Sex + Dating

The Psychology Behind 'Dating Down'

unlikely couple the science of dating down
Christina Hendricks and husband Geoffrey Arend | Gregg DeGuire/WireImage/Getty Images
Christina Hendricks and husband Geoffrey Arend | Gregg DeGuire/WireImage/Getty Images

Dating is so nerve-wracking. Before a first date is even over -- and before we know anything about who that person is sitting across from us -- we're already wondering whether there's a potential future here. It's a lot of pressure!

To alleviate some anxieties of dating and relationships, many people (present company included) have "dated down" in order to keep the upper hand. Think about it -- looking back at your past relationships, how many of your partners were you hotter or smarter or more successful than? How many were hotter, smarter, or more successful than you? We've all been on one side or the other; because when it comes to relationships, things aren't always quite equal.

Here's why.

We like to win

Dating down is an admittedly crappy defense mechanism that influences our romantic choices (and ultimately clouds our thinking) more than you might expect. The reason being, we all want to be the "winners" in our relationships (even if some of us wouldn't like to admit it). And having the advantage -- whether it be financial, personality-based, or looks-wise, gives you the power in your relationship. It offers a measure of security one might not have otherwise.

If you're the "better" partner, don't your chances of keeping that person locked into a relationship seem greater? It's kind of messed up, but it most definitely happens.

"Some women feel more secure with a man who is not 'too attractive' because men who are found to be attractive to everyone are often hit on constantly," says Dr. Jennifer Freed, a family behavioral specialist. If he's not that cute, you don't have much to worry about. He isn't going anywhere.

Keeping the upper hand offers a lifejacket in the ever-tumultuous dating seas. If the person you're with leaves you, you want to be able to say, "I'm way better than them anyway." And feel fine about that.

Women are the guiltier sex when it comes to dating down

Everywhere you look you can find drop-dead gorgeous women on the arms of substantially less attractive men.

And I can't help but think, "They cannot possibly think people don't see this."

It's because people bring different things to the relationship. "[Women] are choosing their mates based more on security and protection than the externals," Dr. Freed tells us. If a man is bringing the money and stability to the relationship, doesn't it make sense that a woman would bring the beauty?

It's not to say that these relationships are always shallow (though they are sometimes, let's be real). This set-up totally works for some people. And it totally varies, too. Dating is fun, isn't it?

I used to babysit for a perfectly happy couple, with three adorable children, where this dynamic was undoubtedly the case. The wife was a babe and the husband was rich and really nice.

Hey, it happens.

They seem to really love each other, regardless. "[Women] may know that to some people their mate is less attractive, but to them their mate looks golden," Dr. Freed says. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so to speak. If he's nice to you, who cares what he looks like?

Meanwhile, men often value looks over a woman's brains

Of course, not all men value looks over intelligence, but just as a woman tends to value a man's "stability" over his looks, so too do men value looks over a woman's brain. Dr. Freed tells us that this is because men are more visually inclined than us lady-folk. It's not even their fault for valuing physical beauty because they're "wired to be attracted by visual stimuli."

A man's tendency to value looks is biologically ingrained in his makeup. So while it's easy to blame the media for what we deem attractive, it has no bearing on the fact that men in general place more value on looks than women when choosing partners.

Of course, Dr. Freed assures us that this emphasis on physical beauty does not mean a man doesn't also value a woman's mind, "Evolved men look for a dynamic combination of what they find visually appealing and a true equal."

I suppose no relationship can ever truly be equal. Someone will always have the upper hand. Someone will always have better attributes in some respects and not in others.

Even when couples are "total equals," there is something that one person will have that the other lacks. Someone is going to make more money, be more attractive, have a better sense of humor. That is just the nature of reality. The key is finding balance; a balance that works for you and your happiness.

So, while we may not be able to find someone who meets our match both physically and intellectually, we can hopefully fall somewhere in between. You have to find what's right for you.

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Gigi is a Sex and Dating Writer for Thrillist. Her boyfriend is hot and smart, but she still holds all the cards. Follow her lovable crazy on Twitter @GigiEngle.