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Top 5 dating deal-breakers for U.S. singles

Top 5 dating deal-breakers for U.S. singles

By Dave Singleton

Think you know what constitutes a dating deal-breaker? You might want to reconsider once you’ve perused findings from the 2012 Singles in America study* — the most comprehensive look at single Americans’ attitudes, values and practices.

According to Dr. Justin R. Garcia, evolutionary biologist with The Kinsey Institute at Indiana University and one of the study’s primary researchers, this new data definitely offers hope for those hoping to make a change in their single status.

We all know that deal-breakers used to be based on religion, race and other traditional factors, but now, the real deal-breakers are largely found in someone’s personality traits. “For a really long time, we thought people were looking for partners with the same socioeconomic, religious and ethnic background [as themselves] and with similar major life experiences,” says Dr. Garcia. “But today, we see single Americans who are interested in finding partners with whom they can have real, loving relationships and deeper connections on an emotional level as opposed to what looks good on paper.” And that’s why you should forget what are traditionally thought of as being deal-breakers in the dating world, because those beliefs are no longer accurate.
View Singles on
According to singles today, the biggest deal-breakers (with offenders ranked from the worst to least) are: 1) being disheveled or of unclean appearance; 2) being lazy; 3) being too needy; 4) lacking a sense of humor; and 5) distance — in other words, living more than three hours’ drive apart.

So what are the real-world implications for when you’re trying to seal the deal — not break it? Avoid the top five offenders above by following these tips:

1. Clean up before going out on a date
Showing up to meet Mr. or Ms. Maybe when you’re looking disheveled or sporting an unclean appearance is the worst thing you can do on a date, according to 63.3% of men and 71.3% of women. After all, if your date’s a total mess, you’ll likely wonder what else is wrong with this person that’s not so obvious. What’s his dental hygiene like? Is her bank statement a mess, too?

“Singles seem to be worried that if a potential partner can’t take care of him- or herself, then how can [this person] take care of me?” says Dr. Garcia. “A healthy relationship is about give and take. How can someone be part of a couple if this person’s not fully committed to himself/herself?” It’s not about caretaking, per se; rather, it’s probably more about having a partner who can bring an equal amount into the relationship. It’s understandable why there might be a small difference between men and women’s responses to this question, given the more traditional male and female roles (i.e., women seeing the man as a provider) in relationships. But the lack of gender disparity in the responses stands out and indicates that the double standard may be disappearing. Though more women are vexed by unclean appearance in a date, it’s still a fairly equal — and equally high — percentage of both men and women who are concerned about this issue.

2. Put some effort into your dating routine
Being lazy is the second biggest deal-breaker, ranked as being a turn-off for 59.6% of men and 72.1% of women. “If you’re lazy, how can you be part of a relationship that requires two people creating a life together?” asks Dr. Garcia. The fact that this is listed as such an important issue could be due in part to our growing cultural norm of high productivity, which speaks to how you spend your time rather than how much money you make — or even your employment status.

More likely, this has to do with people’s questions around courting. Is an equal amount of attention being paid to both people during dates? Are you returning your date’s calls and texts promptly? Are you actively communicating — both in person and by voice — rather than hiding behind the more convenient (but impersonal) methods, like texting and email? Are you willing to take the bull by the horns and make a definite plan for date night? And further down the road when you’re in a relationship together, are you helping enough around the house and taking turns making dinner for your partner? Again, even though there’s a 12% difference between men and women’s answers for this question, the lack of gender disparity overall stands out.

3. Get a life of your own that fulfills you
No one wants to date someone who’s overly needy — the 56.6% of men and 68.7% of women who made this their third biggest deal-breaker don’t, at least. “You want to know that your partner desires you and that you fill a role in his or her life,” says Dr. Garcia. “That’s attractive. But when you get to the point where your partner’s neediness level brims over, the relationship changes from a partnership into a chore.”

It’s true that those neediness levels differ for different people. Some people are more prone to act as caretakers, while others have little tolerance for tending to anyone’s needs (or none at all). Your tolerance also depends on what you each cite as being “reasonable” needs within your relationship, which can also differ amongst partners. “Too needy” is simply defined as being whatever is too needy to you.

It’s worth noting again that women care a bit more than men about avoiding an overly needy partner. But equally interesting is the fact that older singles consider neediness to be a bigger deal-breaker than their younger counterparts (57% of respondents in their 20s cited it as a deal-breaker, vs. 70% of those aged 60 and older). When you get older, you’re less likely to settle for a partner who requires more work than you’re willing to do in maintaining the relationship.

4. Make someone laugh if you want to keep seeing each other
The votes are in, and 49.7% of men and 58.1% of women want to veto the humorless from their dating pool. “Humor is one of those characteristics that’s seen as extremely important for initially attracting a mate,” says Dr. Garcia. “And it’s also seen as a sign of high intelligence.”

When you look at people’s answers by age, citing lack of humor as being a deal-breaker declines in importance with each decade you grow older until you reach midlife, when it becomes important once again:

Singles age 21-29
Singles age 31-39
Singles age 41-49
Singles age 51-59
Singles age 60+

“This speaks to shifting priorities that impact your assessment of deal-breakers,” says Dr. Garcia. “For example: during your child-raising and most active working years, your priorities for what you value in a partner might not put humor as high on the list.” But if you’re over 60 and dating, you’d better be laughing it up.

5. Don’t be geographically undesirable by living too far away from your date
Do you live more than a three-hour drive away from your date? The survey’s results suggest you might as well date someone living on the moon. Disdain for this fifth most powerful deal-breaker is shared fairly equally between men (51.1%) and women (46.8%).

In terms of age, singles in their 20s (41%) are less likely to call out traveling long distances to date someone as being a problem, but that gradually and consistently increases with age:

Singles age 21-29
Singles age 31-39
Singles age 41-49
Singles age 51-59
Singles age 60+

“As you get older, you’re just less likely to want to do a long love commute,” says Dr. Garcia.

What else should daters watch out for?
Still, it seems like something’s missing from this top-five list. Does it surprise you that sexual incompatibility isn’t mentioned here? OK… the truth is, bad sex finished sixth in the survey’s “deal-breaker” list. But given our cultural obsession with sex, that’s a little shocking, isn’t it?

For the record, according to 44.2% of men and 49.8% of women, there’s still hope for romance even if you’re not so great in the sack. When you look at the breakdowns, what’s fascinating is that the slight differences in answers based on gender veer towards more women placing a 5% greater emphasis on having a good sex life — which goes against most people’s expectations regarding men’s and women’s behavior in choosing a partner.

When it comes to bad sex in relationships, people’s age and sexual orientation differences matter, too. Only 39% of those surveyed in their 20s cited it as a deal-breaker, versus 48% of the 60+ crowd. “Older people know what they like and what they don’t like,” says Dr. Garcia. And while the findings on sexual orientation and ethnicity generally reflect the general population’s attitudes, it’s noticeable that lesbians (55%) cited bad sex slightly more than gay men (52%) as being a deal-breaker.

But for an evolutionary biologist like Dr. Garcia, a result that’s possibly more striking than the bad-sex ranking itself was the fact that wanting or having kids with a partner wasn’t at the top of anyone’s list. In fact, only 39% of singles in their 20s and 30s said they “must have” a partner who wants children. “I’d assumed a greater importance of the reproductive motive,” says Dr. Garcia. “But singles seem to choose love over reproduction. People are much more open to negotiation when it comes to children — whether it’s having kids with a partner or being with a partner who has them from a previous relationship.” I guess when it comes to knowing what they’re looking for in a partner, modern singles have come a long way, baby… in more ways than one!

*Over 5,000 single men and women age 21 to 60+ participated in the study, which was conducted by in collaboration with EvoS, the Institute for Evolutionary Studies at Binghamton University, and other top scientific experts.

To review the study’s findings in more detail and offer your comments, visit the blog.

Dave Singleton, an award-winning writer and columnist for since 2003, is the author of two books on dating and relationships. Visit his website, follow him on Twitter, or email him.