But biology is not destiny. Even in a culture where curves and cleavage are fully exploited by marketers, the vast majority of men marry women who are less than physically ideal. Numerous studies show that men, in fact, tend to approach women who are comparable to them in physical attractiveness. Rather than seeking to meet women of unattainable beauty, they tend to seek out the beauty in the women they meet. It turns out that this is a good strategy. According to the VoiceMale Survey, men who say they were initially attracted to their wife by her physical attributes alone are less satisfied in their marriages than those for whom personality was key.
"Most men would not consider my wife a ten," one forty-seven-year-old teacher told me. "She's a little bigger than average. But she has daggerlike eyes....She's always been attractive to me." Another man, who said that neither he nor his wife "would ever be mistaken for a model," added, "She has a smile that puts the sun to shame." Even for this man, however, physical attraction to his future wife "only opened the negotiations. It didn't close the deal." Rather, when a man is seeking a long-term relationship (as opposed to a short-term liaison), he tends to look beyond her physical attributes to a host of less tangible assets, including her attitude, bearing, and character.
Before we examine more closely what men say they look for in a potential wife, it's important to emphasize that men entertain the idea of marriage only when they're ready. And readiness is different for men of different eras. Among husbands I interviewed who married in the 1930s through the early 1960s, readiness tended to come when they had a job that would allow them to support a wife and family. Men who married in more recent years usually judged their readiness by their flagging interest in the singles scene. "One morning, I woke up next to a woman who could have been a Playboy model," one man told me, "and I didn't want her." That's when he realized that sex alone would not truly satisfy him, and that marriage might.
David M. Buss, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, has discovered that both women and men distinguish between short-term and long-term potential mates. In a study of ten thousand people from thirty-seven countries, Buss found that when seeking a short-term mate, as compared with a potential wife, men cared less about education, devotion, social skills, generosity, honesty, independence, kindness, intellectuality, loyalty, sense of humor, wealth, responsibility, spontaneity, courteousness, and emotional stability.
In short, a man who is looking for short-term connection is usually satisfied with someone who looks good enough. But when he begins the search for someone with whom to build a life, his standards change dramatically. Every husband has a unique story to tell of meeting his wife. Over the past three years, I've had the chance to hear scores of them. And when I examine what personality traits men describe as initially most attractive about their wives, one attribute stands out: a positive temperament. Men measure the mood of the women they might marry. And not surprisingly, they prefer a woman who is in a generally positive frame of mind.
Here's a sampling of what husbands said they noticed first about the personalities of their future wives:
"She was the life of the party. She just generated energy in a gathering."