Science says there's a 'reacher' and a 'settler' in most relationships
For years now, Hollywood rom-coms have taught us that when it comes to romance, anything is possible. According to the rules of Tinseltown, you can be a dim-witted stoner, the biggest loser in high school or even a scientific creation with scissors for hands, and you can still manage to score the popular and beautiful object of your affections.
But does it really work like this in real life? And if the "undesirable" guy or girl does reel in their sweetheart, do they live happily ever after? Or does the "undesirable" one feel forever inadequate and is the "desirable" one always secretly on the lookout for someone better? Depressingly, according to science, this is exactly what happens.
A University of Texas 2016 report analysed the dynamics of 119 men and 140 women in long-term relationships and discovered that individuals chose their partners based on a subconscious, yet keen, evaluation of 27 key qualities, including physical attractiveness, intelligence, health and financial responsibility.
Afterwards, their subjects were separated into two groups: the "reachers" and the "settlers". The reachers were the partners who were generally considered less desirable in their relationships and were with people "out of their league", while the settlers were the partners who were more desirable and had settled for someone below their league.
The team then found that when the settler was exposed to other potential partners who better fit their needs, it was difficult for that person to remain loyal and affectionate to their significant other. On the other hand, the reachers were observed as being satisfied in the relationship and were more likely to stay committed to their existing partner. Overall, researchers at the University of Texas claimed that the reason a lot of people have trouble settling down into a long-term relationship is that they were consistently searching for a more attractive or compatible mate, surmising that online dating apps such as Tinder may exacerbate people's inability to commit.
Traditionally, evolutionary psychology suggests that people end up matched with mates of equal "value"; for instance, if you were rated a "7", your partner is likely to be a "6", "7" or "8". But does this theory change everything? Is the well-known reacher-settler theory seen on screen in sitcom How I Met Your Mother actually correct? Or is this just a cruel theory designed to make people question an otherwise decent relationship?
VT spoke to people in relationships to gauge whether or not there was always a power imbalance somewhere, or whether some couples weighed up perfectly. Predictably, many couples declined to pinpoint which partner was more desirable, yet a few spoke about the theory openly, with one 22-year-old man, who'd been with his partner for a year and a half, rejecting the notion for his relationship. He said: "I completely disagree. With my relationship, we're both reasonably attractive, we've both got decent jobs, we're on similar money and I think we're both of the same intelligence. There's no reacher or settler and I'm not just saying that because I don't want to upset my other half. It's just true."
However one 28-year-old, who'd been with her boyfriend for four years, insisted that she absolutely agreed with the brutal hypothesis. She said: "I think there's always an imbalance somewhere. Although I think it's in different ways. People tend to immediately think of the imbalance in attractiveness when they consider who the reacher and settler it, but there are other factors like your job, your intelligence, your humour, your income. For example in my relationship at the moment, I'm the settler in attractiveness, but the reacher in job status. Overall though? It's horrible to say, but I think I would have a few more choices of partners if we were to break up."
But perhaps the real question is, is this behaviour healthy? It seems that when one person believes they aren't good enough and the other thinks they are too good, there could be some large problems in a romance. Lead researcher Daniel Conroy-Beam, stated that while the study didn't focus on individual couples for long enough to conclude that imbalanced relationships like this were headed for disaster, he expected that most of the pairings would begin to see cracks once the settler's status led them to meet more people at their calibre; either this, or if the reacher's attractiveness took a low enough dip.
Yet, if this horrendous theory is, in fact, true, how is anyone ever happy in a relationship?
Dean C. Delis, a San Diego psychologist, supports the idea that a lot of couples find themselves in this situation. "What almost always happens is that one partner is more successful at attracting than the other," he said. "Initially, that partner loves it because they no longer feel in danger. They know the other person loves them more, so they don't have to worry about being rejected. But because they're safe ... the brain no longer needs these chemicals and they lose the passion."
Nonetheless, in his book, The Passion Paradox: Patterns of Love and Power in Intimate Relationships, he states that this doesn't have to be the downfall of a relationship, stating there are key tips to turn a flagging romance into a more balanced, fulfilling and enduring love. Experts like him have cited communication, honesty and appreciation as potential aids to soothe an unbalanced relationship, but at the same time, have admitted that not all uneven love affairs can be saved.
Is anyone else feeling a little deflated? We all know that Hollywood rom-coms lie to us, but who knew real-life romance was this bleak? Call me a rookie in the ways of reaching and settling, but it seems to be that in order for a relationship to truly work, you need to feel comfortable with your place in it and believing that you're either a reacher or a settler isn't going to do this. But it sure is a difficult theory to banish from your mind. Excuse me while I go and ponder which I am...
Featured illustration by Egarcigu