People look for different things in a romantic partner. Some need a sense of humor, others require punctuality and reliability. While we may judge potential mates on different criteria, the manner in which we’re judging them may be much more universal, says a study from The University of Texas at Austin. When it comes to relationship satisfaction, we’re less concerned about how well a partner fulfills our ideal preferences, but more concerned with how well they do compared to other potential mates.

“Few decisions impact fitness more than mate selection, so natural selection has endowed us with a set of powerfully motivating mate preferences,” said UT Austin psychology researcher Daniel Conroy-Beam in a press release. “We demonstrate that mate preferences continue to shape our feelings and behaviors within relationships in at least two key ways: by interacting with nuanced emotional systems such as how happy we are with our partner and by influencing how much or little effort we devote to keeping them.”

The researchers aimed to determine what influenced these systems more: mate preference fulfillment, or mate value discrepancies. To do so, they surveyed 259 adult subjects — 119 men and 140 women — who had been in relationships for an average of 7 1/2 years. They had the participants rate the importance of 27 traits, including things like health, kindness, and attractiveness, in an ideal mate. Then, they ranked how well both they and their current partner lived up to these traits.

The team used this data to imagine that the group made up a mating pool. They calculated each participant’s mate value, or how desirable that person was within the pool based on the group’s preferences as a whole. After reviewing the participants’ reported happiness within their relationships, the researchers discovered that satisfaction correlated not with how a partner fulfilled a person’s idea of the perfect mate, but rather with the degree to which they came closer to matching those preferences than other available mates.

People with partners that had a higher desirability score than themselves were happy regardless of whether their partners matched their ideal preferences. Participants with less desirable partners, however, only reported being satisfied when their partner fulfilled their ideal preferences better than the majority of the other potential mates.

“Satisfaction and happiness are not as clear-cut as we think they are,” Conroy-Beam said. “We do not need ideal partners for relationship bliss. Instead, satisfaction appears to come, in part, from getting the best partner available to us.”

Co-author David Buss explained that relationship dissatisfaction and the poor safeguarding of mates are important processes that contribute to poor evolutionary outcomes like breakups and infidelity.

“Mate preferences matter beyond initial mate selection, profoundly influencing both relationship dynamics and effort devoted to keeping partners,” he said. “Mates gained often have to be retained to reap the adaptive rewards inherent in pair-bonding — an evolutionary hallmark of our species.”

Source: Conroy-Beam D, Goetz C, Buss D. What Predicts Romantic Relationship Satisfaction and Mate Retention Intensity: Mate Preference Fulfillment or Mate Value Discrepancies? Evolution & Behaviors. 2016.