The Science of Mismatched Couples

If you’re anything like me, you’re really good at playing it cool when you meet “mismatched” couples.

The couples where one partner is on a different level of the life game. We act unfazed, but that doesn’t mean we get it.

“Good for them! There must be so many redeeming qualities,” you think as you cock your head completely sideways and squint to see what you’re missing.

I don’t care what pedestal of non-judgement you’re perched on, we all seek order in the universe. It’s just how our brains work. We see the 4 with the 5, the musician with the artist, the cat man with the cat lady, and we’re happy. We get it. The world can keep spinning.

But when we see big discrepancies in romantic pairs, our logic centers freak out. Why is the is the 3 with the 8? The village idiot with your beautiful, brilliant best friend? We try to play it cool as if that will prevent a karmic lightning bolt from hitting us, but the world starts to feel off-kilter as we question our own perception of order and logic.

Turns out, science has an explanation for both scenarios. It explains why some couples are an obvious “Duh!” while others are a little more, “Huh…?”.

Well Matched Couples | The Science of Assortative Mating

There’s a reason we’re surprised by misaligned couples. It’s called assortative mating and opposites aren’t supposed to attract.

Assortative mating is everything Disney romance is not. The beggar doesn’t fly off with the Princess, the maid doesn’t run away with Prince charming, and the fish in a seashell bikini certainly never marries the human.

Assortative mating is a form of sexual selection where we pick partners who match us in physical, behavioral, and psychological characteristics like attractiveness, education, income, and personality.

Don’t shoot the messenger. This is millions of years at evolution at work. Why does a bar’s gravitational force always seem to pull together the two most eligible singles around 1AM?

In monogamous Eastern and Western Bluebirds, the most brightly colored males mate with the most brightly colored females. Pretty ornamentation says, “I’m healthy, have spectacular genes, and take care of my life enough to not let our kids fall out of a tree. Let’s get out of here.”

Bluebirds also mate assortatively based on aggressive tendencies. Aggressive males seek out equally aggressive females. Between good looks and feistiness, ain’t no one taking over their nest – or spot at the bar – in competitive environments.

Before you feel all shitty and judgmental, you should know that assortative mating happens largely beyond our conscious control.

When men are asked to select the most desirable woman from three photographs, men will choose images that have been secretly altered to incorporate their own facial features. Similarly, married couples are more genetically similar than non-couples, and for every standard deviation increase in genetic similarity, the probability of marriage goes up by 15%.

Basically we think we’re really special snowflakes who deserve an equally special and nearly identical snowflake partner.

Mismatched Couples | The Science of the Shallow Hal Phenomenon

And so science can accurately explain mating behavior all of the time, some of the time. That’s right, there’s a caveat to assortative mating. Particularly when it comes to attractiveness.

Research shows the amount of time you know a partner prior to dating can shift perceptions of desirability. The longer you know someone prior to dating, the less likely you are to be matched on attractiveness.

“Our results indicate that perceptions of beauty in a romantic partner might change with time, as individuals get to know one another better before they start dating.”

So no, you can’t just be really ridiculously good looking. You also have to be nice and interesting and stuff too.

As the researchers said, “longer acquaintance lengths tend to feature romantic impressions that rely heavily on unique, idiosyncratic desirability.”

Have you ever become wildly attracted to someone out of no where? And you stand there stupefied, wondering how the hell you never noticed them before?

Chances are they didn’t become a Ford model overnight, but you learned something over time that flipped the sexy switch. Maybe they helped you through a tough patch, or did something unexpectedly bold, or talked to a homeless person when they thought you weren’t looking, or you both realized you geek out over machine learning… or maybe that’s just me.

And then you introduce your newfound treasure to your friends who are like, “Meh.” And you’re like, “How do you not see what I see?!”

Experiencing a person in various settings can make them more attractive by virtue of these interactions.

If a dating app were to use this approach, it might list your hobbies, charities, and endorsements from your friends or family before it flashed a picture of you. That way, by the time I’m forced to judge you on a blurry photo where I have to guess which of three dudes is you, I already kind of dig you as a human.

So the moral of the story is threefold:

  1. Assortative mating is a strong force. If you pick a mate off a first impression, you’ll likely be “well matched” on superficial characteristics.
  2. Beauty is literally in the eye of the beholder. You get more (or less) attractive as someone gets to know you. Science says so.
  3. If you want to date “out your league,” whatever that means, show someone your inner awesomeness first. And if you have no personality, find one.

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