parks and Recreation fame) and sociologist Eric Klinenberg, professor of sociology at New York University, shows that you aren’t really the best judge of what you truly want.

Ansari and Klinenberg wanted to know more about how we approach dating and romance these days, so they conducted focus groups and interviewed millennials in cities across the world, including New York, Los Angeles, Wichita, Paris, and Tokyo, which became the basis for Ansari’s New York Times bestselling book, Modern Romance. One of the more intriguing findings was the simple fact that most of us don’t know what qualities we’re looking for in a potential mate, and the person we end up with is often different from who we think will make us happy.

When online dating was just emerging, early services often had clients fill out a survey to indicate what qualities they were looking for in a potential match. These companies quickly realized that what we say we’re looking for is extremely different from who we actually end up dating. According to Ansari, with the subsequent ubiquity of online dating and apps such as Tinder, we find ourselves with so many potential matches—but more confused about what we’re looking for than ever.

Ansari uses himself as an example. When he set up dummy profiles on several dating sites in search of fodder for comedy writing about online dating, he stipulated that he was looking for someone “a little younger than me, small, with dark hair,” but he observed that his current girlfriend is “two years older, about my height—OKAY, SLIGHTLY TALLER—and blond. She wouldn’t have made it through the filters I placed in my online dating profile.”

Relationships researcher Samantha Joel says that “research consistently shows that what people say they want in a partner has virtually no bearing on who they chose to date in a laboratory setting.” A research team from Northwestern University mentioned in Ansari’s book concluded, “No compelling evidence supports matching sites’ claims that mathematical algorithms work.”

So, if we are that clueless about what kind of mate we’re looking for, how should we go about finding our future spouse? Obviously we shouldn’t stop looking for someone who shares our values and those things that are truly important to us, but there are things we can keep in mind to help us prepare for compatibility and love when it strikes unexpectedly. Curious to see how the realities of modern dating affect us, we interviewed women in committed relationships to find out their experiences.

01. Too many choices have made us too picky.

Ansari interviewed a man he calls Derek and whom Ansari describes as “a pretty boring white guy . . . who wouldn’t necessarily turn heads if we walked into a bar or party.” Derek showed Ansari how he would go through potential dates on OkCupid, an algorithm-based matching site that analyzes users’ answers to questions to find them mates. Ansari noticed how picky Derek was, especially when he rejected a potential match because she said she liked the Red Sox on her profile.

Like Derek, it’s easy to reduce potential dates to items on a checklist, and, when one criterion doesn’t match up, we move on to the next option. With so many options available through online dating and dating apps, it seems logical that if we keep looking long enough, we will find the absolute perfect match. But Ansari suggests that the key to online dating success is to not read too much into a potential date’s profile and treat the sites more as a tool to meet people than a no-fail matching service. He also suggests going on more than one date with the same person to get to know them better.

This resonated with the women I spoke with. Reflecting back on her single days, Grace (names changed throughout) told me that one of her best rules was to go on date two, unless date one was just hands down awful. “I began to realize how much of the awkwardness and lack of chemistry came down to nerves,” Grace explained. “After going on two dates, I got a much clearer sense of whether the potential for real chemistry was there.”

Ansari agrees. In his book, he explains that when he started going on more dates with the same person before deciding if they clicked, he “discovered things about them that weren’t initially apparent. We’d develop more inside jokes and just generally get along better because we were familiar.”

Have a first date that seemed OK but not great? Give the guy a second chance before you decide that he doesn’t make the cut.

02. Beware of chick-flick standards.

Jennifer shared that one of the initial roadblocks to dating her now-husband was that he didn’t match the qualities she expected based on the unrealistic standards touted by most chick flicks. “My husband isn’t the outgoing, life of the party who loves to dance or be goofy, which is what my chick-flick riddled mind had expected to fall in love with,” she says.

This echoes Ansari’s observation that it’s easy to create an ideal person in our mind who shares our likes and dislikes and is our perfect Youve Got Mail match. Chick flicks tell us that we can have (and should expect) a match who’s the perfect blend of our favorite leading man. But we also forget that maybe Noah from The Notebook or Jack from Titanic might not be that amazing as a romantic partner. Who knows if you and Jack have the same fundamental values or goals in life? By now we all know that life doesn’t go as planned, and it rarely looks like a chick flick either.

Try not to close yourself off from a potentially great match just because he isn’t the perfect mix of Chris Hemsworth’s body, Robert Downey Jr.’s wit, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s sophistication.

03. Your criteria can change over time.

What you are looking for in your dream man likely changes over time. Ansari described how, after a few years, he grew tired of dating girl after girl and began to think about what he wanted in a serious relationship, and his criteria changed.

Sarah, who is counting down the days until she marries her fiancé, says that her criteria also changed over time. In college, she says she was more focused on having fun in the moment with a boyfriend, and concern about whether he got along with her family wasn’t even on her radar. But realizing that she needed to rethink what she looked for in a relationship, she took a yearlong break from dating. “As I realized what I needed in a lifelong partner,” she says, “the focus shifted to how we dealt with the harder things: fights, arguments, could we enjoy each other’s company without external distractions.” She says she now values the fact that her fiancé enjoys spending time with her family and how compatible they are with one another.

After each relationship and even after a string of good or bad dates, take time to reassess the values that are important to you and what you are looking for in a relationship. There will be things that will remain important to you (such as faith?) and maybe some things that you are finding less and less important (such as height?). Stay true to your deepest desires but open enough to recognize them in an unlikely person.

04. Be open to qualities not on your list.

Passing on a relationship with someone who doesn’t meet all of your criteria could mean that you miss out on a great relationship. Cristina’s story is one of a woman with an extensive list of criteria for her “perfect” match: athletic, type A, overachiever, highly intellectual, disciplined, well-established in a career, family-oriented, and spiritual. So when she met her now-fiancé, Aaron, and he didn’t fulfill all of her criteria, she was forced to reevaluate. In fact, some of his qualities were different from the ones she had on her list, such as his laid-back personality and the fact that he was just getting started in his career.

She says, “I had a revelation when my mom said, ‘I think Aaron is great for you because he balances you out so well.’ It dawned on me that without realizing it, my characteristics for an ideal man were really a perfect description of myself.” With that realization, Cristina shifted from a checklist mentality to seeing how she and her fiancé complemented each other. She says, “If I had kept trying to check off all the qualities on my list, I’d probably still be out there searching.” But instead she chose to embrace his qualities—his humor, perpetual good mood, kind heart, and sensitivity—that make them a great match for each other. Ansari says in his book: “I wouldn’t know how to search for the things I love about my current girlfriend. It’s not the kind of stuff you can categorize.”

05. There’s a difference between ‘perfect’ and ‘perfect-for-me.’

“He isn’t perfect, but he is perfect for me,” was a common sentiment among the women interviewed. Cristina says she realized that “this guy who wasn’t the picture of the perfect guy I had in mind was, in fact, the perfect guy for me.” She observed that it is important to be open to possibilities that you haven’t even considered and to not limit yourself with a rigid checklist.

Ansari spoke to Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and advisor to, who said, “The brain is the best algorithm. There’s not a dating service on this planet that can do what the human brain can do in terms of finding the right person.” Ansari says he agrees with Fisher’s observation and later in the book describes why his girlfriend is perfect for him: “She was beautiful, funny, and a chef!!! If you counted all the food references in this book, you realize what a great thing this is for me. We started dating. Pretty soon we were staying home, cooking food, and doing nothing all the time. It was great.” Ansari found his perfect-for-me, and you can, too. Reassessing your criteria and not buying in to the chick-flick standard of “marriage material” plays an important role in finding your “perfect-for-me.” Let a matchmaker or online dating algorithm predict your match, but be sure to remain open to setups and blind dates, too. Your friends and even your mom might see something that you and all those matchmaking experts can’t find on your profile.

Why someone is our perfect-for-me match is a mystery that science fails to pin down. Researchers can identify factors that we take into account when looking for a partner, such as physical attraction, similarity, personality, and character, but they struggle to identify precisely how these factors come together in the person who is perfect for you. At the end of his article in Psychology Today on identifying how we select life partners, professor Noam Shpancer, Ph.D., concludes, “At the end of the day, as the philosopher Blaise Pascal said, the heart has reasons that reason doesn’t understand.” Or, in the poetic words of Aziz Ansari, “In the case of my girlfriend, I initially saw her face somewhere and approached her. I didn’t have an in-depth profile to peruse or a fancy algorithm. I just had her face, and we started talking, and it worked out.” And that’s the exciting unpredictability of love.