Mating Choices: Parents and Offspring Don't See Eye to Eye

Why conflict between parents and offspring so often involves attractiveness.

Posted Feb 11, 2019

Eric Froehling/Unsplash
Source: Eric Froehling/Unsplash

Have your parents ever tried to influence your dating decisions? When I was dating, my parents tried to influence my choice of partners in two ways: First, they tried to steer me away from dating partners they didn’t like, and second, they tried to steer me toward dating partners they did like. Cross-culturally, it is common for parents to choose dating and/or marriage partners for their children (e.g., Guo et al., 2017; Regan et al., 2012).

Conflict Over Physical Attractiveness

On one occasion, my mother tried to recommend a friend's son as a potential dating partner for me, but I didn’t find him attractive at all. Years later, through research, I discovered that mate-choice conflicts between parents and offspring often involve physical attractiveness. Out of all the possible traits a potential partner could possess (kindness, a good sense of humor, honesty, a similar religious or ethnic background, etc.), daughters and their parents disagree most about the importance of physical attractiveness, with daughters finding the trait significantly more important than their parents (Fugère, Doucette, et al., 2017; Apostolou, 2015). Some researchers suggest that sons and their parents may experience even more conflict over the genetic quality of a potential mate than daughters and their parents (Apostolou, 2015).

According to evolutionary theory, it makes sense for individuals to desire physically attractive partners. Attractiveness can signal that a partner possesses good genes, and those good genes would benefit future offspring. Attractiveness is also expected to be associated with positive characteristics, such as increased health and fertility (Soler et al., 2003; Weeden & Sabini, 2005), as well as a better personality and more positive life experiences (Dion et al., 1972). Unattractiveness, on the other hand, may indicate a susceptibility to pathogens (see Gangestad & Buss, 1993; Perilloux et al., 2010). However, parents may actually oppose more attractive partners, especially for their daughters, because they expect that a very attractive partner will be less likely to stay in the relationship and to invest in future offspring (Gangestad & Simpson, 2000; Ma-Kellams et al., 2017).

Different Perceptions of Attractiveness

Additional conflict over potential partners among parents and offspring may arise due to differing perceptions of who is physically attractive and who is not. Recent research presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology suggests that fathers don’t want their daughters to date men who are unattractive; however, fathers’ perceptions of unattractiveness are very different from daughters’ perceptions (Fugère et al., 2019). These authors studied 86 daughter-father pairs using an experimental design varying target men’s physical attractiveness and personality characteristics. They found that both women and their fathers were strongly influenced by the physical attractiveness of the target men and rated more attractive target men as more desirable partners for themselves or for their daughters.

However, fathers rated all the men as more desirable partners for daughters than daughters did for themselves, including the least attractive men (Fugère et al., 2019). The largest difference between daughters’ and their fathers’ ratings occurred when rating the least attractive men. Prior research shows that mothers also rate men as more desirable partners for their daughters than their daughters rate those same men for themselves (Fugère, Chabot, et al., 2017). Furthermore, the authors also found that physical attractiveness was more strongly related to women’s own dating preferences, while personality favorability was more strongly related to fathers’ preferences for their daughters (Fugère et al., 2019). Additionally, both daughters and fathers were asked to choose the “best mate” for daughters from three target men. Women and their fathers disagreed about the best mate a little more than 50 percent of the time, and when they disagreed, women almost always chose the more attractive man as the best mate for themselves, while their fathers almost always chose the man with the more desirable personality traits as the best mate for their daughters.

The Bottom Line

The importance of physical attractiveness to women’s mate choices may lead to conflict with their fathers. Furthermore, it seems that both fathers and mothers are less picky than their daughters when it comes to deciding who makes a suitable mate. Your parents don’t necessarily want you to date an unattractive man, but they consider a broader range of men as acceptable for their daughters than their daughters prefer for themselves. Parents may also oppose very attractive partners for their daughters due to their concerns about attractive individuals' commitment to the relationship. Because the research discussed above only assessed heterosexual mate preferences, future research should consider the potential for mate-choice conflict in families in which offspring prefer same-sex partners.

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