Single women the world over will thank God for these two researchers: In a study of speed daters, Paul W. Eastwick and Eli J. Finkel, PhD, of Northwestern University, found that people who selected a large number of candidates for follow-up meetings were less likely to be picked themselves for another round. People who chose only a few contenders were more successful in getting attention and responses. It turns out that singles who show interest in every partner they encounter may come off not as eager and open but as just plain desperate.
"What's interesting about that is it actually differs from platonic liking," says Finkel. "In nonromantic contexts, if I like everybody, then everybody likes me back. After all, who doesn't like the guy who likes everybody? But in a romantic context, if I say, 'Yeah, she's hot! And she's hot...and she's hot...and that other girl over there is hot, too,' there's now hard statistical evidence that, in general, the women I meet will not find me sexually desirable."
Does this mean that grandmothers who've warned single women not to be too picky have been wrong? "I don't think your grandma meant, 'You have to go on dates with everybody under every circumstance,'" says Finkel. "But in a situation in which there are a bunch of eligible men, like a party, be selective." Finkel warns against interpreting this data as an invitation to sit home or play hard to get: "What you want to do is be easy for one person to get and hard for everyone else, which will increase the likelihood of that one person's liking you."
It's Not the Journey, It's the Preparation
What people look for in a marriage partner is another topic Finkel has investigated. "Basically they think, The sex is good, we love each other, we're good friends...," he says. "You'd go pretty far down the list before you'd get to 'We get in sync effectively.'" But he's learned that the ability to coordinate day-to-day tasks like shopping food and running errands is a crucial component of a couple's happiness.
"Married partners are co-managers, and as the marriage progresses, it involves more logistical organization, especially if kids come," he says. "If you're not in sync with your partner, research suggests, you'll find yourself depleted, exhausted, and less effective, and if the problems are serious enough, it's difficult to imagine the relationship continuing to function effectively."
A courtship affords few opportunities to engage in the sort of knotty tactical tasks that fill a marriage. To test a relationship, Finkel suggests that you "throw it into challenge, so that if there's a problem, you can develop a system. Expose it to stressful coordination experiences. Instead of watching TV together or doing something comfortable, take a road trip that requires a lot of collaboration. Put one person in charge of six things, the other in charge of six other things, and then ask yourselves, 'How well do we do these things?'"
Better to Celebrate than Commiserate
The way you respond to your partner's good news may be more important than how you react to his disappointments. Couples who celebrated each other's happy events (like promotions or raises) reported greater satisfaction in their relationship and were less likely to break up than those who offered support only during rough times, says lead study author Shelly L. Gable, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at UC Santa Barbara.
She and her researchers videotaped 79 couples as they talked about negative and positive events in their lives, then categorized the partner's responses in four ways: active-destructive ("Are you sure you can handle that job?"); passive-destructive (silence, changing the subject); passive-constructive (an absentminded "That's nice"); and, the most helpful, active-constructive ("I'm so proud of you" or "I know how important this was to you"). The finding that praise boosted a relationship more than a sympathetic response to bad news surprised Gable—as did the results concerning passive support, like smiling vaguely, saying, "Great," and returning to your newspaper. "We assumed when we started this research that passive support would be good—not as good as active-constructive, but certainly not bad," she says. But time and time again, Gable's team saw that passive responses negatively affected relationship satisfaction.
So when your mate bursts through the door with good news, "make an effort to notice these events and act on them in some way," says Gable. A partner can sense false enthusiasm, so if you're not able to have a genuine reaction, she suggests asking questions about why he's so happy. "This will help him," she says, "because you're giving positive feedback, and it will help you because it gives you insight into what makes him click." She isn't saying couples need to celebrate every event with a five-course dinner; simple and sincere praise is enough. "It's the thought that counts," she says. "Although I'd never turn down a five-course dinner."