Mate Selection

Nate R Cottle. Encyclopedia of Human Relationships. Editor: Harry T Reis & Susan Sprecher. 2009. Sage Publication.

Mate selection refers to the process by which an individual chooses, or is chosen by, a potential partner from the pool of eligibles and the factors that predict the formation, maintenance, escalation, or dissolution of a long-term, romantic relationship over time. As part of the process, each individual is thought to consciously or unconsciously evaluate one’s fit with a partner on a wide variety of social, personal, and relationship characteristics. These evaluations of the partner and relationship are thought to be an ongoing process in which an individual considers an array of factors at different stages of the relationship and as new information about the partner is discovered. The importance of a particular characteristic, however, is likely to vary as the stage of involvement in the relationship changes. A woman, for example, may place more importance on physical appearance in her decision about whether to accept a date or give someone her phone number, but may place much less importance on appearance when deciding whether or not to marry a long-term boyfriend who may have other redeeming qualities. When individuals feel their partner and their relationship are a good match for them, they are likely to increase their involvement in the relationship. The process and meaning of mate selection, however, has continued to evolve as demographic trends have influenced the social practices associated with the choosing of a mate. This entry discusses several factors about mate selection, including a historical perspective to mate selection, social and contextual influences on partner selection, an evolutionary perspective to mate selection, and formal intermediaries in mate selection.

Evolution of Mate Selection and Demographic Trends

The evolution of mate selection can be seen throughout the history of the United States. In colonial times, a man who wished to court a woman had to ask for her father’s permission, be introduced to the family, and had to have a chap-erone for all interactions. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the industrial revolution and changes in the social position of women led to the emergence of dating, as individuals arranged times and places to meet outside of the home. In the middle of the 20th century, dating became formalized with role-based scripts, and relationships generally followed an orderly progression toward marriage.

In early studies on mate selection conducted during the middle of the 20th century, the term mate selection was used to describe an individual’s selection of the initial marital partner and the progress of a romantic relationship toward marriage. Most of these studies were based on the idea of a courtship continuum that began with the first meeting and advanced through dating, going steady, courtship, and engagement, progressing to marriage.

More recently, however, the term mate selection has been broadened in the research to include non-marital, romantic relationships, such as cohabiting relationships. The focus of research on mate selection has subsequently moved from relationship formation and progress toward marriage to the study of relational characteristics and phenomena in various close and romantic relationships. Although there may be many potential reasons for this shift in the focus of the research, some possibilities include a change in the meaning of marriage and three demographic trends, the delay in marital timing, the growing prevalence of cohabitation, and the increase in nonmarital fertility.

The mate selection process may have evolved because of a change in the societal meaning of marriage. In the past, marriage has been described by some as a social compromise in which men and women exchanged different resources for their mutual benefit. Men provided economic support and protection, whereas women provided child-rearing and homemaking. Although this view likely oversimplified and excluded key components of marriage (e.g., love, commitment, attraction), it was believed people primarily chose partners to fulfill socially defined roles. As society has continued to change, however, individuals are thought to see marriage as more of a personal choice with more emphasis on other relational qualities, such as love, rather than as an exchange of resources. Individuals are thought to be seeking their soul mate with whom they may have a physical, emotional, and spiritual connection. Finding such a partner likely requires greater selectivity, self-awareness, and more time, perhaps altering the mate selection process, especially marital timing.

During the last 50 years, there has been a substantial increase in the median age of first marriage, meaning the age at which half of all people born within a 5-year period have entered into their first marriage. In the past, many young adults chose to marry in their early 20s after they finished high school and entered the workforce or college. According to the most recent U.S. Census report, the median age at first marriage has been steadily rising to historically high levels, to 27.1 for men and 25.3 for women, with the greatest increases occurring for women. This rise means more and more individuals are delaying marriage until their later 20s and 30s, perhaps offering opportunities for greater diversity in mate selection activities, including dating, hanging out, hooking up, or sexual encounters. Researchers estimate that more than 90 percent of individuals will eventually marry at some point of their lifetime. Additionally, this marital delay has influenced some individuals’ mate selection because they may be choosing marital partners in different social environments because they are older (e.g., workplace or social club rather than college/high school environment), and some may be engaging in mating behaviors before marriage (e.g., cohabitation or nonmarital fertility).

The second demographic trend that may alter mate selection is the increasing prevalence of cohabitation, or individuals living together before marriage. About 50 percent of all individuals who marry have cohabited at some time with a partner before marriage. Researchers have discovered that not all individuals who cohabitate do it for the same reasons and have subsequently identified three groups of cohabitors: those who see cohabitation as a stage in their relationship, those who already have plans to marry, and those who use cohabitation as a replacement for marriage. Cohabitation is likely to alter the mate selection process and social practices for some people because researchers have found that cohabitation may serve as initial screening or trial marriage in which partners test their compatibility and gather more information and determine whether their relationship should progress. Once a couple cohabits, they likely have greater barriers to seeking new partners and often begin an inertial movement toward marriage. Research on cohabiting couples, however, has suggested cohabitation may have some negative influence on future marital success (e.g., higher divorce rates and lower levels of marital satisfaction for those who have cohabited). The trend of cohabitation is continuing and will influence mate selection.

The mate selection process may have also evolved because of the increase in nonmarital fertility, or the birth of children to unmarried individuals. Recent estimates suggest as many as 33 percent of all births in the United States are to unwed mothers and as high as 66 percent of all births are to unwed African-American women. The separation of fertility from marriage may further influence the mate selection process because social expectations or scripts may be modified, leaving individuals without a socially defined, delineated path for their relationship.

Research on Mate Selection

Although many disciplines have explored mate selection (e.g., anthropology, communication studies, family science, psychology, sociology), this entry concentrates on three prominent approaches in the research on mate selection: (1) the sociological perspective of mate selection, focused on the choosing of and match between partners; (2) an evolutionary psychology viewpoint, concentrated on the genetic and biological influences of attraction and sexual selection; and (3) the interdisciplinary study of close relationships, concerned with the formation, maintenance, and characteristics of romantic and marital relationships.

Sociological Research on Mate Selection

The first approach to mate selection in the research largely focuses on macrocharacteristics from a sociological perspective. Most of this research investigated the social and contextual influences in partner selection. This perspective also examined the social exchange of resources between partners in their attempts to maximize their resources.

A number of important concepts, themes, and theories were formed from this literature. One central theme regarding mate selection was the ideal of propinquity, or the necessity for potential partners to be close in time and space. This concept simply meant individuals who were not close in age or geographical space likely would not have the opportunity to meet or develop a relationship.

A second major theme in the research was the presence of homogamy, or the tendency for similarity between coupled partners on various characteristics. This research often investigated the similarity of various social characteristics (e.g., age, education, intelligence, occupation, race, religion, and social status) between existing coupled partners compared with random pairings of individuals and demonstrated that individuals were more likely to choose someone similar to them than a random pairing of partners. A related term was developed, endogamy, meaning the tendency for a person to select a partner within a particular group (e.g., same race or religious denomination). Later research on similarity suggested similarity of attitudes, values, and behavior was perhaps more important than were social characteristics as the relationship progressed. The explanation for the importance of similarity was called consensual validation, or that one’s own values, attitudes, and behavior are reinforced when one’s partner has similar values, attitudes, and behavior.

Another concurrent theme in the mate selection literature, opposites attract, suggested complementarity of some characteristics would be desirable in potential partners. Although the ideas of similarity and complementarity appear to be contrary and more empirical support existed for similarity, researchers eventually concluded both ideas had merit. A group of theories, called filter theories, suggested that a combination of similarity and complementarity was most ideal. These theories suggested as coupled partners fit well with each other at various levels, they would pass through these filters and progress in their relationship. Researchers found similarity of attraction and social characteristics are important initially in relationships, similarity of values and attitudes become more important when individuals begin dating more seriously, and complementarity of needs and roles become important when individuals are considering a marital relationship.

Sociologists also developed the concept of marriage markets, or local communities defined by geography and other social characteristics. Individuals are often limited in their choices of potential partners to those within their marriage market. Ideally, a marriage market would contain an equal ratio of men and women. The calculation of the number of men divided by women is referred to as the sex ratio. In a well-functioning marriage market, the matching hypothesis suggests those who are most desirable pair off with partners who are equally desirable; those who are less desirable pair off with partners who are also less desirable, and so forth. However, an imbalanced sex ratio places individuals in the larger group in a marriage squeeze because not enough partners exist for them. The most often cited example of a marriage squeeze occurs for African-American women, who have fewer numbers of African-American men from which to select because of their higher rates of unemployment, homicide, incarceration, and participation in interracial relationships.

Although some research continues in this discipline, the focus of mate selection research has shifted more to changes in the courtship continuum and other forms of relationships outside of marriage. New research is needed as the process of mate selection continues to evolve and social practices continue to change.

Evolutionary Psychological Research on Mate Selection

Darwin’s theory of evolution posited the survival of the fittest, but did not explain why some species possessed heritable traits that would not necessarily promote their survival (e.g., a male peacock’s tail is likely to attract the attention of its predators or the nutrition and effort to grow large antlers each year for deer could reduce its ability to survive the winter). As a result, Darwin developed sexual selection theory to explain the heritable traits and innate preferences possessed by species to help promote their ability to attract a mate, and compete against and fend off potential rivals.

Sexual selection theory was originally rejected by those who studied humans, but during the last 30 years, evolutionary psychology researchers have taken great interest in mate selection. The increase in interest is largely based on Robert Trivers’s explanation of sexual selectivity in humans using the idea of parental investment. Because of the disparity in the level of parental investment and reproductive roles, men and women tend to prefer different characteristics in their mates. Because women have a greater investment in child-bearing, they are thought to be more selective in their sexual partners. Men’s selectivity, however, tends to increase as the level of involvement increases toward marriage, when their selectivity is similar to that of women.

As predicted by the theory, researchers have found some differences in preferences men and women have for characteristics in their partners. Men are more likely than women to state a preference for characteristics that suggest women are fertile and healthy. Examples of these characteristics include measures of attractiveness, including large eyes, prominent cheekbones, facial symmetry, and a small waist-to-hip ratio, as well as indicators of their ability to care for children. Women tend to report greater preferences for evidence of economic resources to provide for their children (e.g., income), and the ability to provide and protect (e.g., height, strength). The value of these resources, however, may not increase linearly, but may be just to avoid poverty or a short spouse. David Buss and colleagues, as well as others, have shown that these preferences are likely to change as they are a combination of innate mechanisms and societal values. They may also vary as a function of the seriousness of a relationship or when considered simultaneously in a cost-benefit analysis, when actually choosing a partner.

Some researchers have called for the combination of the sociological and evolutionary psychological approaches because they are not inherently incompatible, but may work simultaneously. Social influences, such as the sex ratio, mate value, and cultural norms are likely to influence mate selection and moderate the influence of evolutionary mechanisms involved in sexual selection. Results from several studies appear to indicate that both of these approaches are needed to explain mate selection.

Interdisciplinary Research on Mate Selection

During the last 30 years, researchers from many disciplines have come together in the study of various types of intimate relationships. Rather than a focus on the progress of romantic relationships toward marriage, this interdisciplinary approach has emphasized universal properties across various types of relationships. Topics in this body of research include topics such as relationship satisfaction and stability, commitment, trust, and interdependence. Emphasis has been placed on various levels of influence, for example, contextual and social network influences (e.g., macrolevel) as well as dyadic and intrapersonal phenomena (e.g., microlevel). Although this approach is interdisciplinary, some have suggested the need for more integration among disciplines to combine the strengths of many approaches.

Formal Intermediaries in Mate Selection

From the ancient use of matchmakers to more modern intermediaries—such as personal ads and dating services—formal intermediaries, or alternative ways of meeting and selecting mates, have influenced the mate selection process. Because the selection process continues to evolve and because of the delay in marital timing, the use of formal intermediaries likely will continue to rise. Additional intermediaries have been created with the proliferation of the Internet, including chat rooms, online dating services (e.g., or, and online communities (e.g., or

The use of formal intermediaries and technology may help some to overcome issues of propinquity, imbalanced sex ratios, and difficult marriage markets. These intermediaries may first help individuals overcome geographical separation, by letting people meet and interact with potential partners they likely never would have met and allow individuals to find others who have similar interests to their own (e.g., religious beliefs, leisure activities or hobbies, or political orientations). Although these intermediaries may help individuals find potential partners, many feel that they will not fully replace face-to-face interaction in the selection of a marital partner.


Mate selection is a complex and evolving process that will continue to require study by researchers from many disciplines to fully understand it. Although the focus of research on this topic may have changed over the years, the investigation of how individuals select, form, and maintain marital or long-term, nonmarital unions, should continue to be an important emphasis in the study of close relationships.