How We Become Who We Date

Partners become more alike over time, but new research shows that process begins much earlier than most of us might think. Here’s how your dates can influence your own behavior — for better or worse.

By Margot Carmichael Lester

ou may pride yourself on being awesome, but new research shows that if you’re attracted to someone with unflattering qualities, you may start having them, too. What?!

Think about it: When you’re seeing someone who’s a sloppy dresser, don’t you find yourself
We all have our limits in adapting to “fit in” better with a romantic partner.
opting out of wearing fancy attire when you’re going somewhere together (and maybe even a few times when you’re not)? I was always compulsively on time everywhere I went until I became interested a man who was new to my group of friends. You see, he was constantly tardy — and once I started digging him, friends noticed that I began arriving uncharacteristically late, too. (Whoops!)

What the science says about mirroring negative traits in your date
An article published last year in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology titled “The dangers of dating the ‘bad boy’ (or girl): When does romantic desire encourage us to take on the negative qualities of potential partners?” proves this theory out. In the study, researchers described potential dates as being “a bit clumsy” or exhibiting other habits/traits that weren’t horribly objectionable and didn’t have anything to do with how they would treat someone they were dating. “This was a really conscious decision on our part,” explains Erica B. Slotter, one of the study’s investigators and an assistant professor of psychology at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. “We wanted to keep the negative traits we presented strictly non-relational.” In other words, the prospective partners weren’t described as being mean, harsh, selfish, etc. to the study’s subjects.

The results show that the study’s participants adopted the other person’s mildly to moderately negative traits, like turning into a klutz or being disorganized — and interestingly, they only did so when they felt the object of their desire wouldn’t have a problem with it. But what exactly is the takeaway lesson here? Let’s take a closer look at the study’s results to find out.

Could adopting a few bad habits turn you into a bad person?
Luckily, it seems we all have our limits in adapting to “fit in” better with a romantic partner. Here are the study’s two major findings:
  1. “Individuals don’t want to make themselves undesirable partners either in general by taking on really negative traits…or by taking on any traits that the partner views negatively in himself or herself,” Slotter says.
  2. We don’t usually take on the personal characteristics of a date if we think he or she is actively trying to change those traits. So if you’ve got a sedentary mate who is trying to be more physically active, it’s unlikely you’ll turn into a couch potato yourself.
“The take-home message is that if you’re really interested in a potential dating partner, you may become a bit
There’s no reason to think of this as happening to just one person in the relationship.
sloppier or more disorganized simply because the other person is, too,” Slotter concludes. “That said, you’re unlikely to become an unpleasant, unkind or thoughtless person.” Though researchers know this is something that happens when two people become interested in each other, they still don’t know why it’s happening. “We haven’t had the opportunity to look at the neurological implications of motivated self-malleability,” notes Slotter. “There are, however, some very interesting papers out there that look at the neurobiology of love, attraction, etc.”

The influence positive characteristics can have on romantic partners
There’s some evidence that all of this works the other way around, too — i.e., we’re susceptible to copying the more admirable traits in a date. “We do know that in this same motivated fashion, we tend to take on the positive traits of our partners as well,” says Slotter. But the positive influences someone can have on us may be less obvious, primarily because we adopt these good characteristics more slowly through shared time and experiences together. “There’s no reason to think of this as happening to just one person in the relationship. Rather, both [individuals] will likely alter themselves in some ways that are both good and bad in order to become more similar to a current or desired romantic partner,” Slotter explains. “Of course, certain dispositional characteristics (such as attachment anxiety) or relationship characteristics (such as the balance of power in the relationship) may exacerbate or attenuate these effects.”

Additional research shows that taking on the positive traits of a partner may be beneficial for people’s relationships. Is it possible to avoid taking on a love interest’s less-than-optimal traits and behaviors? Maybe… after all, no solid research on this has been done to date. But at least there’s no current evidence that taking on a date’s mildly negative attributes would necessarily be a bad thing for anyone. “It very well could be, but we just don’t have the data yet,” Slotter allows. “Our use of an implicit, reaction time-based measurement suggests that individuals may not be 100% aware that they’re altering themselves to be more similar to their desired partners,” explains Slotter. “Instead, I would suggest that people strive to have a clear sense of who they are as individuals — which other research has shown is beneficial for other reasons — and to be mindful of how they might be changing in their pursuit of (or while currently engaged in) romantic relationships.”

Margot Carmichael Lester is a freelance content producer whose work also appears on and in International Cinematographers Guild magazine.
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