Your choice of romantic partner might seem mind-boggling to your friends, and could even catch you by surprise. After all, as the old saying goes, “the heart wants what the heart wants.” However, it turns out that what the heart wants tends to follow what is known as your love map. This is an unconscious list of traits that you want in a partner, and may be established far earlier than you realize.
Science shows that children begin to develop their love maps between the ages of five and eight, if not sooner. The way your father walks or your mother listens, the relative level of peace in your home, and the temperaments of the adults with whom you spend time all become imprinted in your mind as either desirable or undesirable. As you grow and develop, these and many other influences gradually formulate into a hazy prototype of the ideal partner.
During and after puberty, you are swept by often-overwhelming hormones and emotions. At this point, your childish prototype begins to solidify. You start to fill in such details as body type, age difference, interests, and sense of humor. At this point, you can actually imagine your ideal love, along with the setting for your perfect date and the conversational topics you might share.
Naturally, your love map will continue to evolve as you have new experiences. You might develop either an attraction or an aversion to people who remind you of your first love, for example. You might become open to a physical type you never considered, or decide that religion is less important than you once believed.
Still, the basics remain largely unchanged throughout your lifetime. Note, however, that it is unlikely that you will ever meet someone who perfectly matches your love map. Instead, part of falling in love is projecting your mental love map onto your prospective partner.
Looks and Position
Looks are an important part of the love map, though everyone has a different ideal. In general, Caucasian Americans tend to prefer averageness, despite the societal push for extreme attractiveness. Other cultures have other common preferences, but these are aggregates. Everyone has a highly individual blend of features that he or she prefers. Worldwide, though, people prefer partners who look clean and healthy, with clear complexions.
Money and social position also count more than many people would like to admit, especially when straight women are choosing male partners. This could well be an evolutionary preference, a vestige of the days when men needed to be strong providers, and certainly many women today are bucking that trend.
Unfamiliarity is a key ingredient in most people’s love maps. As demonstrated on Israeli kibbutzim, where unrelated boys and girls are raised communally, people almost never fall in love with someone they know extremely well. A bit of mystery is an essential ingredient for love.
The Romeo and Juliet effect is also powerful. Barriers to love form an important part of most love maps, which explains the tendency to fall in love with someone in town only briefly, someone who is married, or someone who is emotionally unavailable.
Timing also plays an important role in falling in love. If you are itching for adventure, feeling lonely, or entering a new stage in life, you may be more susceptible to falling in love. You will likely choose someone who matches your love map as well as possible, but being in the right place at the right time is a definite factor.
Although mystery is an important part of the love map, so is similarity. Known as positive assortive mating, there is a strong tendency to fall in love with those who share our core values and reproductive goals. You are also more likely to fall in love with someone from a similar socioeconomic background, as well as roughly the same level of education, intelligence, and physical attractiveness.
Chemistry and Biology
Temperament is the “nature” side of the nature vs nurture debate. While your experiences shape roughly 40% of your personality, the majority is attributable to your biology and brain chemistry. These traits are inherited, stable throughout the lifetime, and linked to specific hormones, genes, or neurotransmitters.
Your precise combination of traits determines whether you prefer a partner whose traits are a close match to yours or are extremely different. For example, those who have a combination of testosterone-based, traditionally masculine traits tend to look for a partner whose traits are estrogen-based and traditionally feminine.
Looking for verifiable information on the science of attraction and relationships? We’re a neuroscientist and a biological anthropologist eager to help you put the Anatomy of Love to work in your own life.
Written by: Lisa FritscherNEXT