Adolescents' Perception of the Ideal Mate: Its Relationship to Parental Characteristics in Intact and Nonintact Families

Article excerpt

There are two major theoretical approaches to the issue of mate selection. One focuses on the similarity between partners, the other on the similarity between one's opposite-sex parent and one's selection of a partner. Most investigations of mate selection have followed the first approach. That is, they have examined whether people choose prospective marriage partners because of similarity or dissimilarity to themselves in regard to a variety of physical, social, and psychological variables. Fewer studies (e.g., Geher, 1997, 2000; Wilson & Barrett, 1987; Jedlicka, 1980, 1984) have followed the second approach, testing the template-matching hypothesis (see Daly & Wilson, 1990) based on psychoanalytic theory (Freud, 1927/1961). According to this theory, people's choices of a later love object presumably are influenced by their resolution of the Oedipus and Electra complexes and their experiences and relationships with their mothers and fathers. As early as 1929, Hamilton and MacGowan examined the template-matching hypothesis. In their book What Is Wrong with Marriage? they noted that 94% of the men who reported that their wives physically resembled their mothers were happily married, while only 20% of the men who reported no such resemblance were happily married. More recently, Jedlicka (1980) investigated the ethnicity of the spouses of people with mixed-heritage parents. He interpreted his finding that "males marry into mother's and females marry into father's ethnic groups" (p. 298) as supporting psychoanalytic theory in regard to mate selection. Winch (1950, 1951) attempted to relate the extent of resolution of the Oedipus complex to progress in people's courtship behavior. He too interpreted the results of his study as being consistent with psychoanalytic theory. However, these interpretations, as well as those of others (Commins, 1932; Mangus, 1936; Aron et al., 1974), are open to question. For example, none of 100 women in the study by Hamilton and MacGowan reported physical resemblance between their husbands and their fathers, and Geher (2000) found that only in four of the eight measured personality variables did subjects' opposite-sex parents score similarly to their partners. One may also question Winch's reliance on self-reports as a measure of the extent of resolution of the Oedipal conflict.

Wilson and Barrett (1987) investigated 314 young women who described themselves as being "in love." There was a tendency for the boyfriend's eye color to match that of the father more than that of the mother, as well as a tendency for the women to replicate in their own relationship the age and dominance configuration of their parents. Although offering several plausible explanations, Wilson and Barrett regarded their findings as lending some support to the view of psychoanalytic theory regarding mate selection. Similarly tentative support for the template-matching hypothesis has been presented in Geher's (2000) study. Using personality measures, over 500 young adults described their parents, significant others, and ideal significant others. Despite relatively small effect sizes, the results were interpreted by Geher as supporting Freud's (1927/1961) assertion that individuals choose partners who resemble their opposite-sex parent.

One major problem with these studies is that they dealt with a mate who had already been chosen. It has been established that there are many powerful social factors in the process of actual mate selection, and these may obscure and overpower the instinctual wish (see Bateson, 1983; Buss, 1994; Epstein & Guttman, 1984). Thus, if the quality of early parent-child relationships plays a role in mate selection, the effect is more likely to be revealed in a description of a wished-for (i.e., ideal) mate.

Another major problem with these studies is that the subjects' relationship with their parents was not controlled. This remains a formidable undertaking, but a comparison of those from intact and nonintact families may provide a closer approximation of the situation than has been realized to date. …