This research has highlighted three sets of characteristics (Fletcher et al. 2004): (1) warmth/trustworthiness, (2) attractiveness/vitality, and (3) status/resources. Research suggests that
trustworthiness is an important factor in mate selection for both males and females (Fletcher et al. 2004; Valentine et al. 2020). Women tend to emphasize warmth/trustworthiness and resources as compared to men. Attractiveness/vitality are important characteristics for short-term relationships (hook-ups) more for men than women. For long-term relationships, attractiveness/vitality are not important characteristics.
Filter Theory In their classic work, Alan Kerckhoff and Keith Davis (1962) have
suggested that endogamy, homogamy, and complementary needs are three different filters through which a potential mate must pass (see fig. 7). The first and broadest filter in the mate-selection process is endogamy, as most people date and establish relationships with individuals from similar backgrounds. The second filter is homogamy, which is narrower and more selective. Only those people who have similar interests and characteristics pass through this filter. Casual dating allows individuals to discover which potential partners have compatible interests and characteristics. The last filter, complementary needs, is the narrowest. Whereas a number of potential mates may pass through the endogamous and homogamous filters, only a few will have the exact personality traits to meet one’s most pressing needs.
Marriage Markets Theory Marriage markets refers to the idea that there is a discrete number of
potential partners in a given population. This population has traditionally been defined in terms of neighborhoods or communities. In other words, marriage markets are geographically and demographically homogeneous places where individuals find mates. Before the advent of the internet, individuals would generally seek mates that were geographically close (Rosenfeld and Thomas 2012). The thinness or thickness of these markets would be determined by the numbers of potential partners and the selectivity of mate preferences. The advent of the internet has moved these markets from local to international in focus, making one’s internet search skills an important variable in identifying potential mates. Of course, geographical proximity is still important. After all, individuals will need to physically meet potential mates at some point in the process.
Other Theories Furnham (2009) noted a gender difference in what is valued in the mate-
selection process. In a study based on 250 adults in their early twenties, he reported that “females rated intelligence, stability, conscientiousness, height, education, social skills, and political/religious compatibility significantly higher than males, whereas males rated good looks higher than females” (262).
Wenzel and Emerson (2009, 341) report that socially anxious individuals believe others are less likely to select them when compared to socially nonanxious individuals. McGee and Shevin (2009, 67) found that persons with a good sense of humor are perceived as more attractive as potential mates. Montoya (2008, 1315) indicates that “attractive perceivers expected to date more attractive targets while unattractive perceivers expected to date less attractive targets.”
A Christian Perspective on Mate Selection Taken together, the various sociological theories of mate selection comport well with the theological model of family relationships that we presented in chapter 1. This will become clear as we describe what mate selection would be like if it developed according to the principles suggested in our theological model: commitment, grace, empowerment, and intimacy.
At the beginning of a dating relationship, there is a minimal degree of commitment between the partners. With an increased degree of commitment comes an increased sense of trust and security. Commitment being the foundation for the relationship, it is important to consider what is being committed to. In other words, mate selection should focus on the end result of marriage as opposed to a more culturally consonant understanding of dating and relationship formation as a way of meeting personal needs and avoiding loneliness.
This means that human initiative and decision-making are foundational for mate selection. Marriage requires something more than human love and desire. Bonhoeffer (1997b, 41) describes weddings as a place where people can be “celebrating their triumph [in getting married]” because “the course [they] have taken at the outset is one that [they] have chosen for [themselves].” The wedding is a place where God blesses the marriage so that it can persevere throughout all of life’s challenges. God blesses a
marriage so that “it is not [their] love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains [their] love” (Bonhoeffer 1997b, 43). With the goal of marriage in mind, individuals should assess their ability to commit to a specific partner in covenantal terms. The point here is that the marriage becomes the covenantal context for living out one’s identity with another. Making the covenant of marriage entails embarking on a lifelong relationship that sustains and transforms each partner into a one-flesh reality (see Gen. 2:22–25).
As each partner increasingly commits toward establishing a covenantal relationship, grace can be expected to grow proportionately. Grace is experienced through acceptance and appreciation by the partner. The presence of grace promotes a feeling of security because differences are respected and because there is an atmosphere of forgiveness whenever failure occurs. Partners share more of their characteristics, desires, and dreams as they enter deeper into commitment with one another. The partners are increasingly valued and accepted for who they are and not for what they might be or do for the other.
Out of grace emerges a mutual empowerment process. In the early stages of dating, the couple may operate on a quid pro quo basis (something for something), with each attempting to have personal needs met through the relationship. Where there is a minimal degree of commitment and acceptance, partners are likely to think more in terms of what they can get from a relationship rather than what they can contribute to it. The empowerment model is hopeful in that it shows that love can be elevated above self-centered exchange. A depth of commitment and grace can imbue each partner with a genuine desire to empower by both giving to and receiving from the other. This involves being interested in the growth of the other person and finding ways to encourage the partner to reach his or her greatest potential and thus to be all that God created him or her to be.
Some relationships are not empowering but rather are based on mutual dependency. When couples are overly dependent on each other, they tend to demand that the partner meet their every need. Codependency is the exact opposite of differentiation as noted in trinitarian theology, where distinctiveness and unity are intermingled. Differentiated partners are responsible to God for their lives and therefore bring unique gifts to the couple relationship. In other words, each partner has based his or her identity on Christ, who accepts and values them. Christian identity facilitates a
marriage covenant between partners and God, and grace, empowerment, and intimacy deepen. Partners act in their relationship out of strength rather than deficit. They are able to ask for what they would like without demanding the partner provide it. Being centered in Christ gives them confidence that God is the best resource to guide, empower, nurture, inspire, and soothe. They look to God for personal growth but also openly share and offer themselves to each other in that process. When spouses cling to each other for dear life in a raging river, they perpetuate an enabling system in which they both are likely to drown together. But when sufficiently differentiated, they are a strong resource for each other so that when one is struggling, the partner is standing on solid ground to extend a helping hand.
Ecclesiastes 4:9–12 refers to this idea that two sufficient persons are better than one alone. Because they bring their unique strengths to the union, they can be there for each other rather than be dragged down in an overly dependent relationship. “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.” Being united in unique strengths and making God the center of their relationship (a threefold cord) presents a wonderful image of marital partnership and union.
We live in a society that encourages people to think that they can have instant gratification. This mentality carries over into the dating relationship, where people look for instant sexual intimacy. The prevalence of an instant sexual gratification ethic has resulted in the emergence of the concept of “hooking up,” defined as intimate physical behavior outside of a committed relationship. Hooking up seems to be less about dating in order to get to know the other and more about sexual fulfillment. Research on hooking up among college students reports that it can result in both positive and negative experiences, “with women being more likely to report it as a negative experience than men” (Owen and Fincham 2011). Negative emotional reactions were related to “reports of depressive symptoms and feelings of loneliness,” while positive emotional relations had to do with hope for the possibility of a committed relationship (321). This finding seems to point out the importance of the biblical wisdom that sexual involvement is best when part of a committed relationship.
In our theological model, intimacy entails a deep level of knowing and being known through understanding, listening, caring, and sharing. It is not only a physical or sexual encounter but a deeply felt process of becoming known. Sexual intimacy is one of many facets of intimacy, and it is certainly not the most important one. Accordingly, intimacy builds on commitment, grace, and empowerment. Using these foundational biblical concepts, people who trust the commitment, who experience acceptance and forgiveness throughout dating, and who find their partner interested in and actively affirming empowerment during the dating process will feel safe enough to be more honest and revealing. They are willing to take off their masks and resist the temptation to put on pretenses. They share a desire truly to know each other. The couple is more interested in a relationship with the other person than in the mere pleasure that person can give in a superficial sexual encounter. Intimacy of this nature leads to deeper levels of commitment, grace, and empowerment.
Certain beliefs about mate selection, such as “love is enough” or “there is a one and only for me,” are a serious hindrance in discerning God’s will. A research study has identified seven such constraining beliefs that limit, inhibit, hinder, or perpetuate exaggerated or false expectations about mate selection (Cobb, Larson, and Watson 2003). The beliefsthat “there is a one and only, that love is enough, that cohabiting before marriage will improve chances of being happily married, that I will have complete assurance, that the match will make a perfect relationship, that choosing should be easy and effortless, and that one should choose someone to marry whose personal characteristics are the opposite of their own” seem to adversely affect mate selection. These myths blur the clarity of vision needed when choosing a mate. The study discovered that “men and women were found to be equally susceptible to constraining beliefs about mate selection, with the exception of the One and Only belief, the Idealization belief, and the Complete Assurance belief, all of which women appear to endorse to a slightly greater degree” (229).
Cohabitation: A Path toward or Alternative to Marriage? Virtually all industrialized societies in the last fifty years have experienced a dramatic increase in cohabitation. This increase is true for premarital cohabitation and cohabitation following divorce or the death of a spouse. In
the United States, cohabitation has increased seventeenfold between 1960 and 2010—from about 450,000 people in 1960 to more than 7.5 million today (Wilcox 2011, 75). Most marriages and remarriages taking place today will be preceded by a cohabiting arrangement.
Our goal in this section is to develop a Christian perspective on the topic. We draw on existing research—mainly self-reported responses to survey research questionnaires or interviews—to understand this phenomenon more fully. We consider the reasons people choose to cohabit and examine the impact of this trend. We offer a response to cohabitation that is informed by both biblical and social-scientific literature. We begin by addressing the question of whether premarital cohabitation is an alternative to marriage or a step toward marriage.
Is Cohabitation a Step toward Marriage? Actually, premarital cohabitation is not a new idea, for as early as 1966
anthropologist Margaret Mead proposed a two-step plan for single adults. The first step, trial marriage, would be a time for the couple to determine whether they were compatible; and the second step would be to legalize the union when the couple decided to have children. A few years later, Scriven (1968) proposed a three-stage plan whereby a relationship progressed from sexual satisfaction, to social security, to sensible spawning. The idea was for couples to establish contracts for stated periods of time and periodically renew them as they saw fit. In 1997, McRae surmised that cohabitation would serve as a type of marriage preparation, a stage that occurs between courtship and marriage. He reasoned that cohabiting would give the couple a chance to test the degree of compatibility, and if their personalities “fit” they would move to marriage. This idea of cohabitation as being a trial for marriage persists in the literature today (Rosenfeld and Roesler 2019).
What Does Culture Have to Do with It? In terms of acceptability of cohabitation in various cultures, Heuveline and