Mating by Numbers

New statistics show that what men and women want in a mate has changed drastically in the past 70 years


It’s the perennial question: What do men and women want in a spouse?

Men are increasingly interested in an educated woman who is a good financial prospect, and less interested in chastity. Women are increasingly interested in a man who wants a family, and less picky about whether he’s always Mr. Nice Guy.

That’s according to a study by that I conducted with Christie Boxer, a graduate student here at the University of Iowa. We analyzed results from a 2008 survey of more than 1,100 undergraduates of all religious backgrounds at the UI, the University of Washington, the University of Virginia and Penn State University, comparing the results to past mate-preference studies.

Since the 1930s, researchers have been asking college students to rank a list of 18 characteristics they’d prefer in a mate from “irrelevant” (0) to “essential” (3), allowing for a comparison of mate preferences dating back three generations. And my, how times have changed: Today’s young adults rank love and attraction as most important; a few generations ago it didn’t even make the top three.

Love (Plus Money) Conquers All

Marriage used to be a practical arrangement: Getting married for love or attraction was considered foolish and perhaps even dangerous. So in the 1930s male respondents were seeking a dependable, kind lady who had skills in the kitchen. They ranked chastity as more important than intelligence.

Fast forward seven decades: Now guys look for love, brains and beauty—and a sizable salary certainly sweetens the deal. Men ranked “good financial prospect” No. 12 in 2008, a significant climb from No. 17 in 1939 and No. 18 in 1967.

Sounding familiar? I’ve written several columns on these trends in the past (here and here.) These results are consistent with the rise in educational and career opportunities for women, and men’s increasing desire to share the financial burdens with a future spouse (here.)

Plus, in times of economic difficulty, it’s no wonder that guys want someone with whom to share the burden of financial responsibility.

Chastity unimportant?

Chastity—which men ranked at No. 10 in 1939—fell to dead last in 2008 for both men and women. In fact, when we administered the survey, several female students snickered at the idea that we even included the chastity item. This is consistent with the widespread hook-up culture on college campuses &mdash and a concern for young-adult Catholics.

Chastity before marriage increases the likelihood of a lasting, happy relationship and decreases the likelihood of divorce, according to research by W. Bradford Wilcox, a professor at the University of Virginia. “Successful marriages are built in part around the virtue of sexual fidelity and against a horizon of commitment—both of which are most easily realized in the bonds of wedlock.”

So the fact that college students aren’t taking chastity seriously—and laugh at the idea that surveys would even be interested in measuring it—should give us pause.

What Women Want

There’s a great stand-up routine from Chris Rock where he says that he’s figured out what women want: Everything.

That’s not quite true (but it’s still funny).

For women of the 1930s, emotional stability, dependable character and ambition ranked as the top three characteristics they wanted in a man. Attraction and love didn’t come in until No. 5. Today, women, like men, put love at the top of the list, with dependability and emotional stability rounding out the top three characteristics in Mr. Right.

Women rate desire for home and children much higher in importance than men do. In 2008, women rated desire for home and children fourth men ranked it ninth.

And women ranked “pleasing disposition” as significantly less important in 2008 than ever before. Pleasing disposition —presumably interpreted to mean being a nice guy—fell from a steady ranking of No. 4 throughout the second half of the 20th Century to a significantly lower rank of No. 7 in 2008.

Perhaps this means young women are more forgiving if their boyfriend or husband forgets chocolates and flowers on Valentine’s Day, as long as he meets the other requirements she’s looking for in a guy. Maybe? Possibly? (The guys out there are shaking their heads, especially if they’re still in the doghouse for getting their spouse or girlfriend something that plugged in instead of something sparkly.) But more likely, this points to a change in vocabulary: “Pleasing disposition” is a very old-fashioned phrase that might not be the most accurate measure of modern preferences.

mate-preferences-chartCheck out this table of what men and women want —throughout the last seven decades—and tell me what you think (click on the chart for a downloadable pdf). How would you rank these characteristics? What concerns you about these findings—and what reassures you? Let’s get a discussion going: Comment below or email me at