Each human being is hardwired to find certain traits attractive. In our youth, those things are different — they’re part of evolution, really. Science teaches us that our reptilian brains want us to seek out partners for reproduction, searching for the mate who will help us make more replicas of ourselves.
But over time, those qualities are less necessary and, also over time, often less attractive. A well-regarded study on mate value from Mexico State University notes that women typically value physical attractiveness lower than personality characteristics and status, although women rank height as important in partners. In choosing companions, men consistently seek out facial symmetry and a sizable waist-to-hip ratio (women with smaller waists and wider hips — not surprisingly because that would indicate an ability to carry children, but is also portrayed in popular media as sexy).
What, then, are the characteristics in a mate that are timeless and sustainable? What keeps things going into your 40’s, 50’s, and more? As a person who is in her 40’s and looking at what is attractive on the surface and beneath it, I’ve done some thinking and some research. Here are 4 or so things that come up, time after time.
I’ve often said the thing I truly loved about my father was that “his compass pointed True North.” That is to say, I always knew that I could go to him with any question, no matter the topic, if I was unsure of what to do, and I believed that he would come back with a solid answer. He did this because he unwaveringly had a strong sense of ethics. He could at least point me in the right direction and allow me to unfold the answer for myself, which was a real gift. Finding that in a partner is downright sexy and lasts for all time. You can be sure if you find a companion whose compass points in the right direction that your sidekick will choose the path that you want to follow. What’s truly important about this is that sometimes, having chosen to do the right thing over the popular or common thing, you and your partner might be going it alone — but you’ll have each other. And that is way better than flying solo while your mate looks on. To know someone has your back because you’ve got theirs is a longtime sure-bet. Take it.
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The willingness to forgive is pretty huge. People who carry grudges tend to carry them alone. The weight of them gets heavy, and often unbearable. A human partner who is able to let go of past grievances is a valuable mate. I’m not talking about getting over some huge offense, but the many, many transgressions that we commit in our daily lives can become burdensome if we host them and don’t figure out how to move on. Early in relationships, this seems an easy task. Didn’t out the dishes away? Pshaw. Said something disparaging about my mother? You might be right, or at least I’ll put it aside.But later in life, the grievances begin to pile up, arguments take on more weight, and the relinquishment can begin to slow. A partner who doesn’t let it slow — that’s attractive. That’s for real. I have a couple of close friends who are like that, and there is a reason I am still close friends with them. I know they are “ride or die.” Apologies for missteps and outright screw ups are given and received fully. A couple that finds room to forgive will always find each other beautiful.
When I first met my ex-husband, I was charmed by the way he was so self-assured. He knew he was a good musician. He knew he was a good teacher. He knew he was the golden boy of his family. I was in such a fragile state with my own self-confidence that I found his swagger affirming. But you know, that wears thin over time, because it sucks all the air out of the room and doesn’t allow one of the participants to grow. You know what remains super-attractive over time? Someone who understands that life has challenges that perhaps they have not yet mastered. Someone who makes room to learn, and to grow, and to pluck away at a task that they are not good at…yet. Someone who doesn’t run the room. Wow, that is amazing, because humility doesn’t mean lacking confidence; humility means space to grow. I have vacationed more than once at the amazing Chautauqua Institution. Now there is a place filled with people who are at once confident and humble. If you can, go there. Even better if you are there with an amazing partner. Even a research team at UNT discovered that couples who were in romantic relationships perceived humility to be “positively related to relationship satisfaction.”
This is the most important of all. I had a very charismatic brother-in-law. He was fun at parties. He was generous. He was successful. He was handsome. By lots of measures, he would seem to be a great catch. But in one swift movement, I knew he would make anyone a terrible partner in the long-term because his attractiveness would fade for sure when I saw one single act. At a 50th birthday party, there were lots of leftover balloons tied to the exterior railing of the venue. A child of 4 or 5 was walking up the sidewalk as we were untethering the balloons, looking very excited at the thought that he might have one. This brother-in-law untied a balloon, smiled hugely at the child, then let the balloon go up into the air, laughing and saying, “Oh, sorry buddy, guess you don’t get one.” The child was crestfallen and the brother-in-law found the whole incident hilarious. Nope. Far, far better to partner up with someone who would go out of their way to safely untether their balloon specifically for that child. Someone who would pick a dandelion to make you smile, who offers a stranger an umbrella, who puts a smiley face on a receipt — that’s the person. Not all kindnesses are for us, many are for others. Acts of consideration, large and small, are what will always be attractive, no matter the age, and kindnesses will grow more and more attractive over time. The most beautiful look of all is the smile on someone else’s face. Picture it: if your partner works just a little to put a smile on your face, it means you’ll spend a lot of years smiling at each other, and that will be the most attractive feature for both of you.
Written By Susan Kelley