Men vs. women: the real gender differences in romance

People make a lot of claims about "what men really want," or "what women are secretly looking for." Those claims are often fun, and really good for selling ad space/your Substack, but they're not often guided by research. It's only too easy, particularly with dating apps, to turn our own experience into sweeping conclusions about the opposite sex. So we decided to examine some of the most striking trends from our own member data (and some peer-reviewed research) on the subject.

Before starting, it's worth saying that we've only pulled out areas where men and women really differ when it comes to picking a partner. We haven't talked about all the areas in which men and women express the same ranges of views – because there are so many of them. When ignoring the gender field, it's very difficult to tell from our character assessment whether we're reading responses from a man or a woman (even assuming the person fits neatly into one of those categories).

But for a bit of fun, we've laid out the exceptions below.

Men prefer sporty partners

Men are significantly more likely than women to want a partner who's physically active. We expect this is partly because men are more active generally than women, and people often seek partners who are similar to themselves. Of course, it's not clear whether this is a function of the fact that men have more leisure time than women, and more self-confidence in their sporting ability, but either way the difference remains. Women who participate in at least one sport or exercise activity tend to be more eligible than those who don't – that is, they're easier to match, because they meet the criteria of more men.

Of course, it's worth noting that many women might not want to be paired with someone who prioritises athleticism in a partner. In fact the more rigid men's preferences for sporting activity, the less eligible those men become, because fewer women meet their criteria. Having strong preferences cuts both ways.

The other interesting point here is that contrary to expectations, we don't generally see athleticism as a proxy for attractiveness. We measure preference for the two dimensions separately, and someone who prioritises having a fit and active partner is not necessarily someone who prioritises having a beautiful partner. We use "athleticism" to measure traits such as sports participation, affinity for activities like hiking or spending time outdoors, and healthy eating. What we're calling "attractiveness", on the other hand, is chiefly a measure of how much time and care someone puts into their image. The two sometimes overlap, not least because many people exercise with the goal of improving their looks, but they're conceptually distinct – and this is reflected in the preferences our members express.

With that said...

Men care more about looks

We've gone out of our way to explain that a male preference for sporty partners does not necessarily translate into a preference for attractive partners – but we do find that men prioritise looks over traits such as being caring, being sociable, and being outgoing. Some women also prioritise attractiveness over other traits, but as is consistent with a plethora of research, female members of Swan are more likely than men to prioritise their partner's other, more personality-focused characteristics.

But it's important to keep this in perspective. One effect of popular psychology has been to give this difference more importance than it may deserve.

Whilst men are more likely than women to want an image-focused partner, they are still more likely overall to want a partner who is caring. We also see that men (and women) who report shorter previous relationships are those more likely to care about image, whereas those who have had longer relationships put traits like good communication and a successful career higher up their list.

Given that eligibility (i.e. how appealing a partner you are) is partly a function of the length of your previous relationships, the cohort we see prioritising a partner's looks therefore is disproportionately male, disproportionately likely to have had only short-term relationships, and disproportionately unlikely to be a very eligible partner.

None of this means that looks don't matter a lot to men – the opposite is true. It does mean, however, that those who see looks as the most important trait in a potential partner are often giving off signals that they may not be an ideal candidate for a long-term relationship.

Women put other people first

The single most powerful predictor of gender, aside from the 'gender' field itself, is whether someone reports that they spend time trying to make other people comfortable – or whether they feel that other people's comfort is generally their own business.

Men are much more likely to state that they see other people's comfort as other people's concern, whereas six out of ten women feel the opposite way. This tallies with most other psychological research, which finds that women are instinctively more altruistic than men; partly because women (unlike men) are expected to behave selflessly, and are punished far more extensively than men if they fail to put others first.

There are some caveats to this claim. The first is that of our sample, all participants (men, women, and non-binary people) were more likely to report that they put others' comfort first; the data does not show that women are exclusively selfless and men are exclusively selfish. It just shows that women are more likely to report that they spend time thinking about how to make others comfortable.

The second caveat is that this question is not an infallible proxy for measuring altruistic intent. For one thing, it's based on self-reporting, and a critic might reply: ah, perhaps women are just more likely to believe they spend lots of time thinking about others' comfort, but those women are wrong! This is possible, but unlikely: self-reported data on personality traits is fairly reliable (although we also ask our members to rate each other's personality traits following each date, increasing the accuracy of our measures).

For another thing, whether or not we spend time thinking about how to make others comfortable is not exclusively a proxy for selflessness. To some extent, it's also a measure of self-confidence vs insecurity, and emotional stability vs anxiety. Fortunately, however, we measure altruism through more than one question – and we find that women are more likely than men to report putting others first across a wider array of measures, too.

Women are less likely to want children

The majority of people who sign up to Swan, including those who are seeking only casual relationships for now – currently a small group – report that they would like to have children.

This in itself is highly unusual. But women display this preference at a much lower rate than men (74% vs. 86%).

And those women who do report wanting children are less sure about it than men: 35% of women report that they "probably" want children (compared to 39% who "definitely" want children); the figures for men are 39% and 47%.

This disparity is not obviously explainable by age: the average age for both male and female members of Swan is the same, with few statistical outliers in either case.

But the finding does tally with similar research conducted in the US, which found a similar gap between the sexes. It also found that women were more likely than men to value independence in their relationships. The two things may be related: the biological demands of pregnancy and the social demands of childrearing fall almost entirely upon women, dramatically limiting personal autonomy. If women are already more likely to value that autonomy than men, the case for having children is weakened.

Nonetheless, the really interesting gap here is not between men and women – who both overwhelmingly want children – but between Swan members and the general population. According to YouGov, just 26% of childless UK adults definitely want children in the future. The proportion of Swan members who definitely want children stands at 43%. We hope you'll invite us to the christenings.

If we've caught your interest, why not give Swan a try?

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