You may have recently heard or seen the news coverage (in the New York Daily News or CBS news online, among others; you may have even seen the lead author, James K. McNulty of the University of Tennessee, discuss it on the Today show) of a study, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, that showed that couples in which the woman is physically more attractive than the man are happier than couples in which the man is physically more attractive than the woman. Why is this? Why is it better for the couple if the woman is physically more attractive than the man?
If you have been keeping score at home, the findings of this study should have come as no surprise to you. There are two different reasons why couples in which the woman is more attractive than the man are more successful and happier than couples in which the man is more attractive than the woman.
First, as we elaborate in Chapter 4 of our book Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters (“Go Together Like a Horse and Carriage? The Evolutionary Psychology of Marriage”), handsome men on average make bad husbands. Men can maximize their reproductive success by pursuing one of two different strategies: Seek a long-term mate, stay with her, and invest in their joint offspring (the “dad” strategy); or seek a large number of short-term mates without investing in any of the resulting offspring (the “cad” strategy).
All men may want to pursue the cad strategy; however, their choice of the mating strategy is constrained by female choice. Men do not get to decide with whom to have sex; women do. And women disproportionately seek out handsome men for their short-term mates for their good genes. Even women who are already married benefit from short-term mating with handsome men if they could successfully fool their husbands into investing in the resulting offspring. The women then get the best of both worlds: Their children carry the high-quality genes of their handsome lover and receive the parental investment of their unknowingly cuckolded but resourceful husband. (In order to help the women accomplish this, evolution has designed women to be more likely to have sex with their lovers when they are ovulating and therefore fertile, and have sex with their husbands when they are not.)
Thus, handsome men get a disproportionate number of opportunities for short-term mating and are therefore able to engage in the cad strategy. Ugly men have no choice. Since women do not choose them as short-term mates, their only option for achieving any reproductive success is to find one long-term mate and invest heavily in their children -- the dad strategy.
Consistent with this logic, studies show that more attractive men have a larger number of extra-pair sex partners (sex partners other than their long-term mates). Interestingly, more attractive men have more short-term mates than long-term mates, whereas more attractive women have more long-term mates than short-term mates. Most importantly for our current purposes, handsome men invest less in their exclusive relationships than ugly men do. They are less honest with and less attentive to their partners. McNulty’s new study of newlyweds confirms this. Their data show that the more physically attractive the husbands are, the less supportive they are of their wives in their interactions.
I hasten to add that “good” and “bad” (as in the title of this post “Why handsome men make bad husbands”) are value judgments that scientists do not make. However, empirical data do demonstrate clearly that handsome men have more extra-marital affairs and are not as committed to their marriages, which many wives would undoubtedly consider undesirable. In this sense, handsome men make better lovers than husbands.
In my next post, I will discuss the second reason why couples in which the woman is more attractive than the man are happier than couples in which the man is more attractive than the woman. If you have been keeping score at home, it will come as no surprise.