msnbc.com
By msnbc.com contributor
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/3/2008 8:28:45 AM ET 2008-01-03T13:28:45

It began with so much hope, the new year did. But despite the magnum of champagne on New Year’s Eve and the kiss you received from that gorgeous stranger at the party (where’s that phone number, anyway?), many of you are still looking for that one person with whom you are supremely sexually compatible. You would like 2008 to be the year of making a match, yes?

And not just sex, mind you, though some great sex might be welcome, thanks, but love. Sex and love. That’s what we’re all looking for, or at least most of us, judging from the mail we receive here at Sexploration HQ.

Let’s roll up our sleeves, rub our hands together and get down to business, shall we? Let’s get it right this year!    

So, how does it work again? Do opposites attract? Or are you and your mate supposed to have oh so much in common? Is she supposed to be Republican if I am? Can he be an agnostic if I’m a Baptist? Is my immune system a good match for his?

Huh?

In what may be a measure of just how desperate we can be to find sex and love, last month a new online dating service called ScientificMatch.com received media play because it promised, for the small fee of about $2,000, to use DNA-matching technology to find ideal mates for its customers. It will do this, so it says, by examining a DNA sample you supply to identify major histocompatibility complex (MHC) markers. MHCs, for you non-biologists, refers to the immune system. You hear about it when somebody needs a bone marrow or other organ transplant and doctors refer to the risk of rejection. The more like one person’s immune system is to another person’s, the less the risk of rejection.

But when it comes to sexual attraction, apparently we prefer the differences. In some animals — mice are often used to demonstrate this — males and females tend to choose mates with differing MHCs. Most biologists think the animals are able to literally smell how alike or unlike a potential mate’s MHCs are to their own and avoid those with very similar ones. This helps prevent the animals from mating with mom or dad or a sibling and to make healthier babies.

There is some evidence that people prefer to mate with those who have differing MHCs, too, though we’ve come a long way in the last few million years and these days we are pretty good at using other methods to decide whether that hot babe in the BMW Z4 is our mom.

“You’ve got to remember this whole scheme evolved when we were surrounded by very small populations,” says Wayne Potts, a University of Utah biologist and an expert on MHC science. “It could have been quite important and useful then. Now that we have 6 billion potential mates to chose from, with untold diversity, it’s utility [in people] is pretty limited.”

Potts says people looking into such match-making schemes “should be skeptical” (a view that has not prevented ScientificMatch.com from citing Pott’s research to validate its own services). “Well over 95 percent of people, probably closer to 99 percent of people, in large populations will be dissimilar to you just by chance.”

In other words, just about all the interesting potential mates you met at that New Year’s Eve party could work out just fine, immunologically speaking.

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ScientificMatch.com founder Eric Holzle defends the service by pointing out “we are the only match-making service based on any kind of proven method at all.”

Whether it is “proven” is highly debatable, but Holzle does have a point when he says: “You see others online and offline advertised on TV and they all claim to have the best match-making process. They say there is a doctor or researcher behind them and they contradict each other! Nobody agrees.”

Seeking a magic formula
Science has elucidated some primitive elements of human attraction. As Sexploration has examined before , there’s waist-to-hip ratio and facial symmetry. And then there is subjective-but-true perception like beautiful women who wear glasses and carry around copies of "Anaïs Nin." Or guys with vacation homes in Gstaad. Women tell me they find those guys pretty attractive.

But this is just attraction. Holzle is right when he says there is no proven method to have a happy relationship (including his, I would argue). You could be wildly attracted to somebody and have lousy sex, to say nothing of wanting them to stick around and eat scrambled eggs in the morning. All these signs are pretty useless measures of happiness, sexual or otherwise.

So when you are out there looking this year, perhaps it would be better to consider a tactic less primitive than sniffing your potential lover. But again, what tactic would that be? The more you look into how we’re supposed to know if a relationship is going to work, the more inscrutable the whole thing becomes. Even the old sayings don’t necessarily work as reliable guides.

Instead, let’s turn to the scientific literature.

David Schmitt, a sexuality and psychology researcher at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., and the founding director of the International Sexuality Description Project, examined 44 heterosexual couples and reported in the British Journal of Social Psychology that “similarity of personal attributes was also connected with relationship satisfaction; however, this association was in the negative direction. That is, couples with dissimilar personality traits, attachment styles and sexual strategies were significantly more satisfied with their dating relationships.”

Two introverts could make each other miserable. Two S&M devotees could be unhappy together. What does this do to the idea that it's best to find a mate just like you?

Well, Israeli psychologists studied 248 married couples and found that “as hypothesized, greater similarity between partners was associated with higher levels of marital satisfaction.”

Hmmm…

In other research, UCLA psychologists studied 180 couples, some “distressed” and others not, and found that having similar personalities “did not independently predict relationship satisfaction.” The researchers speculated that “similarity between partners’ personalities may not be closely tied to marital happiness.”

Yet another study from eHarmony.com, a popular dating site, found that “similarity and convergence in personality may benefit relationships by promoting similarity and convergence in partners’ shared emotional experiences.”

Interestingly, religiosity did not seem very important in most reports. Similar attitudes about religion and politics turn out not to be very good predictors of relationship happiness, which may help explain why Mary Matalin and James Carville have managed to stay married through both Clinton and Bush years.

Really all about you?
At least one study has suggested that it’s not so much the other person’s personality as it is yours. Happy people tend to be happy in relationships. The lovers and spouses of people who are less negative in their outlook and behavior tend to be more satisfied, too.

Where does this leave us? Without a magic formula. It seems safe to say that strong attraction may flutter the sheets but it is no guarantee of happiness (if we’re talking happiness that lasts longer than an episode of “Chuck”).

It also seems safe to say that the person with whom you had so much fun deconstructing "Teen Titans" could be terrible in bed and make you equally unhappy in the long run. The man you thought was a nerdy loser could turn out to be Tarzan in bed and your ideal husband.

This is why they write poetry.

But don’t let all this uncertainty stymie you. Take a risk and get out there and make 2008 THE year!

Oh, and one more thing before you go: If that new person you are ga-ga over smells anything like your mom or dad, you might want to compare family trees.

MSNBC.com columnist and Glamour magazine contributing editor Brian Alexander’s book “America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction" will be published Jan. 15 by Crown/Harmony Books.

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