Since the 1930s, researchers have been asking men and women what they want in a spouse. And my, how times have changed. Here’s a round-up of national preferences. Where do you stand?
What Men Want
While today’s young man ranks love and attraction as most important, a few generations ago it didn’t even make the top three. A dependable, sweet lady who had skills in the kitchen was the prized catch in the 1930s; these days, guys are looking for brains, beauty—and a sizeable paycheck seems to sweeten the deal.
Men who were in their 20s in the 1930s—the grandfathers or great-grandfathers of today’s young-adults—reported that, first and foremost, they were looking for a wife who had a “dependable character.” The ideal wife should be emotionally stable and mature with a “pleasing disposition.” Love and mutual attraction ranked #4 in importance, just a few notches ahead of the desire for a wife to be neat and a good cook. A woman’s financial prospects were second-to-last on the ranking of 18 characteristics, just slightly more important than her political background. That she be intelligent was less important than that she be chaste.
A similar survey, conducted with modern young men in their early 20s circa 1996, found that the rankings had shifted considerably. Love and attraction ranked #1, with dependable character, emotional maturity and pleasing disposition following in order after that. Education and intelligence shot up in importance to #5-from #11 in 1939—and her financial prospects now ranked as more important than either her chastity, her ability to cook or her skills at keeping house.
but a full 62% of men said no way: They weren’t afraid of
dating or marrying
Today men are looking for intelligent, passionate, driven and fun women. As one 35-year-old lawyer said, “I want to marry a woman with a sexy mind, a great sense of humor, a kind heart, and a little spark.” If she has a fantastic job and makes a lot of money, most men report, then it’s a great bonus. While some admit it gives them pause to think about their wife outshining them in their exact same lines of work, success, power and prestige is generally an aphrodisiac.
So while women still think that men are put off by successful girls, the guys say it ain’t so: In a recent Match.com poll, 74% of women thought men would be intimidated by an accomplished woman but a full 62% of men said no way: They weren’t afraid of dating or marrying career women.
“I am looking for an equal, a partner. Someone who is better than me at certain things and can help me to develop and make me a better individual,” said Ian, a business school student in Philadelphia. “Someone who I am able to help, and give that person a sense of satisfaction from helping her to grow. Because career, intellect and education are so important to me, the kind of a person that I am going to spend the rest of my life with needs to be as driven and motivated as I am. I’m really looking for someone who shares my values.”
What Women Want
Women know what they want in a man, but that’s not to say that they don’t change their minds.
According to my Harris Interactive survey, 82% of single women said they have a clear, very clear or extremely clear view of what kinds of qualities and characteristics they are looking for in a husband. But of married women, only half said their husband matched their image of what they were looking for “exactly” or “a great deal” at the time they met him.
And the changes in national mate preferences during the last 75 years have been even more dramatic.
In the 1930s, women ranked emotional stability, dependable character and ambitiousness as the top three characteristics they were looking for in a man. Attraction and love didn’t come in until #5. The women taking this survey in 1939 expected a future in which marriage meant keeping house and childrearing, so they were looking for a partner who would work hard to financially support a growing family. Practical concerns like dependability and stability outweighed emotional draws like spark and attraction. But most women were looking for a man who had the potential to work hard—not one who necessarily would bring home the big bucks. Even in the 1930s, women weren’t ranking a man’s financial prospects as high on their list of preferences.
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Today, women put love at the top of the list, with dependability and emotional stability rounding out the top three characteristics in Mr. Right. While education and intelligence has become more important to women over the years—moving from #9 in 1939 to #5 in 1996—love has moved from #5 to #1.
Surveys from the 1960s suggest that half to three-quarters of women in their early 20s reported that they would marry someone they weren’t in love with, if all other desired characteristics were there. Since many women planned to depend on their husbands for income, a man’s professional status, income and family background might very well outweigh love. But by the 1990s, less than 10% of women said they’d marry someone without love.
Why the drastic change of opinion? One explanation is that as women gained access to power, education and money themselves, they could shift their focus in choice of a partner away from economic considerations toward love and attraction. It’s still a little too soon to say for sure, but it’s a trend worth watching.
Interestingly, similar religious background ranked at #14 out of 18 for women in both the 1930s and 1990s. In the 1990s, women thought being of the same faith was slightly more important in a husband than his social status, housekeeping skills, chastity and political background, but less important than his good looks, neatness or financial prospects.
In the 1930s men said similar religious background was #13 on their list of preferences in a mate—and that moved up to #12 in the 1990s. For men in the 1990s, the faith of their spouse was more important than their financial prospects, cooking skills or political orientation, and less important than their neatness, ambition and good looks.
As I’ve written about before, shared faith seems to be something that is open to compromise among young-adults seeking life partners—especially among well-educated, high-achievers. New survey data finds that 74% of single high-achieving women and 77% of single high-achieving men said they would be willing to marry someone of a different religious background or faith. Of married high-achievers, 36% of women and 41% of men said they married someone of a different faith.
What are you looking for in a mate? Share your thoughts with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And what happens when your perfect mate isn’t interested in you? Sure, we’ve all had crushes on movie stars or celebrities, but many times these feelings hit a lot closer to home: My next column will explore the murky subject of unrequited love. Take the survey above to register your opinions!