An Empirical Test of the Psychoanalytic Theory of Mate Selection

Glenn Geher

Western Oregon University

&

Kathleen P. Bauman

Pacific University

 

Abstract

The present research was designed to examine the psychoanalytic theory of mate selection which proposes that people choose romantic partners who are similar to their opposite-sex parents. In the present study, subjects were asked to describe their parents and significant others in terms of the Big Five trait dimensions and three attachment style dimensions. In addition, actual parents and significant others of subjects described themselves in terms of these same dimensions. This methodology allowed for the assessment of the extent to which people’s partners are actually similar to their same and opposite-sex parents as well as the extent to which people perceive such similarity to exist. For half of the personality variables employed, subjects’ opposite-sex parents were found to be similar to their significant others at above-chance levels. Further, for all eight variables, subjects perceived their significant others as similar to their parents (both same and opposite-sex) at above-chance levels. Additionally, subjects’ conceptualizations of their ideal significant others were significantly similar to their perceptions of their parents.

 

Introduction

The current research was designed to test the notion that individuals seek romantic partners reminiscent of their opposite-sex parents in the mate selection process. This notion, labeled both the "psychoanalytic theory of mate selection" (Epstein & Guttman, 1984) and the "template matching phenomenon" (Daly & Wilson, 1990), relates to Freud’s (1927) ideas on the mate selection process.

This idea that people choose mates based on similarity to one’s opposite-sex parents has also been addressed in terms of evolutionary psychology (e.g., Daly & Wilson, 1990) and attachment theory (e.g., Collins & Read, 1990). Further, this "template matching hypothesis" has garnered some empirical support. For instance, Wilson & Barrett (1987) found that, in a sample of teenage girls involved in dating relationships, girls whose parents were discordant for eye color were more likely to be dating boys whose eye color matched their fathers’ eye color than their mothers’. Jedlicka (1980, 1984) obtained similar results in analyzing Hawaiian census data. Specifically, he was interested in people who were (a) recently married and (b) whose parents were of different ethnic origins. He found that for both males and females, people who fit these criteria were more likely to have married into the ethnic background of their opposite-sex parents than of their same-sex parents.

However, previous research regarding whether people choose mates who are similar to their parents in terms of personality traits has been inconclusive (Epstein & Guttman, 1984). Some research has addressed this topic (e.g., Wilson & Barrett, 1987; Aron, 1974). However, this research has relied exclusively on subjects’ perceptions of their parents’ and partners’ personalities. Thus, the issue of actual personality similarity between people’s parents and partners (i.e., research where both parents and partners of subjects completed their own personality measures) has not been addressed previously. Further, extant research on this topic has used relatively narrow conceptualizations of personality.

The present research was designed to address several aspects of how the psychoanalytic theory of mate selection may relate to personality characteristics. First, this research was designed to address this phenomenon in terms of both perception (i.e., whether people perceive their parents and partners to have similar personality traits) and actuality (i.e., whether people’s actual parents and partners report their own personalities as similar to one another). Additionally, a broad range of personality traits was assessed in this research (including the "Big 5" personality traits (Costa & McCrae, 1992) and three attachment style dimensions (Collins & Read, 1990)). Also, people’s ideal significant others were assessed in terms of similarity to perceptions of parents. Finally, analyses were designed to assess whether similarity between parents and partners affects relationship satisfaction.

Method

Participants

Primary participants included heterosexual individuals who were involved in serious monogamous relationships (defined as having lasted for at least six months) (Females: N = 274; Males: N = 195). Some of these primary participants were undergraduate students involved in dating relationships while others were recruited from bridal conventions and were engaged to be married. Additionally, a subset of the same-sex parents (N = 191), opposite-sex parents (N = 203), and significant others (N = 217) of the primary subjects participated in this research.

Materials

Materials included a personality measure, an attachment style measure, and a relationship satisfaction measure. The personality measure employed was the NEO-FFI (Costa & McCrae, 1992). This scale contains items that tap the Big 5 trait dimensions (neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness). The Adult Attachment Scale (Collins & Read, 1990) was employed to measure attachment style; how people differentially respond in interpersonal relationships. This scale is comprised of items that tap the three attachment style dimensions of anxiety, dependency, and closeness. Additionally, a brief relationship satisfaction questionnaire was utilized (Murray, Holmes, & Griffin, 1996). This measure was included to address whether template matching in mate selection is related to one’s satisfaction in a relationship.

 

Procedure

Primary subjects were given packets which included five copies of each measure listed above. Subjects were instructed to complete each measure to describe five different people: themselves, their opposite-sex parents, their significant others, and their ideal significant others. These responses provided data speaking to whether subjects perceived their parents and partners as similar.

Additionally, subjects were asked to provide the names and addresses of their significant others and opposite-sex parents. Questionnaires were then sent to the actual significant others and parents of subjects. Obtaining data from these actual parents and partners of subjects allowed for the assessment of actual partner/parent similarity.

 

Results

Perceived Similarity between Parents and Partners

First, correlation coefficients were computed to assess whether participants perceive their significant others as similar to their opposite and same-sex parents in terms of their personalities and attachment styles. Generally speaking, participants perceived their romantic partners as similar to both parents along each of the eight dimensions at above chance levels (See Table 1). Correlations between perceptions of partners and opposite-sex parents ranged from .12 to .29 (p < .05) while correlations between perceptions of partners and same-sex parents ranged from .13 to .35 (p < .05).

While the aforementioned results seem to suggest that participants perceived their parents and partners as similar at above chance levels, an alternative explanation exists since all of these results are derived from a single participants’ (the primary subjects’) responses. As such, these positive correlations may result from the fact that (a) the primary subjects employed the same response biases in describing both themselves, their parents, and their partners and/or (b) the primary subjects may perceive themselves as similar to both their parents and partners. Both of these possibilities would lead to the same pattern of results.

To test these alternative explanations, partial correlation analyses were conducted where participants’ own scores on the different variables were controlled. Of 16 such analyses, 15 correlations remained positive and significant. Thus, the similarity that participants perceived between their parents and partners was not simply the result of response biases.

Perceived Similarity between Parents and Ideal Partners

Scores representing participants’ perceptions of their parents were also correlated with scores representing their perceptions of ideal partners. For each of the eight variables addressed, ideal partners were perceived as similar to both their opposite-sex parents (See Table 2; r ranged from .15 to .33 (p < .05)) and their same-sex parents (See Table 2; r ranged from .22 to .41 (p < .05)).

Actual Similarity between Parents and Partners

For four of the eight variables addressed, participants’ actual partners and opposite-sex parents were similar at above-chance levels (See Table 3). Specifically, significant correlations were obtained for the dimensions of openness (r = .15, p < .05), agreeableness (r = .15, p < .05), neuroticism (r = .13, p < .05), and closeness (r = .21, p < .05). However, actual partners were not similar to their same-sex parents at above-chance levels for any of these eight dimensions.

Relationship Satisfaction and Template Matching

Based on participants’ scores on the relationship satisfaction questionnaire, participants were divided into satisfied and dissatisfied groups. Then, correlations between parents and partners (both perceived and actual) were computed separately for satisfied and dissatisfied participants. While satisfied participants perceived similarity between their opposite-sex parents and partners for most of the dimensions being assessed, dissatisfied participants only perceived similarity between partners and opposite-sex parents for the dimension of neuroticism (r = .39, p < .05). Additionally, partners of dissatisfied participants were actually similar to the opposite-sex parents of these participants in terms of neuroticism (r = .28, p < .05).

 

Discussion

Analyses revealed that participants perceived their partners (and ideal partners) as similar to their parents (both same and opposite-sex) at above chance levels. However, actual similarity between parents and partners existed much less than this perceived similarity. For some personality dimensions, partners were actually similar to opposite-sex parents. No significant similarity between partners and same-sex parents was found.

An interesting pattern emerged regarding how template matching relates to relationship satisfaction. Participants who were relatively dissatisfied with their relationships tended to perceive their partners as similar to their opposite-sex parents only in terms of neuroticism. Interestingly, their opposite-sex parents and partners were actually similar along this dimension. Thus, to some extent, participants accurately perceived this similarity to exist. This finding is consistent with Alloy and Abramson’s (1979) notion of "depressive realism," as the unhappy people in this sample accurately perceived a somewhat negative phenomenon.

 

Overall, it is concluded that, to a large extent, people involved in intimate relationships tend to perceive their partners as similar to their parents. This perceived similarity may be due to internal working models (Bowlby, 1969) that guide people’s perceptions of others in relationships and are, presumably, formed through interactions with one’s parents. Thus, even if people in our lives do not actually match our internal working models, perceiving such similarity between our intimate partners and internal working models may allow us to feel better able to predict the behaviors of our intimate partners.

Further, these results may have implications regarding successful partner choice. Recall that people who were involved with partners who were similar to their opposite-sex parents in terms of neuroticism were relatively dissatisfied with their relationships. Further, these participants accurately perceived this similarity to exist. Thus, people may be able to consciously detect a factor related to dissatisfaction in relationships. Consequently, awareness of this information may assist people in choosing partners who are conducive to more satisfying relationships.

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