The popular Jimmy Soul song “If You Want to Be Happy for the Rest of Your Life” advises you never to “make a pretty woman your wife.” New research makes clear why you might want to pay heed to these lyrics, whatever the gender of your desired partner. Although the gist of the song’s message is that the less attractive woman will be a better cook, this new investigation into attractiveness and relationships suggests that there may be more important, reasons to find a partner who’s considerably less than a “10” on the attraction scale.
In a set of four studies, Harvard’s Christine Ma-Kellams and collaborators used the full set of methods, from the archival (use of existing records) to the experimental, to determine whether an individual’s attractiveness detracts from or promotes a relationship’s ability to last over time. They point out that although physical attractiveness has advantages in terms of making you more desirable as a potential partner, the more beautiful among us may be more likely to make less faithful long-term partners. The reason, you might guess, is simple: Pretty people are seen as desirable not just by you, but by everyone else. Sporting a beautiful partner on your arm is like waving a biscuit in front of your dog — almost too irresistible to pass up. As stated in research that Ma-Kellams et al. cite, “More physically attractive individuals are more frequently the target of poaching attempts."
There are other reasons that beautiful individuals may be poorer relationship partners, apart from their magnetic effect on potential poachers: Because we attach so many positive qualities onto attractive people, and offer them so many more opportunities based on their looks, they might come to expect the red-carpet treatment from all who come into contact with them. If part of their attractiveness comes from the time and attention they devote to their appearance, it’s also possible that they have a dose of narcissistic entitlement thrown in as well. Being highly popular based on looks can also make people believe that they can get away with behavior within a relationship that the less physically endowed wouldn't even try, because it’s often taken for granted that the sins of the gorgeous will be forgiven.
Picking an attractive partner may, then, not be the best strategy for ensuring long-term happiness in love. Let’s see if the research bears this out: The very creative approach taken by Ma-Kellams and her collaborators involved starting with existing data sets (that archival material) to see whether there was a naturally occurring relationship they could observe in their all-male sample between attractiveness based on high-school yearbook photos and marriage outcomes recorded over the subsequent 30-year period. On a scale of 1 to 10, the divorced men indeed were rated about 1 point more attractive than the still-married. Length of marriage and attractiveness were also negatively correlated. Taking other factors into account (such as age at marriage), it seems that facial appearance, at least for men, doesn’t augur well for the relationship’s longevity.
The next study in the series examined attractiveness of face and body in relation to the length of relationship in male and female celebrities. The rationale for this phase of the research was that celebrities are more attractive than the 3 to 4-level average men in the first study, and also that their relationship histories are widely known. Their physical attractiveness ratings were, in fact, much higher (6-7). Among this elite sample, there was an even stronger effect of physical beauty on relationship length than observed among those average-looking men in the first study.
The Harvard team then turned their attention to the reason relationship length is correlated with attractiveness, suggesting that perhaps it has something to do with the attractive person's perceived range of choices of partners. People who are very attractive not only are more desirable, but believe they are more desirable than everyone else. They'll always be on the lookout, so the thinking goes, for any glamorous, new potential partner who might come their way. This proposition was tested, and supported, in a simulation study in which participants rated their attraction to opposite-sex partners. As the authors noted, the more physically attractive are “more likely to engage in relationship-threatening behaviors” of being open to temptation when they see another potential partner.
It’s possible that only the dissatisfied are likely to become tempted by another potential partner, though. Why would a happy person, no matter how attractive, be on the lookout to stray? In fact, people tend to see those they love with rose-colored glasses, those whom, after all, they chose as long-term partners. To test out the role of happiness in the relationship as a possible influence, Ma-Kellams et al. took the study one step further and examined satisfaction with the partnership as an influence. Rather than use attractiveness ratings, though, the researchers used a novel way to manipulate experimentally the extent to which participants felt that they themselves were attractive.
The thinking is as follows. If you’re comparing yourself to someone who is drop-dead gorgeous, no matter how attractive you are, you’ll feel less attractive. If compared to someone not so favored in the looks department, your perceived attractiveness will be relatively high. By manipulating perceived attractiveness in this way, the Harvard team could rule out actual attractiveness as a factor influencing the potential willingness to cheat.
The findings revealed that, indeed, when made to feel attractive, people who weren’t satisfied in their relationships became more attracted to extra-relationship alternatives. Boost your satisfaction with your appearance, and when combined with displeasure toward your partner, you’ll start to look at infidelity in a whole new light. In the concluding words of the research team, “being physically attractive is not without its relational liabilities.” Flipping this around, getting involved with a partner who is more attractive than you carries its own “relational liabilities.”
Maintaining a satisfying relationship takes, as we know, considerable effort. When your partner is, or feels, highly attractive, it may take just that much more effort to keep it a fulfilling and lasting one.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017
Ma-Kellams, C., Wang, M. C., & Cardiel, H. (2017). Attractiveness and relationship longevity: Beauty is not what it is cracked up to be. Personal Relationships, 24(1), 146-161. doi:10.1111/pere.12173
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