Kinsey Institute researchers partnered with Match, an online dating service, to survey 5,000 singles from the general U.S. population ages 18 to 98 about their attitudes towards sex, love and relationships. Kinsey Institute researcher and Match science advisor Helen Fisher said the 2021 study published Nov. 9 reveals U.S. singles reconsidered what they want in romantic relationships during COVID-19.
According to the study, 83% of singles want emotional maturity in a partner over physical attractiveness. Only 78% said they want physical attractiveness compared to 90% in 2020.
“Singles have dramatically changed what they are looking for in a partner,” Fisher said. “I have been talking about romance for 40 years and I've never used this word before, but the word is historic. It's an absolutely historic change.”
For over a decade, Fisher asked survey participants what they’re looking for in a partner and gave them about 30 qualities to choose from. Generally, she said “physical attraction” ranks at least in the top five, if not number one. This year, it’s number 10. Instead, singles checked boxes like “someone they can trust and confide in,” “someone that can make them laugh” and “someone open-minded and accepting of differences.”
“The bad boy is out,” Fisher said. “The bad girl is out. Emotional maturity is the new sexy.”
The study describes a “grown-up glow up” during the pandemic. Singles not only re-focused their love life on stable partnerships, but 66% said they improved at “caring for their mental health,” and 72% improved at “prioritizing important things in their lives."
Fisher explains this shift toward emotional maturity with what she calls “post-traumatic growth.”
“Everybody had 18 months to sit around in a very small space and think about things,” Fisher said. “Everybody's been really quite scared, and I think when you're scared you think carefully about yourself, about the people that you love and about what you want in life.”
Fisher said she’s observed a trend toward valuing self-improvement and meaningful relationships across all generations, but Gen Z and Millennials are leading the change. According to the study, only 16% of Gen Z singles are interested in dating casually. 71% are more interested in meaningful committed relationships compared to how they felt before the pandemic.
Despite the stereotype of “hookup culture,” Fisher said the study results show younger generations today are increasingly interested in long-term partnerships and are cautious about finding the right match. Gen Z and Millenials have slowed down the dating process to spend more time getting to know potential partners before committing to a relationship. She said online dating may be a new stage in this timeline, but it does not prevent meaningful connections.
IU sophomore Samantha England said she, like many college students, started using dating apps last year as her primary avenue of dating.
“I never thought of myself as a big online dating person, but because of COVID, that seemed like the only way to meet people,” England said. “I would meet people in some of my Zoom classes, even over the private chat on Zoom, because that was the most social interaction.”
England said she’s more likely to match with someone on Tinder if they seem like a kind and open-minded person rather than based on their physical appearance. But she said she often questions if other students have the same priorities, so this year’s survey results make her hopeful for the future of dating culture at IU.
“I've always equated my appearance and my body and people being attracted to me with my worth as a person,” England said. “That was just really hurtful, especially growing up. The fact that young people care less about looks and more about personality means that less people will have to feel like that.”
As for Fisher, she said she’s hopeful if such trends among younger generations continue, they will lead to healthier relationships that may transform the social landscape of the U.S.
“It's exciting to me because you guys are ushering in what could be several decades of relative family stability,” Fisher said. “We really could see not just a reset for Gen Z and Millennials but for society at large.”