At some point you’ve probably heard the terms, ‘she’s out of his league’ and ‘he’s punching above his weight’.
Heck, you may have thought it yourself about a friend or sibling, male or female.
But how well do these relationships fare in the long-run? Are they destined to fail? Is it unwise to want to aspire to greater heights in one’s dating life, to be with a more desirable catch?
Looking at online dating research, people certainly try it. A lot. Good for them! But if you’re looking for lasting love, does this strategy pay off?
Let’s first look at how people have been found to behave in online dating settings.
Desirability And Online Dating Behaviour
One study using data from the users of a free online dating site in the cities of Boston, Chicago, Seattle, and New York City (utilising the five boroughs of Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, rather than the behemoth that is New York), uncovered a load of juicy insights into online dating behaviour .
They used data for a one month period, the 1st to the 31st of January 2014, and they looked at heterosexual individuals who were looking for a relationship (rather than merely friendship or activity partners).
To create desirability ratings/rankings for the daters studied, researchers looked at who received the most initial messages from fellow daters on the online dating platform AND who received the most messages from those who also received greater quantities of messages (because as the researchers state, ‘If you are contacted by people who are themselves desirable, then you are presumptively more desirable yourself.’)
Such ratings were created because in mating research the ‘matching hypothesis’ suggests that people tend to form relationships with those who are similarly socially desirable, with an emphasis on physical attractiveness, whilst the ‘competition hypothesis’ suggests that individuals are universally seen as desirable and that people pursue those people regardless of how well they themselves fare in such universal perception of desirability. Either way, people are given a desirability rating by others.
So what did they uncover about who and how we pursue mating partners? Here is a breakdown of some of their most interesting findings:
The most common behaviour for both men and women was to contact members of the opposite sex who had roughly the same desirability ranking as themselves suggesting that people have a good idea of how universally desirable they would be deemed.
Both men and women also contacted fellow prospective partners who were more desirable than themselves where on average, women sent messages to men that were 23% more desirable and men to women that were 26% more desirable.
Rarely did men or women contact prospective partners who were significantly less desirable than themselves.
Men were twice as likely to receive a reply from women less desirable than themselves than from women who were more desirable.
When men sent messages to more desirable women, the reply rate was only ever up to 21%, meaning that at best, for approximately every five conversational attempts with a more desirable woman, he’d receive one reply.
The vast majority of men sent messages to women who were higher on the desirable rating than themselves, making trying to ‘punch above their weight’, the norm for the men.
The higher desirability rating the men and women had, the more likely they would only send messages to those who were similarly desirable, especially so in the case of highly desirable women.
Daters put more effort into attracting partners that are more desirable than themselves. For example, when messaging those more desirable, both the men and women wrote substantially longer messages, in some cases, up to twice as long. Whilst this tended to be the case more often for women than men sending messages, in Seattle, where the competition for the women was higher as there were two men for every woman, it was actually the men that put forth the effort to write longer messages to the women.
When pursuing prospective partners that are more desirable than themselves, women included more positive words when communicating, while men decreased the number of positive words.
Men experience slightly lower reply rates when they wrote more positively worded messages to women more desirable than themselves. This finding could explain why men decrease the number of positive words when approaching women rated higher on the desirability scale than themselves, as per Finding 9 above.
Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to attract someone ‘out of your league’ even if chances are low; some did receive replies to messages sent to those who were more desirable.
Does Similar Desirability Make For Greater Long-Term Relationship Success?
So even though daters were found to pursue both those that are of a similar desirability and those of a greater desirability to themselves, and even though some dates/relationships may arise out of these attempts, how does this affect the success of the relationship long-term?
Well, according to new research looking at marital and non-marital relationships in an offline setting – more specifically, a community in Namibia where the locals tend to be familiar with one another and marry within their community – couples who were rated as more similarly desirable tended to report greater relationship quality, measured by the frequency of their interactions (physically and via mobile phone), their reported sexual history with one another, and how long their romantic relationship lasted .
So if you’re looking for lasting love, maybe pursuing those of a similar desirability to ourselves is the way to go.
You do need to feel that they are worthy of you and you of them.
And although the matching hypothesis places emphasis on physical attractiveness, attributes such as intelligence, attitudes, morals, values, life goals, motivations, financial stability, ability to socialise with others, how trustworthy they are, and so on, are also a part of how you will evaluate your (prospective) partner in terms of desirability.
So What’s Most Desirable To You?
It’s the total package that you each bring to the table that determines in your eyes their desirability, and in their eyes, yours, even if not necessarily in the eyes of the world. When you’re looking for similar desirability, you’re looking for similar desirability based on what’s important to you and your partner.
For example, you may not care if your future partner is not earning six figures but for your single friend looking for their future love, that might be a deal breaker.
You may want your partner to be slim and always look after their health and fitness and your partner may want you to be a stay at home parent whilst the couple next door may not have ever cared for either of those things.
You may have been in an abusive relationship and are looking for someone tender and trustworthy whilst your colleague may have, fortunately, never been in a damaging relationship and find it easy to trust everyone.
So whilst the desirability ratings may seem universal, it’s not entirely the whole picture; you must always listen to what you need in order to feel that your (prospective) partner is worthy of you. And they must do the same for themselves.
And remember, people evolve, so one of the key elements to look at is how their attributes suggest they will evolve. Sometimes, over time, a person’s desirability reduces in the eyes and heart of the beholder because they themselves evolve whilst their partner doesn’t. For narcissists, it can be the other way around, they can feel highly insecure and angry when their partner’s evolution outpaces their own.
Of course, there are circumstances that you can’t predict that can alter what happens, such as how society evolves and with it your sense of what’s important in a long-term relationship. And sometimes you might just be too naive to see things at the start of the relationship, only to discover them later on.
You’re just looking to make the best decision you can based on the information you have available coupled with your intuition.*
Tune Into Your Mind And Your Intuition
So looking at who they are now and what that says about who they are likely to be in the future, is important.
Remember to be clear on what your needs are, not what others tell you you should be looking for. It’s your life and your future health, happiness and survival, so what you’re looking for is the most desirable match for you.
And if you and your partner rate each other as similarly desirable on the parameters that matter to each of you, then as per the aforementioned research, that might be the best match for future you!
*For help with tuning into your intuition, see coaching for relationships, dating, anxiety, confidence, divorce, relationship with yourself, and my books Resilient Me, Anxiety Free, and Happy Relationships.
Plus, here’s an interview I did with a lovely gentleman about online dating vs traditional (offline) dating in the modern day:
1. Bruch, E. E., & Newman, M. (2018). Aspirational pursuit of mates in online dating markets. Science advances, 4(8), https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aap9815
2. Prall, S., & Scelza, B. (2022). The effect of mating market dynamics on partner preference and relationship quality among Himba pastoralists. Science Advances, 8(18), https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abm5629
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