In my last post, I explained why handsome men might make bad husbands. What is interesting about McNulty et al.’s study is that it shows that the absolute levels of physical attractiveness of the husband and the wife are not as important as their relative difference (whether the husband or the wife is more attractive). In fact, in their data, once the relative difference is taken into consideration, the absolute levels make no difference for the couple’s marital satisfaction or their behavior. Their conclusion is that couples in which the woman is more attractive than the man are happier than the couples in which the man is more attractive than the woman. Why is this?

As we explain extensively in Chapter 3 of our book Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters (“Barbie -- Manufactured by Mattel, Designed by Evolution: The Evolutionary Psychology of Sex and Mating”), women’s mate value is primarily a function of their youth and physical attractiveness, whereas men’s mate value is primarily a function of their wealth and status. Men prefer to marry women who are young and beautiful, and women prefer to marry men who are rich and powerful. Of course, you don’t need no stinkin’ evolutionary psychologists to tell you that; your illiterate and uneducated great-grandmother, who never in her life set foot outside of her small village, knew that a hundred years ago. But she didn’t know why; we need evolutionary psychology to figure out why.

It is therefore quite natural that a man (whether he himself is handsome or ugly) who is married to an attractive wife is happier than a man who is married to an ugly wife, because it means that his attractive wife has a high mate value. Similarly, since physical attractiveness is not what women seek in their long-term mates (husbands), even though it is what they seek in their short-term mates (lovers), having a handsome husband will not necessarily make a woman happy with her husband or marriage, unless he is rich and powerful as well. Of course, it doesn’t help that her handsome husband is a jerk and is cheating on her (as I explained in my last post).

Although I have not seen any other study which examines the effect of relative mate value of the spouses on their marital satisfaction, it is not difficult to propose other hypotheses. For example, following the same logic, couples in which the man makes more money or is more educated than the woman should be more satisfied with their marriage than couples in which the woman makes more money or is more educated than the man. Couples in which the man is taller than the woman should be happier than couples in which the woman is taller than the man (although, according to one estimate, 99.86% of all married couples are of the former type).

Similarly, because all primate societies (including all human societies) are gerontocratic (meaning that older males typically have more power and resources than younger males), ceteris paribus, older men have greater mate value than younger men and, as a result, women prefer to mate with older men than with younger men. I would therefore predict that couples in which the man is older than the woman (which of course are a majority of couples in every human society, for this very reason) are happier than (the few) couples in which the woman is older than the man. In addition, the greater the age difference between the man and the woman, the more satisfied the couple should be, not only because it means that the man is older and has higher status, but also because it means that the woman is younger.

About the Author

Satoshi Kanazawa

Satoshi Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist at LSE and the coauthor (with the late Alan S. Miller) of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters.

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