Fulfillment at Any Age

How to remain productive and healthy into your later years

Avoid the Fatal Attraction Effect in Your Relationship

How can you keep the flame of attraction alive in your closest relationship?

How alive is the flame of attraction to your closest intimate partner right now? If you’re in a long-term relationship, as you look at your partner, do you notice his or her physical flaws or do you still see your partner through that hazy glow of love? If you do see your partner as physically attractive, you also boost the quality of the sexual aspects of a relationship which, in turn, can help you feel more satisfied.

Physical attraction to your partner is a two-way street when it comes to sexual and relationship satisfaction. The more satisfied you are, the more likely you are able to gloss over the sagging and bagging that develops in many people’s bodies over time.  The world may drool over the latest celebrity sex symbol, but the switch that turns you on may very well be just as strong, if not stronger, in the physical appearance of your closest partner.

University of Kentucky sex researcher and Psychology Today blogger Kristen Mark teamed up with Indiana University sex researcher Debra Herbenick in an online study designed to investigate just how women’s perceptions of their partner’s attractiveness related to their current levels of sexual and relationship satisfaction.  They wondered whether changes in attraction to a woman’s partner would follow the pattern of “fatal attraction” in which people find that, over time, the same physical quality that they once loved about their partner has now become their greatest turn-off.  It’s possible that the fatal attraction effect reflects actual changes in the partner’s behavior rather than in your perception of the partner’s qualities. However, the true fatal attraction effect involves scenarios such as this: You were once glad that your partner was carefree and easygoing, but now you see this very behavior as immature and irresponsible now that there are family or household obligations that you need to have fulfilled.

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Mark and Herbenick surveyed a sample of 176 women from the U.S. and Canada who were in committed, long-term relationships. Participants were recruited through flyers, listserv postings, online ads, and social networking sites. The only requirements were that the women had to be over 18 and in a current heterosexual relationship for at least 5 years.  The final sample ranged in age from 21 to the mid-50s, with an average age of 35; most were college educated, employed, had children, and were in their current relationship for an average of 12 years.

To tap sexual satisfaction, the research team administered 3 items from the Female Sexual Function Index asking, for example, how satisfied the woman was with her sexual relationship with her partner. The women were also asked about their satisfaction with the quality of the relationship as indicated, for example, by their agreement with an item asking how often the partners “get on each other’s nerves.” Finally they rated their perceived attractiveness of their current partner, how much their attraction has changed.

Obviously, this was a one-time study, so the researchers were unable to track changes over time (unlike true longitudinal studies of relationship satisfaction). Therefore, any changes that the women perceived as “changes” may represent a tendency to glorify the early days of the relationship, a tendency that many of us have due to memory’s selective effects.  Nevertheless, whether real or perceived, changes in a partner’s attractiveness emerged as a strong predictor of current sexual satisfaction. Amazingly, although we tend to think of relationship satisfaction as strongly related to sexual satisfaction, once the woman’s attraction ratings were entered into the equation, relationship satisfaction no longer played a role.

Flipping things around, Mark and Herbenick then tested the predictive effects of perceived partner attractiveness and sexual satisfaction on relationship satisfaction. Once again, perceived attraction won out over sexual satisfaction, but only current attraction to the partner.  Taking away the hindsight bias that people look better to you in memory than in reality, then, feeling physically attracted to your partner dominates in predicting your overall happiness in the relationship.

The moral of the story is that feeling that your partner is now less appealing than he once was can impact the way you perceive the sexual component of your relationship. However, seeing your partner as attractive now (regardless of whether this changed) strongly predicts how you feel about the relationship overall.  

Many qualities of our partners contribute to how positively we feel about the quality of our relationships. However, this study indicates that one major component is the beauty in the eye of the woman viewing her husband.

The study only examined the relationships of heterosexual women studied at one point in time. We also don’t know how men would react to these same questions. it’s possible that our society’s emphasis on youth equaling beauty and attractiveness in women would skew the results in a very different direction if men were the participants.

These qualifications aside, there are some important implications of this fascinating study:

1.  Ask yourself what standards you use to evaluate your partner’s attractiveness. When you look at your partner carrying out his or her daily routines, throw in a dose of reality-testing.  Even the Brad Pitt’s of the world must have some down time in which they feel free to dress like slobs.  Your partner feels comfortable enough around you to wear the torn jeans, ragged shorts, scruffy beard, and mud-encrusted shoes that would otherwise never leave the house. Take this as a sign of your intimacy, not as proof that your partner doesn’t care about you or value your regards.

2. Avoid the fatal attraction effect. Long-term relationships are moving targets. Those qualities that you used to find so appealing and that now irritate you may reflect actual change, change in your perception, or changes in your own personality and habits. Your partner may always have neglected to shave fastidiously, but you never noticed this until recently. It’s possible that you even used to find it sexy. Before allowing this supposed “change” to doom your sexual satisfaction, speak up. If you put this as an “I” statement (“I used to think this was sexy but I don’t any more”), you can at least open up the conversation and maybe even stimulate your partner to carry out this relatively minor acquiescence to your will.

3. Take a look in the mirror. You may find your partner’s attractiveness to change, but what about your own? You don’t need to be the Angelina Jolie of the couple, but you may want to engage in a bit of reality testing to ensure that your partner’s dismissal of social proprieties isn’t just mirroring your own. What is your own grooming like at home? Have you let a few aspects of your appearance slide, especially in your off-hours when your partner is around? You might want to give your at-home appearance a mini makeover, at least part of the time you’re around your partner

4. Build in some “dress-up” time. If both of you are perfectly content with the amount of attention you give your appearance when you’re together, then there’s no real need to change. Maybe neither of you really place that much stock in being made up or perfectly groomed when you’re in each other’s presence. Even so, you might give some thought to arranging it so that one night a week or a month, you put on your party face at home. In Victorian England, families dressed to the hilt for dinner and for their after-dinner socializing as they sipped port and smoked cigars. You don’t have to turn your home into the 21st century equivalent of Downton Abbey, but you could at least be willing to put your best look forward to please your partner, at least once in a while.

5. Recognize that attraction can come from the inside. I'm afraid that some readers may interpret this advice as consisting of an over-emphasis on physical attractiveness as opposed to your or your partner's inner qualities. The point is not that your or your partner will transform yourselves so you meet some ideal standard, but that you both take into account the features that each of you finds attractive. 

To sum up, physical attraction seems to have an important role in understanding who is most likely to have a satisfying long-term relationship.  It’s definitely not the only factor, but given the findings from this study of wives, it seems to be worth paying attention to in your own relationship.  There’s no reason your attraction has to become “fatal,” but instead it can be a vital and enriching component of your relationship’s overall quality for years to come.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013 

Mark, K. P., & Herbenick, D. (2013). The influence of attraction to partner on heterosexual women’s sexual and relationship satisfaction in long-term relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior. doi: 10.1007/s10508-013-0184-z

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.

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