When it comes to long-term romantic relationships, what people say they want and who they choose can often seem disconnected.

But is that good or bad, or is the answer “it depends”?  In any case, can knowing that there’s a difference help people make better choices and lead happier lives?  Dr. Carrie Bredow of the Hope College psychology faculty is working to find out.  She’s looking in particular at whether or not people have standards of which they’re not even aware.

“There’s a lot of literature on what people say they want in a partner.  Up until recently, it’s just been assumed that that gives us a straightforward window into what people do,” said Bredow, an assistant professor of psychology who has been studying adult romantic relationships and standards for marriage partners for several years.  “But new methodologies for studying romantic relationships have uncovered what some are calling a ‘fundamental disconnect’ between the qualities people report valuing in a mate and the type of partners they actually select.”

“We’re trying to go beyond what they say that they want,” she said.  “Maybe it’s because part of what is guiding our behavior is unconscious.”

“What we’re most interested in is whether that can actually predict future behavior,” Bredow said.

Bredow and the Hope students on her research team have spent the last year and a half developing and testing a set of questions designed to measure people’s unconscious or implicit preferences for a long-term partner instead of what they explicitly report.  The results thus far have been promising.

“Our pilot work in this area has been exciting, and has demonstrated not only that implicit measures can meaningfully capture people’s unconscious attitudes toward the desirability of different traits in a partner, but also that the correspondence between people’s implicit standards and their partner’s characteristics can sometimes predict relationship outcomes in circumstances where their explicit standards cannot,” she said.

Her next step is to follow a group of volunteers across a longer period of time.  The resulting study, “The Role of Implicit and Explicit Mate Standards in Partnering Cognitions and Behaviors,” will run for the next four years, supported in part through a $7,500 grant that she received recently from the Christian Scholars Foundation.

It’s work that is being facilitated by the Internet.  Bredow is recruiting the study participants, all of whom are currently unmarried adults, through Amazon Mechanical Turk, providing a more representative cross section than she would garner if, for example, focusing on college students or even people in a specific geographic area.  “You can get a pretty diverse group of people and what’s happening with their partnering behaviors,” she said.

The participants will all complete an on-line survey at the beginning of the project and then provide additional information annually.  Bredow anticipates that the long-term, or longitudinal, nature of the project will provide a range of experiences—some participants still single, some in relationships, some with relationships that began and ended—that will help enhance the validity of the results.  Ultimately, she would also like to see the project extend even longer, potentially for 10, 15 or 20 years.

“I’m really excited about this particular data because we just don’t know that much about how people in the general public make these partnering decisions and how that impacts their behavior later on,” she said.