Study: Parents Care How Much a Daughter's Boyfriend Makes

If parents are the type to give more resources to daughters whose partners aren't big providers, they're more likely to prefer mates who can provide.

Problem: Your parents hate your boyfriend or girlfriend. They have too many tattoos, or they spilled gravy on Aunt Edna last Thanksgiving, or they’re just not good enough for you. An entire MTV dating show was based around this struggle. And no matter how free you think you are from the iron fist of mom and dad, studies have shown that parents do often influence their kids’ choice of mates (in some cultures more than others). Now researchers are trying to explain parents’ disdain in an evolutionary context.

Methodology: The study is theoretical, so the researchers created a mathematical model, and had a computer run a simulation. The simulation looked at how the resources that parents allocate to their daughters influenced their preferences for their daughters’ partners. (Previous studies have shown that daughters tend to be more strongly influenced by their parents’ mate preferences than sons.) In some scenarios, parents allocated their resources equally among their children, and in some they provided more support to daughters whose mates brought fewer resources to the table.

Results: According to the simulation, parents want their daughters’ mates to be able to provide the daughters with resources, so they won’t have to. But this was only in situations where parents had to support daughters whose partners didn’t have many resources to offer. If parents weren’t invested in the relationship resource-wise, there was no real conflict over the daughter’s choice of partner. (The researchers predict that the results would be similar if the child in question was a son and not a daughter, but they don’t test that in this study.)

Implications: The conflict comes from greediness, as so many conflicts do. “Parents are equally related to all of their children, whereas children value themselves more than their siblings—so each child wants to get more than their fair share of parental resources,” study co-author Tim Fawcett told press.

If parents are picking up the slack in supporting their children where their partners are lacking, it makes sense that they would have a stronger preference for a mate who is a provider. But if they lay down the law on equal support (or lack thereof) for all their children, they shouldn’t care so much who their children date or marry, since it won’t affect their pocketbooks. There is also the option, unexplored here, of everyone just providing for themselves.

The study, The evolution of parent–offspring conflict over mate choice, appeared in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.

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Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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