Award Date

May 2018

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department

Anthropology

First Committee Member

Peter B. Gray

Second Committee Member

Alyssa Crittenden

Third Committee Member

William Jankowiak

Fourth Committee Member

Murray Millar

Number of Pages

97

Abstract

As individuals become parents, they shift time and energy towards parenting to ensure the survival and wellbeing of their offspring. However, it is not uncommon for a romantic partnership between parents to dissolve, which may lead a single mother to pursue a new partner in the future. But how does having a dependent child influence whom she will choose for her new partner? And how will resource availability and assistance from family influence the decisions she makes? A significant amount of research has been conducted on female mate preferences in the United States and elsewhere, yet little is specifically focused on the mate preferences among single mothers (or women who have children generally) within an evolutionary and life history framework. The mate preference literature in the U.S. has primarily relied on college women participants. Although this research is informative, it fails to account for the specific challenges and preferences among women who are single and have children. Moreover, much of the existing research relies upon self-report methods. The approach taken here includes both self-report evaluations of a woman’s dating interests and a more ecologically valid experimental procedure inspired by online dating profiles. The purpose of this research is to investigate the mating decisions made by single mothers and how these decisions are influenced by a number of factors, including availability of allocare (childcare by non-mothers) and economic constraints.

Fifty-four U.S. women between 18-35 years of age were recruited for this study: 28 single mothers who have at least 1 child ages 5 and under, and 26 women without children. Participants provided information about demographics, mate value, childcare assistance, and socioeconomic assistance and completed self-report evaluations of their willingness to engage in long-term relationship with a potential partner depending on his attractiveness, financial status, and kindness. Using an experimental design influenced by online dating, three qualities of a potential partner’s attractiveness, financial status, and kindness were also manipulated in “online dating profiles”. Participants were asked an open-ended question aimed at understanding the unique challenges and nuances of romantic dating and being a single mother.

Results indicate that single mothers and non-mothers did not differ in self-perceived mate value. To test the first hypothesis that mate preferences would differ between single mothers and non-mothers, particularly in expecting lower importance expressed for attractiveness among mothers, self-report results indicated no differences in preferences for attractiveness or financial status. However, single mothers expressed more importance for a partner’s kindness than did non-mothers. Experimental online dating procedures revealed that both mothers and non-mothers considered a partner’s attractiveness, financial status, and kindness when determining whether to enter a long-term relationship with him. Interaction effects between maternal status (mother vs. non-mother) and partner attractiveness, financial status, and kindness were all significant. An interpretation of these findings is that the degree to which partner characteristics shaped mate preferences was contingent upon maternal status, with mothers appearing to be more discriminating against lower-quality potential partners.

To test the second hypothesis that allomaternal (“allocare”) support would influence mothers’ mate preferences, the mate preferences of mothers with and without such support were compared. Results indicate no self-reported differences in mothers’ expressed importance of a potential partner’s attractiveness, financial status, or kindness. Experimental dating procedures indicate that both mothers with and without allocare responded similarly to manipulations of a potential partner’s attractiveness, financial status, and kindness, and with no significant interaction terms between those partner qualities and maternal allocare. To test the third hypothesis that maternal income would influence mothers’ mate preferences, the mate preferences of mothers above and below an income threshold were compared. Results revealed no self-reported differences in mothers’ mate preferences depending on whether mothers were relatively higher or lower income. Experimental procedures showed that lower-income mothers’ mate preferences were predicted by a potential partner’s financial status and attractiveness but not kindness, whereas for higher-income mothers all three partner characteristics influences mate preferences. No significant interaction terms were found between maternal income and partner qualities. Narrative responses from mothers pointed to dating concerns over being cautious and sensitive to a partner’s resources and support.

These findings help address a gap in understanding concerning single mothers’ mate preferences, and also highlight the importance of methodological approaches and pluralism. Consistent with much prior mate preference research, women can be sensitive to characteristics such as a partner’s attractiveness, financial status, and kindness, with some evidence presented here that mothers are more discerning against lower-quality potential partners and concerned with a partner’s kindness and general precautions in dating. The lack of differences between mothers’ allocare and income and mate preferences is not obviously explained and runs counter to expectations, potentially revealing the need for methodological refinement or other factors not assessed in the present research. Future research might profit by recruiting larger samples of mothers drawn from different populations cross-culturally and with refined methods to further advance work on mate preferences among single mothers.

Keywords

cooperative breeding; dating; evolution; evolutionary psychology; mating; single parents

Disciplines

Behavior and Behavior Mechanisms | Sociology

Language

English


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