Sometimes it seems that good-looking people get all the breaks. According to research, they have higher salaries, are healthier, and even more likable. But are they as lucky in love?
This question was the focus of a new study led by Christine Ma-Kellams of Harvard University. Specifically, she and her collaborators were interested in whether physical attractiveness plays a role in relationship satisfaction and longevity. Across a series of four studies, they used longitudinal, archival, survey, and lab methods, which made for an experimentally strong set of research and they uncovered some provocative findings.
In the first study, Ma-Kellams and her team looked at the relationship between physical attractiveness and marriage outcomes over a 30-year period of adulthood for men from two high schools in the United States, obtaining high-school rosters and yearbook photographs through the social network site classmates.com. The individuals in these photographs were rated for facial attractiveness. In a next step, the men from the photographs were matched to marriage and divorce outcomes, which were accessed through records via ancestry.com. What did the researchers find? The men with more attractive faces were married for shorter durations — and were more likely to divorce.
In the second study, Ma-Kellams and her team again focused on the relationship between physical attractiveness and marriage and divorce outcomes. This time, they used celebrities as their subjects (acknowledging that high-school yearbook photographs could be a limiting factor in their study) and included men and women in their sample. Using websites like The-Numbers.com and imdb.com, the researchers collected information about celebrities' relationship history, including total number and length of marriages; number of divorces; and spouses' identities. As in the first study, the celebrities were rated for attractiveness, and matched to marriage and divorce outcomes. The results were striking: Celebrities who were rated as more physically attractive were married for shorter periods of time, and physical attractiveness significantly predicted the probability of divorce.
The third study looked at the links between physical attractiveness and a common relationship strategy technically known as the derogation of attractive alternatives. This refers to the phenomenon in which romantically partnered individuals devalue the attractiveness of potential alternative partners — which can be a major threat to the longevity of a relationship. Indeed, studies show that when individuals in relationships are instructed to think romantic thoughts about their partners, they paid less attention to attractive alternative mates, ultimately helping a relationship last. But do beautiful people engage in this strategy to the same degree? To explore the link between physical attractiveness and the derogation of attractive alternatives, the researchers had participants, who were in both exclusive and non-exclusive romantic relationships, view photographs of good-looking individuals of the opposite sex and rate them for attractiveness. But here was the twist: Unbeknownst to participants, the physical attractiveness of the participants themselves was secretly rated by two research assistants during the experiment. Later, the investigators crunched the numbers, and the results revealed that among the participants who were in exclusive romantic relationships, the more good-looking they were, the less they derogated attractive, opposite-sex alternatives.
The fourth study cleverly looked at how participants' perceptions of their own physical attractiveness would influence both the derogation of attractive alternatives and current satisfaction in their romantic relationship. Here's how the researchers carried out this study: Past research has demonstrated that viewing highly attractive persons causes individuals to feel less attractive, and conversely, viewing unattractive persons causes individuals to feel more attractive. So they had participants view a set of five images, which were either of physically attractive or unattractive same-sex individuals. (The images were the result of Google searches for “attractive female,” “unattractive female,” “attractive male,” and “unattractive male,” and featured both faces and bodies.) Participants also reported how satisfied they were with their current romantic relationship and partner. The investigators found that physical attractiveness predicted the likelihood of a relationship breaking up and lessened the derogation of attractive alternatives. If that weren't enough, physical attractiveness predicted heightened vulnerability to alternatives to one's relationship, which stemmed from weakened satisfaction with their current romantic relationship. Put another way, among individuals who were made to feel attractive, those who were less satisfied with their current relationship showed more interest in romantic alternatives outside of their relationship. By contrast, participants who were made to feel unattractive did not show interest in alternatives outside of their relationship.
So according to these studies, being good-looking may make a person a more desirable partner, at least at the outset of relationships — but it's certainly no predictor of whether a relationship will be happy or long lasting.
Vinita Mehta, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C., and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. She provides speaking engagements for organizations and psychotherapy for teens and adults. She works with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse. She is also the author of the forthcoming Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.