She's the One
Measuring female marriageability
Request from a reader:
As a young man myself, let me ask you for some advice on a question that I'm pondering on. What do I look for in a person I'm going to marry? How do I know if she is the one?
My response draws on some relevant academic social science and psychology, blended with my cumulative life wisdom… such as it is.
The Big Picture: Humans are good at hedonically adapting to most material conditions. You get used to your house, your car, your clothes, your granite countertop, and your money. What humans are bad at hedonically adapting to is… other people. If you spend a lot of time around humans whose company you enjoy, you will probably be happy. If you spend a lot of time around human whose company you detest, you will probably be unhappy.* Over your lifetime, you will probably spend more time around your spouse than any other human. So while finding good friends and good co-workers is crucial for happiness, finding a good spouse is even more so.
Upshot: My young reader is asking the right question. And here’s my answer in eighteen parts.
Figure out your top priorities - and be flexible about everything else. Discrete cutoffs for continuous variables are almost always silly, whether we’re talking age (“Can’t be older than me”), height (“Must be at least 5’3’’), or IQ (“120 IQ minimum”). Stereotypes say that guys dislike being with a women who is smarter than they are; I’m not convinced that’s true, but don’t let it be true of you.
The greatest mistake young people make, especially young males, is giving looks a high priority and personality a low priority. This is beyond foolish. If the most beautiful woman in the world has an ugly personality, you will be soon be miserable. And miserable you shall stay. Short-term physical attraction is something to control or sublimate, not a guide to action.
If this sounds hard, I bring good news: If someone has tolerable looks and clearly likes you, you can often become physically attracted to them. There’s a great scene in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing on this theme: Benedick and Beatrice don’t think about each other romantically until their friends deliberately stage a self-fulfilling illusion of mutual infatuation. So if you prioritize personality, you can - within limits - get physical attraction as free bonus.
A good personality is your top priority, but what personalities are “good”? “It depends on your preferences” is a cop-out. So is “There are many different models of personality.” Using ordinary language rather than the Five Factor Model, look for partners who are: happy, rational, loyal, and self-disciplined - and avoid partners who are sad, emotional, fickle, and impulsive. “Complicated” is a euphemism for “malcontent.” Avoid at all costs, along with anyone who medicalizes their character flaws. Our actions are right or wrong, not healthy or sick.
If you prefer the framework of the canonical Five Factor Model of personality:
First and foremost, strongly prefer partners with low Neuroticism (also known as high “Emotional Stability”). Life is hard enough without being tied for life to someone who sees the dark linings in silver clouds. This is especially important for men, because women score notably higher on Neuroticism, and this probably understates the true size of the gender gap.
Secondly, strongly prefer partners with high Conscientiousness. Low Conscientiousness folks can be fun friends, but chiefly because you aren’t responsible for bailing them out of the messes they habitually get themselves into. And if you’re getting married in the first place, you should be with someone who takes the strictures of marriage seriously.
Most students of human personality will also advise you to prefer a mate high in Agreeableness, but this is much oversold. Myers-Briggs calls this same personality trait “Thinking versus Feeling,” and this alternative nomenclature is revealing. “High Agreeableness” people are “nice,” but they’re also unreasonable and emotional. You don’t really want a partner who is “nice to everyone”; you want a partner who singles you out as supremely deserving of nice treatment.
For the remaining two traits, Extraversion and Openness, your best bet is to find someone similar to yourself. Especially because these are the main traits that predict what activities you will enjoy: People who like big parties (typically high in Extraversion) should pair with other people who like big parties; people who like action movies (typically low in Openness) should pair with others who like action movies.
Qualifications: The Five Factor Model recognizes thirty facets or subtraits. The Extraversion facet known as “Positive Emotions” and the Agreeableness facet known as "Trust” are almost always good; the Agreeableness facet known as “Tender-Mindedness” is almost always bad.
If you want kids, remember that virtually all traits are heritable. Always ask yourself, “Does this person have the traits I want my kids to have”? While you may joke, “I don’t want ugly kids,” there’s nothing funny about having kids with bad personalities.
Intelligence is not technically a "personality trait,” but it functions much the same. High intelligence is our best predictor of material success and many other desirable outcomes, but if the intelligence gap between partners is too high they won’t be compatible. Communication across a 20 IQ-point gap is too hard, and so is finding common interests.
While common interests are good, common values are better. The difference is hard to define, but easy to illustrate. Backpacking is an interest; desired family size is a value. I am always amazed by couples who have been together for years without discussing how many kids they hope to have.
Once you’re clear on your priorities, start energetically profiling in order to meet women with high potential. Above all, cultivate a habit of being extremely friendly to both men and women in order to build a large pool of possibilities. Steel yourself to the ubiquity of rejection. Know that you will must feel more lonely before you can feel less lonely.
If you already personally know any woman who seems promising, tell her about it and see what happens. While the stigma against this has gone way up since my youth, especially on-the-job, the expected sanctions are low, especially if you are following my advice to prioritize personality. Hyper-offendable women do exist, but hardly anyone will be offended by an earnest modernization of, “I greatly admire you. You are so often in my thoughts.”
Ask to hold hands on the first date. I know this advice seems lame to ultra-confident guys, who insist that asking permission is for betas. But my advice was never aimed at ultra-confident guys. My goal, rather, is to help ordinary shy guys out of the Friend Zone. If a woman refuses to hold hands on the first date, you’re probably in her Friend Zone for life. Bitter to learn, but good to know. And if she accepts, you’re out of the Friend Zone already. Forthrightness might not be the best possible rhetorical tactic, but it’s one of the best. And unlike “game,” almost anyone can pull it off.
So far, there is basically no difference between “How do I find a girlfriend?” and “How do I find a wife?” But once you’ve got a girlfriend, how do you know if she’s the one? The main question to ponder is: Does she sincerely consider me supremely deserving of nice treatment?
What does “supremely deserving of nice treatment” look like? Watch Samurai Rebellion. No joke, it is the most moving love story I’ve ever seen. I cry watching it.
Remember: Actions speak louder than words. Spending lots of time together isn’t just a good test of whether you want to spend the rest of your life together; it’s also a chance to discover concealed or suppressed personality traits. Which, for obvious reasons, are usually negative. Sad, but if there’s something ugly to learn, you want to learn it ASAP.
Bitter truth: Even if a woman sincerely considers you supremely deserving of nice treatment now, the treatment you receive will almost certainly get worse. The key question to ask is: Where’s the asymptote? If things start at perfection, and asymptote to 2/3rds of perfection, your marriage is an incredible success. Count yourself lucky!
Remember: It’s the marriage market. Don’t just think of yourself as a consumer, asking “How can I get what I want?” Simultaneously think of yourself as a producer, asking, “How can I be what she wants?” Thoughtful search and energetic self-improvement are two great things that go great together. Start by avoiding the standard human flaws of impulsivity, self-absorption, laziness, and self-pity, as well as the standard male flaws of faithlessness, insensitivity, machismo, and drunkenness. And yes, figure out what you want to do with your life.
The marriage market is a market where marketing matters. Especially for a guy, simply being awesome gets you almost nowhere. You have to sell yourself. The good news is that most guys are so afraid of rejection that the simplest sales pitch goes a long way. If there’s a 2% chance that she’s the one and you don’t know what to say, look serious and say, “You seem great. Would you go out with me on Saturday?”
My 11-year-old daughter vocally opposes changing yourself to better please the marriage market. “You’ve got to be true to yourself,” she declares, with poetic wisdom beyond her years. My reply: Sure, you should think twice - nay, thrice - about violating your conscience for romantic rewards. But what if the marriage market rewards changes that you yourself classify as self-improvement? When the marriage market rewards you for working hard, and you agree that you ought to adopt a better work ethic, hard work is “true to yourself.” We’re all flawed human beings, so you have plenty of room to self-improve with pride. And if women like you better as a result, that speaks well of them, not badly of you.
* Or at least as happy/unhappy as you’re capable of being. Genetics matter a lot for happiness, too.