Most People View These 6 Qualities As Dealbreakers In Relationships, Says Research

Psychologist Zsófia Csajbók’s new research lists red flags that are too big to ignore.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | January 30, 2023

A new study published in Personality and Individual Differences reveals six qualities a person can possess that are most likely to lead to romantic rejection.

I recently spoke to psychologist Zsófia Csajbók of Charles University in the Czech Republic, lead author of the study, to understand these dealbreakers in greater depth. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to base your research around what people do not want in a relationship as opposed to the more obvious 'what do you want' question?

This is a very interesting question because this dates back to some very influential findings for which Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky won the Nobel prize. They found that people are more sensitive to the prospect of losing $100 than to winning $100.

This was later developed into the prospect theory. The theory fits well in the evolutionary psychological thinking that is also the most successful paradigm in testing and predicting mate choice.

You are right, for the last almost four decades, mate choice research was focusing on the positive, dealmaker characteristics of mate preferences. However, we were also selected to avoid costly mating mistakes. So in the last couple of years, almost a decade, we just started to realize how influential red flags are in the dating scene.

What was the methodology of your study?

Technically, this was a re-analysis of the data published in 2015. In that study, 49 dealbreaker characteristics were collected via open-ended questions which would make the participants reject a potential partner.

After that, a new set of participants rated these characteristics according to how likely they would reject a partner having each characteristic. The novelty in this current study was that we categorized these negative characteristics in a data-driven way.

We looked for groups of characteristics that were strongly related to each other, and their combinations resulted in homogeneous dimensions. This is how, based on the participants' responses (the 49 characteristics), and based on the data they provided (the likelihood of rejecting someone having these characteristics), we identified six key dimensions of dealbreakers.

In the original study, this factor analysis was done by hand. Therefore, we believe that with this data-driven analysis, we avoided some potential bias coming from a priori theories and expectations. In other words, the model published in the current study could be more ecologically valid to the actual dating mind.

Could you walk us through the six dealbreakers that your study yielded? Were there any deal breakers that were more or less influential on mate choice depending on one's gender?

The following six dealbreakers, or red flags, we found were relevant from an evolutionary perspective:

  • Gross
  • Addicted
  • Clingy
  • Promiscuous
  • Apathetic
  • Unmotivated

Being gross, smelly, and unattractive is a pathogen threat, and we have been selected to avoid smelly individuals with poor hygiene who were potentially dangerous for our health. This was the most repelling trait for both sexes in a short-term relationship. This is understandable also because good physical health is an indicator of youth and fertility, which are of key importance in the course of evolution.

Avoiding addicted, apathetic, and unmotivated partners is beneficial since we want to have a mate who is willing to invest in our relationship and in our offspring. An addicted, unmotivated partner likely doesn't have the resources to invest in our children and an apathetic one is somebody who isn't willing to invest.

The apathetic trait was the most avoidable for both sexes in a long-term relationship. Clingy partners are problematic as they prohibit extra-marital relationships.

Infidelity can be considered beneficial from the evolutionary perspective in obtaining more offspring from a partner who has more resources or better genetic quality than our committed relationship has.

Promiscuity, on the other hand, can signal potential infidelity, having extra-marital children, and the risk of carrying sexually transmitted diseases. So, interestingly, these two factors are to some extent the opposites of each other. It shows that this U.S. sample does not tolerate the extremes in these characteristics.

Women were more picky having higher standards, overall, consistent with evolutionary theories. This is understandable, because the potential cost of a bad relationship for women is considerably higher than for men. Women may end up with children who they have to bring up alone, potentially also having to deal with the burden of reputation management.

So, overall, women were pickier, but there were a couple of exceptions where men and women did not differ substantially. For example, avoiding gross in the short term, and gross, promiscuous, and apathetic in the long-term were similarly important for both sexes, as these features can signal bad genetic and parenting abilities in both men and women.

Considering the results of your study, would you advise people to ask themselves what they do not want in their partners more often/consciously?

Yes, I would agree with that. Being clear about what you need and what you can't tolerate can save a lot of heartache for both you and your potential partners. We can easily slip into a relationship to avoid being alone, this is natural.

It is also difficult to end a relationship; it is a costly procedure. So knowing yourself well and exploring what did and did not go well in your dates or long-term relationships can be a valuable lesson.

What are some practical takeaways from your research for the layperson?

By now, it is clearly shown and replicated in three historically different cultures (U.S., Hungary, Cyprus) that maintaining good hygiene is among the most important traits of a potential partner.

It is probably worth investing in a good dentist, maintaining good oral hygiene, buying clothes made of natural fiber to maintain good body odor, and regularly showing up for STD screenings.

Would you have any advice for people who sometimes go too far when considering what they don't want in a partner, like someone who nit-picks and treats almost everything as a red flag?

It is very unfortunate when somebody goes into extremes and sets unachievably high standards in mating. This can burden somebody with solitude in the long run. I would target this problem from different angles.

Why do these people have so inflexible and high standards which are impossible to please? Who was so strict with them in their lives? Are they so strict with themselves as well? I would also consider how none of us is perfect, but most of us love people who are imperfect.

Our weaknesses do not determine our lovability. Lastly, let's think about the concept of being good enough. I doubt that we could all meet a perfect person if we were searching hard enough. It is much more likely that the process of adjusting to each other makes a relationship so good in the end.

Being able to make up when frictions inevitably come up – because that is just natural to life – is perhaps a good indicator that the relationship can last even if the persons in it are imperfect. This can't be achieved by looking for the perfect person who probably doesn't exist anyways.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on this topic go in the future?

Personally, I would be very curious to see how big the cultural variance is in these findings and which among these factors are universal. So far, our knowledge comes from predominantly western, industrialized countries, which represent only a small fraction of Earth.

If we were able to compare more diverse cultures, we could see better which preferences are stemming from our evolutionary past and which preferences are culture-specific and learned.