Rational Romantic Relationships, Part 1: Relationship Styles and Attraction Basics

Part of the Se­quence: The Science of Win­ning at Life. Co-au­thored with Minda My­ers and Hugh Ristik. Also see: Poly­hack­ing.

When things fell apart be­tween me (Luke) and my first girlfriend, I de­cided that kind of re­la­tion­ship wasn’t ideal for me.

I didn’t like the jeal­ous feel­ings that had arisen within me. I didn’t like the des­per­ate, code­pen­dent ‘mad­ness’ that pop­u­lar love songs cel­e­brate. I had moral ob­jec­tions to the idea of own­ing some­body else’s sex­u­al­ity, and to the idea of some­body else own­ing mine. Some of my cul­ture’s scripts for what a man-woman re­la­tion­ship should look like didn’t fit my own goals very well.

I needed to de­sign ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ships that made sense (de­ci­sion-the­o­ret­i­cally) for me, rather than sim­ply fal­ling into what­ever re­la­tion­ship model my cul­ture hap­pened to offer. (The ladies of Sex and the City weren’t too good with de­ci­sion the­ory, but they cer­tainly in­vested time figur­ing out which re­la­tion­ship styles worked for them.) For a while, this new ap­proach led me into a se­ries of short-lived flings. After that, I chose 4 months of con­tented celibacy. After that, polyamory. After that...

Any­way, the re­sults have been won­der­ful. Ra­tion­al­ity and de­ci­sion the­ory work for re­la­tion­ships, too!

We hu­mans com­part­men­tal­ize by de­fault. Brains don’t au­to­mat­i­cally en­force be­lief prop­a­ga­tion, and aren’t con­figured to do so. Cached thoughts and cached selves can re­main even af­ter one has ap­plied the les­sons of the core se­quences to par­tic­u­lar parts of one’s life. That’s why it helps to ex­plic­itly ex­am­ine what hap­pens when you ap­ply ra­tio­nal­ity to new ar­eas of your life from dis­ease to good­ness to moral­ity. To­day, we ap­ply ra­tio­nal­ity to re­la­tion­ships.

Re­la­tion­ships Styles

When Minda had her first re­la­tion­ship with a woman, she found that the cul­tural scripts for het­ero­sex­ual re­la­tion­ships didn’t work for a ho­mo­sex­ual re­la­tion­ship style. For ex­am­ple, in het­ero­sex­ual dat­ing (in the USA) the man is ex­pected to ask for the date, plan the date, and es­ca­late sex­ual in­ter­ac­tion. A woman ex­pects that she will be pur­sued and not have to ap­proach men, that on a date she should be pas­sive and fol­low the man’s lead, and that she shouldn’t ini­ti­ate sex her­self.

In the queer com­mu­nity, Minda quickly found that if she pas­sively waited for a woman to hit on her, she’d be wait­ing all night! When she met her first girlfriend, Minda had to ask for the date. Minda writes:

On dates, I didn’t know if I should pay for the date or hold the door or what I was sup­posed to do! Each in­ter­ac­tion re­quired thought and ne­go­ti­a­tion that hadn’t been nec­es­sary be­fore. And this was re­ally kind of neat. We had the op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate a re­la­tion­ship that worked for us and rep­re­sented us as unique and in­di­vi­d­ual hu­man be­ings. And when it came to sex­ual in­ter­ac­tions, I found it easy to ask for and en­gage in ex­actly what I wanted. And I have since brought these prac­tices into my re­la­tion­ships with men.

But you don’t need to have an ‘al­ter­na­tive’ re­la­tion­ship in or­der to de­cide you want to set aside some cul­tural scripts and de­sign a re­la­tion­ship style that works for you. You can choose re­la­tion­ship styles that work for you now.

With re­gard to which type(s) of ro­man­tic part­ner(s) you want, there are many pos­si­bil­ities.

No part­ners:

  • Asex­u­al­ity. Asex­u­als don’t ex­pe­rience sex­ual at­trac­tion. They com­prise per­haps 1% of the pop­u­la­tion,1 and in­clude no­ta­bles like Paul Er­dos, Mor­rissey, and Janeane Garo­falo. There is a net­work (AVEN) for asex­u­al­ity aware­ness and ac­cep­tance.

  • Celibacy. Celi­bates feel sex­ual at­trac­tion, but ab­stain from sex. Some choose to ab­stain for med­i­cal, fi­nan­cial, psy­cholog­i­cal, or philo­soph­i­cal rea­sons. Others choose celibacy so they have more time to achieve other goals, as I (Luke) did for a time. Others are in­vol­un­tar­ily celi­bate; per­haps they can’t find or at­tract suit­able mates. This prob­lem can of­ten be solved by learn­ing and prac­tic­ing so­cial skills.

One part­ner:

  • Monogamy. Hav­ing one sex­ual part­ner at a time is a stan­dard cul­tural script, and may be over-used due to the sta­tus quo bias. Long-term monogamy should not be done on the pre­tense that at­trac­tion and arousal for one’s part­ner won’t fade. It will.2 Still, there may be many peo­ple for whom monogamy is op­ti­mal.

Many part­ners:

  • Sin­gle­hood. Sin­gle­hood can be a good way to get to know your­self and ex­pe­rience a va­ri­ety of short-term part­ners. About 78% of col­lege stu­dents have had at least one ‘one-night stand’, and most such en­coun­ters were pre­ceded by al­co­hol or drug use.3 In­deed, many young peo­ple to­day no longer go on ‘dates’ to get to know a po­ten­tial part­ner. In­stead, they meet each other at a so­cial event, ‘hook up’, and then go on dates (if the hookup went well).4

  • Friend­ship ‘with benefits’. Friends are of­ten peo­ple you already en­joy and re­spect, and thus may also make ex­cel­lent sex­ual part­ners. Ac­cord­ing to one study, 60% of un­der­grad­u­ates have been a ‘friend with benefits’ for some­one at one time.5

  • Polyamory.6 In a polyamorous re­la­tion­ship, part­ners are clear about their free­dom to pur­sue mul­ti­ple part­ners. Cou­ples com­mu­ni­cate their bound­aries and make agree­ments about what is and isn’t al­lowed. Polyamory of­ten re­quires part­ners to de-pro­gram jeal­ousy. In my ex­pe­rience, polyamory is much more com­mon in the ra­tio­nal­ity com­mu­nity than in the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion.

Hugh points out that your lim­bic sys­tem may not agree (at least ini­tially) with your cog­ni­tive choice of a re­la­tion­ship style. Some women say they want a long-term re­la­tion­ship but date ‘bad boys’ who are un­likely to be­come long-term mates. Some­one may think they want polyamorous re­la­tion­ships but find it im­pos­si­ble to leave jeal­ousy be­hind.7

The Science of Attraction

A key skil­lset re­quired for hav­ing the re­la­tion­ships you want is that of build­ing and main­tain­ing at­trac­tion in po­ten­tial mates.

Guys seek­ing girls may won­der: Why do girls say they want “nice guys” but date only “jerks”? Girls seek­ing ra­tio­nal­ist guys are at an ad­van­tage be­cause the gen­der ra­tio lies in their fa­vor, but they still might won­der: What can I do to at­tract the best mates? Those seek­ing same-sex part­ners may won­der how at­trac­tion can differ from het­ero­sex­ual norms.

How do you build and main­tain at­trac­tion in oth­ers? A lot can be learned by try­ing differ­ent things and see­ing what works. This is of­ten bet­ter than pol­ling peo­ple, be­cause peo­ple’s ver­bal re­ports about what at­tracts them don’t always match their ac­tual be­hav­ior.8

To get you started, the virtues of schol­ar­ship and em­piri­cism will serve you well. So­cial psy­chol­ogy has a wealth of knowl­edge to offer on suc­cess­ful re­la­tion­ships.9 For ex­am­ple, here are some things that, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est re­search, will tend to make peo­ple more at­tracted to you:

  • Prox­im­ity and fa­mil­iar­ity. Study af­ter study shows that we tend to like those who live near us, partly due to availa­bil­ity,10 and partly be­cause re­peated ex­po­sure to al­most any­thing in­creases lik­ing.11 A Taiwanese man once demon­strated the power of prox­im­ity and re­peated ex­po­sure when he wrote over 700 let­ters to his girlfriend, urg­ing her to marry him. She mar­ried the mail car­rier.12

  • Similar­ity. We tend to like peo­ple who are similar to us.13 We like peo­ple with faces similar to our own.14 We are even more likely to marry some­one with a similar-sound­ing name.15 Similar­ity makes at­trac­tion en­dure longer.16 Also, similar peo­ple are more likely to re­act to events the same way, thus re­duc­ing the odds of con­flict.17

  • Phys­i­cal at­trac­tive­ness. Both men and women pre­fer good-look­ing mates.18 Partly, this is be­cause the halo effect: we au­to­mat­i­cally as­sume that more at­trac­tive peo­ple are also healthier, hap­pier, more sen­si­tive, more suc­cess­ful, and more so­cially skil­led (but not nec­es­sar­ily more hon­est or com­pas­sion­ate).19 Some of these as­sump­tions are cor­rect: At­trac­tive and well-dressed peo­ple are more likely to im­press em­ploy­ers and suc­ceed oc­cu­pa­tion­ally.20 But isn’t beauty rel­a­tive? Some stan­dards of beauty vary from cul­ture to cul­ture, but many are uni­ver­sal.21 Men gen­er­ally pre­fer women who ex­hibit signs of youth and fer­til­ity.22 Women gen­er­ally pre­fer men who (1) dis­play pos­ses­sion of abun­dant re­sources,23 (2) dis­play high so­cial sta­tus,24 (3) ex­hibit a ‘manly’ face (large jaw, thick eye­brows, visi­ble beard stub­ble)25 and physique,26 and (4) are tall.27 Both gen­ders gen­er­ally pre­fer (1) agree­able­ness, con­scien­tious­ness, and ex­traver­sion,28 (2) ‘av­er­age’ and sym­met­ri­cal faces with fea­tures that are nei­ther un­usu­ally small or large,29 (2) large smiles,30 (3) pupil di­la­tion,31 and some other things (more on this later).

  • Lik­ing oth­ers. Lik­ing some­one makes them more at­tracted to you.32

  • Arous­ing oth­ers. Whether aroused by fright, ex­er­cise, stand-up com­edy, or erot­ica, we are more likely to be at­tracted to an at­trac­tive per­son when we are gen­er­ally aroused than when we are not gen­er­ally aroused.33 As David My­ers writes, “Adrenal­ine makes the heart grow fon­der.”34 This may ex­plain why rol­ler­coast­ers and hor­ror movies are such a pop­u­lar date night choice.

But this barely scratches the sur­face of at­trac­tion sci­ence. In a later post, we’ll ex­am­ine how at­trac­tion works in more de­tail, and draw up a sci­ence-sup­ported game plan for build­ing at­trac­tion in oth­ers.

At­trac­tive­ness: Mean and Variance

Re­mem­ber that in­creas­ing your av­er­age at­trac­tive­ness (by ap­peal­ing to more peo­ple) may not be an op­ti­mal strat­egy.

Mar­keters know that it’s of­ten bet­ter to sac­ri­fice broad ap­peal in or­der for a product to have very strong ap­peal to a niche mar­ket. The Ap­punto doesn’t ap­peal to most men, but it ap­peals strongly enough to some men that they are will­ing to pay the out­ra­geous $200 price for it.

Similarly, you may have the best suc­cess in dat­ing if you ap­peal very strongly to some peo­ple, even if this makes you less ap­peal­ing to most peo­ple that is, if you adopt a niche mar­ket­ing strat­egy in the dat­ing world.35

As long as you can find those few peo­ple who find you very at­trac­tive, it won’t mat­ter (for dat­ing) that most peo­ple aren’t at­tracted to you. And be­cause one can switch be­tween niche ap­peal and broad ap­peal us­ing fash­ion and be­hav­ior, you can sim­ply use cloth­ing and be­hav­ior with main­stream ap­peal dur­ing the day (to have gen­eral ap­peal in pro­fes­sional en­vi­ron­ments) and use al­ter­na­tive cloth­ing and be­hav­ior when you’re so­cial­iz­ing (to have strong ap­peal to a small sub­set of peo­ple whom you’ve sought out).

To vi­su­al­ize this point, con­sider two at­trac­tion strate­gies. Both strate­gies em­ploy phe­nom­ena that are (al­most) uni­ver­sally at­trac­tive, but the blue strat­egy aims to max­i­mize the fre­quency of some­what pos­i­tive re­sponses while the red strat­egy aims to max­i­mize the fre­quency of highly pos­i­tive re­sponses. The red strat­egy (e.g. us­ing main­stream fash­ion) in­creases one’s mean at­trac­tive­ness, while the blue strat­egy (e.g. us­ing al­ter­na­tive fash­ion) in­creases one’s at­trac­tive­ness var­i­ance. Hugh Ristik offers the fol­low­ing chart:

This goth guy and I (Luke) can illus­trate this phe­nomenon. I aim for main­stream ap­peal; he wears goth cloth­ing when so­cial­iz­ing. My main­stream look turns off al­most no one, and is at­trac­tive to most women, but doesn’t get that many strong re­ac­tions right away un­less I em­ploy other high-var­i­ance strate­gies.36 In con­trast, I would bet the goth guy’s al­ter­na­tive look turns off many peo­ple and is less at­trac­tive to most women than my look is, but has a higher fre­quency of ex­tremely pos­i­tive re­ac­tions in women.

In one’s pro­fes­sional life, it may be bet­ter to have broad ap­peal. But in dat­ing, the goal is to find peo­ple who find you ex­tremely at­trac­tive. The goth guy sac­ri­fices his mean at­trac­tive­ness to in­crease his at­trac­tive­ness var­i­ance (and thus the fre­quency of very pos­i­tive re­sponses), and this works well for him in the dat­ing scene.

High-var­i­ance strate­gies like this are a good way to filter for peo­ple who are strongly at­tracted to you, and thus avoid wast­ing your time with po­ten­tial mates who only feel luke­warm to­ward you.

Up next

In fu­ture posts we’ll de­velop an ac­tion plan for us­ing the sci­ence of at­trac­tion to cre­ate suc­cess­ful ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ships. We’ll also ex­plain how ra­tio­nal­ity helps with re­la­tion­ship main­te­nance37 and re­la­tion­ship satis­fac­tion.

Pre­vi­ous post: The Power of Reinforcement


1 Bo­gaert (2004).

2 About half of ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ships of all types end within a few years (Sprecher 1994; Kirk­patrick & Davis 1994; Hill et al 1976), and even re­la­tion­ships that last ex­hibit diminish­ing at­trac­tion and arousal (Aron et al. 2006; Kur­dek 2005; Miller et al. 2007). Note that even if at­trac­tion and arousal fades, ro­man­tic love can ex­ist in long-term closed monogamy and it is as­so­ci­ated with re­la­tion­ship satis­fac­tion (Acevedo & Aron, 2009).

3 Paul et al. (2000); Grello et al. (2006).

4 Bogle (2008).

5 Bis­son & Lev­ine (2009).

6 Two in­tro­duc­tory books on the the­ory and prac­tice of polyamory are: Eas­ton & Hardy (2009) and Taormino (2008).

7 See work on ‘con­di­tional mat­ing strate­gies’ aka ‘strate­gic plu­ral­ism’ (Ganges­tad & Simp­son, 2000).

8 Sprecher & Felm­lee (2008); East­wick & Finkel (2008). Like­wise, there is a differ­ence be­tween what peo­ple pub­li­cly re­port as be­ing the cause of a breakup, what they ac­tu­ally think caused a breakup, and what ac­tu­ally caused a breakup (Pow­ell & Fine, 2009). Also see In­fer­ring Our De­sires.

9 For overviews of this re­search, see: Brad­bury & Kar­ney (2010); Miller & Per­l­man (2008); Van­ge­listi & Per­l­man (2006); Sprecher et al. (2008); Weiten et al. (2011), chs. 8-12. For a his­tory of per­sonal re­la­tion­ships re­search, see Per­l­man & Duck (2006).

10 Good­friend (2009).

11 This is called the mere ex­po­sure effect. See Le (2009); More­land & Za­jonc (1982); Nut­tin (1987); Za­jonc (1968, 2001); More­land & Beach (1992). The limits of this effect are ex­plored in Born­stein (1989, 1999); Swap (1977).

12 Stein­berg (1993).

13 Za­jonc (1998); Dev­ine (1995); Rosen­baum (1986); Surra et al. (2006); Morry (2007, 2009); Pe­plau & Finger­hut (2007); Led­bet­ter et al. (2007); Mon­toya et al. (2008); Simp­son & Har­ris (1994).

14 DeBru­ine (2002, 2004); Bailen­son et al. (2005).

15 Jones et al. (2004).

16 Byrne (1971); Ire­land et al. (2011).

17 Gon­zaga (2009). For an overview of the re­search on self-dis­clo­sure, see Greene et al. (2006).

18 Lan­glois et al. (2000); Walster et al. (1966); Fe­in­gold (1990); Woll (1986); Belot & Francesconi (2006); Finkel & East­wick (2008); Neff (2009); Peretti & Ab­planalp (2004); Buss et al. (2001); Fehr (2009); Lee et al. (2008); Reis et al. (1980). This is also true for ho­mo­sex­u­als: Pe­plau & Spald­ing (2000). Even in­fants pre­fer at­trac­tive faces: Lan­glois et al. (1987); Lan­glois et al. (1990); Slater et al. (1998). Note that women re­port that the phys­i­cal at­trac­tive­ness is less im­por­tant to their mate prefer­ences than it ac­tu­ally is: Sprecher (1989).

19 Eagly et al. (1991); Fe­in­gold (1992a); Hat­field & Sprecher (1986); Smith et al. (1999); Dion et al. (1972).

20 Cash & Janda (1984); Lan­glois et al. (2000); Solomon (1987).

21 Cun­ning­ham et al. (1995); Cross & Cross (1971); Jack­son (1992); Jones (1996); Thak­erar & Iwawaki (1979).

22 Men cer­tainly pre­fer youth (Buss 1989a; Ken­rick & Keefe 1992; Ken­rick et al. 1996; Ben Hamida et al. 1998). Signs of fer­til­ity that men pre­fer in­clude clear and smooth skin (Sugiyama 2005; Singh & Bron­stad 1997; Fink & Neave 2005; Fink et al. 2008; Ford & Beach 1951; Sy­mons 1995), fa­cial fem­i­ninity (Cun­ning­ham 2009; Ganges­tad & Scheyd 2005; Schaefer et al. 2006; Rhodes 2006), long legs (Field­ing et al. 2008; Sorokowski & Pawlowski 2008; Ber­tam­ini & Ben­nett 2009; Swami et al. 2006), and a low waist-to-hip ra­tio (Singh 1993, 2000; Singh & Young 1995; Jasien­ska et al. 2004; Singh & Ran­dall 2007; Con­nolly et al 2000; Furn­ham et al 1997; Fran­zoi & Her­zog 1987; Grabe & Sam­son 2010). Even men blind from birth pre­fer a low waist-to-hip ra­tio (Kar­re­mans et al. 2010).

23 Buss et al. (1990); Buss & Sch­mitt (1993); Khal­lad (2005); Gottschall et al. (2003); Gottschall et al. (2004); Ken­rick et al. (1990); Gus­tavs­son & Johns­son (2008); Wie­d­er­man (1993); Badah­dah & Tie­mann (2005); Mar­lowe (2004); Fis­man et al. (2006); Asendorpf et al. (2010); Bokek-Co­hen et al. (2007); Pet­tay et al. (2007); Goode (1996).

24 Fe­in­gold (1990, 1992b).

25 Cun­ning­ham (2009); Cun­ning­ham et al. (1990).

26 Singh (1995); Mart­ins et al. (2007).

27 Lynn & Shur­got (1984); Ellis (1992); Gre­gor (1985); Kurzban & Wee­den (2005); Swami & Furn­ham (2008). In con­trast, men pre­fer women who are about 4.5 inches shorter than them­selves: Gillis & Avis (1980).

28 Figueredo et al. (2006).

29 Lan­glois & Rog­gman (1990); Rhodes et al. (1999); Singh (1995); Thorn­hill & Ganges­tad (1994, 1999). We may have evolved to be at­tracted to sym­met­ri­cal faces be­cause they pre­dict phys­i­cal and men­tal health (Thorn­hill & Mol­ler, 1997).

30 Cun­ning­ham (2009).

31 Cun­ning­ham (2009).

32 This is called re­cip­ro­cal lik­ing. See Cur­tis & Miller (1986); Aron et al (2006); Ber­scheid & Walster (1978); Smith & Caprariello (2009); Back­man & Secord (1959).

33 Car­ducci et al. (1978); Der­mer & Pszczyn­ski (1978); White & Knight (1984); Dut­ton & Aron (1974).

34 My­ers (2010), p. 710.

35 One ex­am­ple of a high-var­i­ance strat­egy for het­ero­sex­ual men in the dat­ing con­text is a bold open­ing line like “You look fa­mil­iar. Have we had sex?” Most women will be turned off by such a line, but those who re­act pos­i­tively are (by se­lec­tion and/​or by the con­fi­dence of the open­ing line) usu­ally very at­tracted.

36 In busi­ness, this is of­ten said as “not ev­ery­one is your cus­tomer”: 1, 2, 3.

37 For dis­cus­sions of re­la­tion­ship main­te­nance in gen­eral, see: Bal­lard-Reisch & Wiegel (1999); Dinda & Bax­ter (1987); Haas & Stafford (1998).


Acevedo & Aron (2009). Does a long-term re­la­tion­ship kill ro­man­tic love? Re­view of Gen­eral Psy­chol­ogy, 13: 59-65.

Aron, Fisher, & Strong (2006). Ro­man­tic love. In Van­ge­listi & Per­l­man (eds.), The Cam­bridge Hand­book of Per­sonal Re­la­tion­ships. Cam­bridge Univer­sity Press.

Asendorpf, Penke, & Back (2010). From dat­ing to mat­ing and re­lat­ing: Pre­dic­tors of ini­tial and long-term out­comes of speed dat­ing in a com­mu­nity sam­ple. Euro­pean Jour­nal of Per­son­al­ity.

Back­man & Secord (1959). The effect of per­ceived lik­ing on in­ter­per­sonal at­trac­tion. Hu­man Re­la­tions, 12: 379-384.

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Bailen­son, Iyen­gar, & Yee (2005). Fa­cial iden­tity cap­ture and pres­i­den­tial can­di­date prefer­ence. Paper pre­sented at the An­nual Con­fer­ence of the In­ter­na­tional Com­mu­ni­ca­tion As­so­ci­a­tion.

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Ben Hamida, Mineka, & Bailey (1998). Sex differ­ences in per­ceived con­trol­la­bil­ity of mate value: An evolu­tion­ary per­spec­tive. Jour­nal of Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­ogy, 75: 953–966.

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Ber­tam­ini & Ben­nett (2009). The effect of leg length on per­ceived at­trac­tive­ness of sim­plified stim­uli. Jour­nal of So­cial, Evolu­tion­ary, and Cul­tural Psy­chol­ogy, 3: 233-250.

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