How to Pick a Mate: Is the One You Want the One You Need?

By Dr. Clifford R. Adams and Vance O. Packard

This is an excerpt from the 1946 edition of How to Pick a Mate: The Guide to a Happy Marriage. Amos Staff has mildly modernized some spellings and added hyperlinks and images. We have, helpfully, also placed in bold some points for emphasis and/or mockery— you be the judge! This book is in the public domain. You can read it in its entirety at Project Gutenberg.

The average young person considering his or her prospects of marriage, we find, thinks only in terms of what he wants in a mate. But actually anyone facing realistically the problem of selecting a mate should realize that three things, not one, ought to be considered: 1. What you want. 2. What you need. 3. What you can get.

Perhaps the ideal in your mind of the mate you want is not only something you can’t get but also something you have no need for. What you want may be unattainable in the community in which you live. For example, if a girl would not marry a coal miner though she lived in a small coal-mining community, she might either have to modify her standards, move to a different community, or become an old maid.

1946 still from the Frank Capra classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Donna Reed as Mary Bailey is an old maid. (Wikimedia Commons)

Ordinarily you might think that the kind of mate you might want would be the kind you would need. But it often happens that a person’s desires are based on frivolous or impractical considerations; or upon the desire merely to “marry into money.”

During the past several years, students in Penn State’s psychology classes on preparation for marriage have been asked what amount of money they would consider an absolute minimum on which they would be willing to marry. The girls consistently specified more than the men. The average for the boys is $2,450 [2023: $38,334.21], and for the girls $2,950 [2023: $46,157.52]. More than ten per cent of the girls have specified that they will not marry until their groom has an income of more than five thousand dollars [2023: $78,233.08]. Obviously such girls are insisting on incomes which are more than they need and almost certainly more than they can get.

Take the case of Miriam, who specified that her man must be earning at least four thousand dollars a year before she will consider marrying. She set the figure that high because she says she knows nothing about cooking or managing a home so will have to hire someone else to do that. This man she will be willing to marry must be of “superior intelligence” (even though her intelligence is barely average), he must be six feet tall, be dark and handsome, be a good dancer; he must have broad shoulders and a “strong face.” He must be a good Culbertson bridge player; he must smoke a pipe; he must come from a “distinguished” family and must be either a physician or lawyer. Finally, she wrote, he must be a man who will put her on an altar and worship her.

Miriam has thought vaguely of children but thinks they should be put off for at least five years so that she may follow a dancing or theatrical career if something should develop. It is conceivable, of course, that she can find such a man, but considering her background and talents we doubt that she could interest him in marriage.

Often what we want in a mate is based upon our wants at the moment rather than upon basic or long-range needs. A couple in their early twenties may insist that each be a good dancer as one of the main qualifications for marriage. They dance so much that dancing looms large in their life. But ten years from now, when they will probably dance only a few times a year, it may be an unessential qualification while the ability to manage finances may add to the total family income and help weather a serious depression.

Qualities that may make a boy or girl a wonderful date are not necessarily the qualities that will make a wonderful mate. The two can be profoundly different. A girl wants a date for a party or dance. She wants a man who can dance, who will be admired as “good looking,” who will be a “good mixer,” who may be a “catch,” perhaps a football star or a radio actor. While these may be qualities needed for a date or dance, they probably will not be important qualities she will need in a mate for happiness in marriage.

Don’t confuse a “good date” with a “good mate,” for what you want in a date may be far removed from what you need in marriage. Too many times people fall in love with glamorous traits in the other. A girl “falls in love” with Bill because she loves his flattery or his dancing or his car or his taste in clothes. They cast such a halo effect that the girl gives little thought to the fact that Bill is a chronic heavy drinker. If she could see that his drinking will probably wreck any marriage he undertakes, she could spare herself much heartache.

Some people set their “mate goals” so high that they would rather remain unmarried than marry anyone below these standards. Years later they may be terribly disappointed and frustrated as a result. In the summer marriage classes at Penn State, which are largely made up of unmarried school teachers, many have confessed that they could have married when younger but somehow the man didn’t seem quite good enough. Now, too old to hope to marry, most of them wish they had been more practical in their middle twenties and not have had to wait until the late thirties or futile forties to see their error.

We know of young men today who would seem to be excellent prospects for mates—and they actually favor the idea of marrying—but we would be willing to predict that they will be bachelors. They are too fussy. They find something in every girl they go with that does not conform to their idea of an ideal mate.

How do we come by our ideals for mates? During adolescence and childhood both boys and girls form in their mind some kind of a “dream hero or heroine,” a sort of “phantom lover.” He or she is a composite of all the qualifications they want their future mate to have. No such paragon ever exists in real life and the mental image does undergo some modifications as the individual grows older.

Often this ideal has the qualities of some of the people we idolized in earlier years. Sometimes the qualities seem to be those of a favorite movie star, or of a heroine of literature. Sometimes they are inspired by qualities of an admired parent or older brother or sister. If you were brought up in a home by an adored and deeply-loved mother, your “fantasy ideal” may have almost all the good qualities of your mother. But if you were brought up in a home where you and your mother were in constant conflict, then you may be interested in avoiding in a mate all the qualities you associate in your mind with your own mother.

People who cling to their fantasy ideal after they are grown up do so largely because they cannot distinguish between what they want and what they need. They are convinced that their wants and needs are identical. Their families and friends may try to show them the difference but their immediate wants are all that they can see.

Most of us who are married can look back and can see that the girl or man we yearned to marry at twenty would not be the kind of mate we need now. We thank Heaven that we did not marry that one.

Then what are the things we need in a mate? There are certain qualities that almost everyone would accept as desirable—qualities such as good health, sense of humor, fairness, dependability, unselfishness, patience.

(L-R, Top-Bottom) Robert Hutton/Cleatus Caldwell, Marjorie Robinson Law/James Frederick Ault, 1946 Wedding Fashion Show, Shirley Temple in 1945, Wedding Gowns 1946 (Wikimedia Commons,

However, most all authorities are agreed that in considering possible mates you should in general seek someone who is roughly near your own age, who has about the same education that you have, who comes from approximately the same social-economic level that you do, and who is of the same nationality, race and religion.

Intelligence is important only in a relative sense—relative, that is, to you. Feebleminded persons tend to marry feeble-minded persons. While geniuses cannot always marry geniuses, they do tend to marry highly intelligent people. The average man marries a woman who is slightly less intelligent than he is. That’s why many brilliant women never marry. They do not come in contact with sufficiently brilliant men, or fail to disguise their brilliance in order to win a man of somewhat less intelligence. College males tell us that they want a girl for a wife who is “intelligent,” but makes them feel they are still more intelligent!

Another thing we must concede: some people have wants which are so intense that they become needs. We have a letter from a veteran, a young major. The girl he has long considered proposing to has everything he wants except beauty. He has gone with her for four years. He is thirty-one, she is twenty-seven. She is sweet, understanding, affectionate, is well educated and supporting herself. She is a good cook and an excellent companion. She is neat and clean and plain. But she is not pretty. He knows she loves him and he thinks he loves her but every time he thinks of proposing he is held back because she isn’t attractive. Perhaps he should not marry this girl if her lack of beauty is going to gnaw at him the rest of his life. One alternative—and we suggested it—was that he suggest to her somehow that she take a course with a “charm school.” Another thought we suggested was that most beauty comes from within and that ten years from now this girl would probably have a more appealing face than many of the so-called beauties of her own age today.

Better than charm school? A 1946 ad featuring Rita Hayworth advertises Max Factor lipstick. (Internet Archive, public domain)

In considering what you need in a mate it might be helpful to consider what are the important things to your happiness in life. A marriage will be good for you only if it helps you satisfy these basic needs. These needs—after you have achieved subsistence through food, shelter and clothing— are primarily psychological.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs dates to 1943. This pyramid simplifies the concept. (Wikimedia Commons)

In considering whether any particular person would be a good mate for you, ask yourself these seven questions, based on the psychological needs you will want to satisfy:

Will This Mate Bring You Social Approval? You will want a mate that other people will like, that other people will admire and respect. You thus need a mate who is adept at getting along with other people. Will your friends like him and will the mate’s friends like you? Will your parents think approvingly of the marriage?

Can This Mate Offer You Security? This desire for security is a very fundamental one, especially with girls. It is based upon the bodily need for food, shelter and clothing but is much more complex. Will this mate be kind and considerate and give you a feeling of confidence and stability? Will this mate refrain from gambling, drinking and other things that might imperil the security of your future home and children? In short, will this mate bring you a feeling that you have an anchor that will keep you steady?

Will This Mate Help You Get Ahead? This involves the desire for mastery, which is a universal human motive, particularly with men. It produces the urge to succeed, to excel, to overcome obstacles, to keep on fighting, to master situations. It is this desire for mastery that makes a husband take a correspondence course which may lead to a job promotion. The girl wants a mate who will be ambitious and the man needs a wife who will show initiative, who will read books on how to prepare tasty dishes and how to rear children according to the best principles of child care, and who will not become easily discouraged or frustrated.

Will This Mate Embarrass You by Nonconformity? The man wants a wife who will not act unbecomingly in public, who knows how to say and do the right thing when other people are present, who will conform to the customs that will cause the neighbors to think well of her. The girl wants a man who is not discourteous or sloppy, who will get to work at the time he is supposed to report, who will not embarrass her in public by doing things that will make them criticized by others.

Will This Mate Be Affectionate With You? We all want to be appreciated, to be approved by our own mate, to be given spontaneous tokens of affection, to be told that we are loved. It is tied up with our desire for praise and recognition. The man wants his wife to cherish him, to build him up, to show him in many little ways that she loves him, that she is close to him, and that she needs him. And the wife, perhaps to an even greater degree, needs to feel she is important to her husband, that he loves her and shows that love in many little ways.

Will This Mate Satisfy You Sexually? There are many ways you can detect before marriage whether such satisfaction can be achieved with this particular mate. Beware a person who shows a neurotic tendency, unconventional behavior, a craving for excitement, an urge to be constantly on the go. Beware of both the prudes and of persons who seem preoccupied with sex. Beware of indications of jealousy and possessiveness. These symptoms suggest that this person may not be able to find sexual satisfaction in marriage nor bring it to you.

Finally, Can This Mate Talk Things Over With You? This ability, in our opinion, is one of the biggest single values in marriage. Beware of suspiciousness, of demands for explanation, of resentment, of continual criticism of others. These things suggest you may be entangled with a nagger and a complainer who will constantly try to improve you stead of dealing with you as a partner. You will find it difficult to talk to such a person, to discuss your mutual problems. Being able to talk things over with another person without restraint—which psychologists call mutual psychotherapy—is probably one of the greatest things you can get out of marriage. If a couple have confidence in each other, can confide their hopes, and their ambitions, can encourage and stimulate each other when frustrated, then such a couple can go far in satisfying the basic needs in their lives.

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