Health

Science says why your parents have a problem with your partner

Sep. 18, 2013 at 7:32 PM ET

The reason your parents don't think your partner is good enough for you may come down to an evolutionary dispute over who’s going to pay for the grandkids, suggests a study released Wednesday.

British and Dutch researchers found the conflict to be a basic one - parents want each of their kids to end up with a similar amount of money and support because they value them equally. And if a child ends up with a partner who doesn't have as many resources, the parents feel they need to step in to compensate.

“Thus there is a conflict over resource distribution,” says Dr. Tim Fawcett, a University of Bristol researcher and an author of the study. 

“This additional help by the parents open them up to ‘exploitation’ by the children – a child can afford to settle for a less supportive partner in the knowledge that their parents will pick up the slack,” Fawcett said. “The result is that children will settle for a less caring partner than their parents would ideally like – hence the conflict over mate choice.”

It’s not your usual study of some thousand people answering a questionnaire. The researchers set up an intricate computer model to simulate the evolution of parental behavior when their daughter is searching for a partner and found the theory to hold true.

“Our model provides a first proof of principle that parent-offspring conflict over resources can lead to parent-offspring conflict over mate choice,” the study, published in the journal Evolution & Human Behavior, concluded.

“This provides a novel, evolutionary explanation for the robust finding across many human cultures that parents and their offspring frequently disagree over what constitutes a suitable mate,” it added.

Fawcett said the dispute over resources is not just about cash. “We’re talking about support/care more generally – basically any kind of help that increases the reproductive success of their offspring.”

The researchers acknowledge that their effort is short on empirical data and call for further study. Fawcett also said it was unclear whether the situation is altered by the fact that some parents have fewer resources to share, either because the recession cut into savings, or they have to work longer and put away more for retirement.

And while the study doesn’t quantify how many parents and daughters have this conflict over mate choices, the researchers noted that previous efforts have suggested that parents and children often disagree.

“Parents show a stronger preference than their offspring for attributes such as social class, family background, ethnic background and educational level, whereas offspring show a stronger preference than their parents for qualities such as physical attractiveness, smell, sense of humor and creativity,” the study said.

Evidence also shows that dads more often than moms exercise influence over mate choice, and that daughters are more strongly influenced than sons, it noted.

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