Countless books and articles have been written about what men and women want in a romantic partner. But what about the things they don’t want? What are our “deal breakers” or non-starters when it comes to sex and love?

A new set of studies published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin reveals Americans’ biggest deal breakers, including how they differ across the sexes and across different types of relationships.

In one of these studies more than 5,500 single U.S. adults were given a checklist of 17 negative traits that a potential partner might have. Participants identified which traits would be deal breakers if they were looking to start a long-term, committed relationship with someone.

Women identified slightly more deal breakers than men, which was consistent with reasoning from an evolutionary perspective that women are pickier because reproduction carries more risks and costs for them. However, the difference was small, meaning that deal breakers were hardly unique to women—men had plenty of them, too.


There was a lot of agreement between the sexes when it came to the traits at the top of the list. In fact, the top three relationship deal breakers were identical for men and women: “disheveled or unclean appearance,” “lazy” and “too needy.” However, a larger percentage of women than men identified all three of these traits as deal breakers, as shown in the table below.

Disheveled or unclean appearance 63% 71%
Lazy 60% 72%
Too needy 57% 69%
No sense of humor 50% 58%
Lives more than 3 hours away 51% 47%
Bad sex 44% 50%
Lacks self-confidence 33% 47%
Watches too much TV or plays too many video games 25% 41%
Low sex drive 39% 27%
Stubborn 32% 34%
Talks too much 26% 20%
Too quiet 11% 17%
Blunt 11% 17%
Does not want kids 13% 15%
Has kids 14% 12%
Too athletic 7% 10%
Not athletic 7% 6%

One of the more surprising findings from this table is that sexual compatibility issues didn’t top the list—in fact, they came in toward the middle of the pack. Overall, less than half of the sample said that things like “bad sex” and “low sex drive” were deal breakers.


It’s important to note that significantly more women said bad sex was a deal breaker, whereas significantly more men said low sex drive was a deal breaker. This suggests that women care a little more about quality when it comes to sex, whereas men care a bit more about quantity. Why is that?

One possibility stems from the fact that men almost always have orgasms when they have sex, whereas women have orgasms less consistently. In light of this, it may be that even when the sex is only so-so, men are happier to have it because they’re far more likely to reach orgasm.


In another of the studies, 285 college undergraduates were given a list of 49 negative traits and rated whether they considered each one to be a deal breaker in the context of a short-term, casual relationship and, separately, a long-term, committed relationship.

Both men and women reported more deal breakers when thinking about a long-term partner compared to a short-term fling. Again, regardless of which type of relationship they were thinking about, women identified more deal breakers than men.

The nature of the deal breakers in this study differed substantially depending upon the type of relationship participants had in mind. In the long-term context, the top three deal breakers were: “has anger issues or is abusive,” “is currently dating multiple partners” and “is untrustworthy.”

In the short-term context, the top three deal breakers were: “has health issues such as STDs,” “smells bad” and “has poor hygiene.”

For a long-term partner, the biggest deal breakers had more to do with personality and how the other person treats us. In contrast, for a short-term partner, the biggest deal breakers had more to do with the other person’s health and appearance.

Interestingly, “bad in bed” made it into the top 10 deal breakers for short-term—but not long-term—relationships. Why is quality of sex so much more important in a casual relationship? Perhaps it’s because people often regret casual sex, but rarely do so when the sex is good.


This research also revealed that deal breakers count for more than “deal makers” (i.e., the traits that we really want in a partner). We appear to weigh negative information more heavily than positive information, meaning that a negative trait hurts our impression of another person more than a positive trait helps it.

Another key insight from this set of studies was that people who bring more to the table—or think of themselves as “a great catch”—tend to be picker when choosing who they want to have relationships with.

There are some important limitations to this research, not the least of which is that it doesn’t consider how deal breakers might vary beyond gender. For instance, it’s likely that age, socioeconomic status, religion and cultural background would influence the amount and type of deal breakers people report.

That said, these findings tell us that if we want to understand why people select specific partners, we can’t just look at the traits that they like and find desirable—we also need to look at the traits they’re trying to avoid.

Justin Lehmiller, PhD is a sex educator and researcher at Ball State University and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.