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Maintaining Attraction in Long-Term Relationships

How does physical attractiveness influence couple satisfaction?

Key points

  • According to research, looks matter most in the first seven years of a relationship and become less important over time.
  • One survey shows that both men and women care more about the attractiveness of their partners' faces rather than bodies.
  • Given the fragility of today's marital bonds, not attending to one's appearance can impact one's relationship.

Scott and Mary have been married for seven years. Given these tough economic times, they feel fortunate to be employed, have two great kids, a home, and still have a little extra money, and energy, for some fun with each other.

Spending time or effort to look after their appearance is, understandably, not at the top of their to-do list. And, like many couples, they are counting on their strong emotional bond to keep things running smoothly. Maintaining a vital and satisfying relationship is important to them and, in the end, it's what makes their efforts all worthwhile. They believe that everything else can wait.

But a recent Harris Interactive survey commissioned by Medicis Aesthetics tells us that the connection between caring for our physical appearance and the health of romantic relationships is actually stronger than we realize. In a previous post describing the survey results, "Is Love Really Blind?" we learned that looks play a clear role in long-term partner satisfaction. Somewhat surprisingly, they matter most in the first seven years of a relationship and become less important over time. We also learned that facial features play a larger role in keeping mates attracted to one another than do their bodies. But according to the survey, overall physical attractiveness, which is not the same as physical perfection, matters to both men and women.

Interesting statistics and information, but their value ultimately lies in what we do with it all. Below are some practical tips that can help you apply the survey results to your life:

Looks do matter

With any new information, the first step is accepting its validity. And in this case, it means absorbing an unpopular, but undeniable reality — looks matter and they impact relationships. As superficial as it may seem, it's a truth most of us recognize instinctively, even if it's one we hate to admit. So, while we like to believe, "it's what is inside that counts," clearly who we are and how we look matter to our partners.

Remember, for most of us, our first encounters with our mates involved physical attraction, from the initial exchange of smiles to that memorable first kiss. We become intoxicated by our mate's scent, the way they feel, and the way they make us feel. Regardless of their "objective" physical appearance, they become beautiful to us. Our experience of our mate is most often based on developing an interpersonal connection as well as an ongoing physical one. As the relationship evolves, the hope is that both will grow.

Our culture has come a long way in broadening the roles that partners play in each other's lives. Women no longer simply attract a mate to stay at home and have babies. Men don't just seek a mate to produce and protect a family. But physical attraction still matters in the success of relationships. And unless we find a healthy way to take that into account, we do a disservice to ourselves -- and our partners.

It's not just for men

Ongoing mutual attraction is not only "just for men." No doubt women are focused on their own appearance — we'd have to be blind not to notice that -— but the Harris survey shows that females care how their male counterparts look as well. And both care more about faces than bodies.

Most men and women pay careful attention to their appearance when first seeking a mate. While women may take more time choosing new outfits, makeup, and hairstyles, men say they spend their fair share on looking their best, too. Guys eye gals and vice versa, at bars, parties, work, even church and school functions, giving each other furtive glances to determine if there is chemistry. It's a mating ritual that has gone on for thousands of years and continues today. Just ask anyone using a dating website how important a person's photo is in initially selecting a mate. And this is true for both men and women. Looks are what initially draw people together.

And, although we may think that men ogle women's bodies, it turns out both men and women are more focused on faces. The survey tells us that it's eyes, skin, and lips that are most often noticed and recalled by partners in relationships. While we may think that shapely, fit bodies are most important in attracting a mate, it turns out faces are and we might think more about taking care of them -- protecting our skin, moisturizing, adding gloss to our lips, keeping teeth clean, and making regular dermatology and dental appointments. It makes sense to maintain the health and appeal of our most precious physical assets.

Sustaining physical attraction

We know that successful relationships require positive emotional regard, but the belief that we can simply assume our interpersonal connection will override our physical one is risky, especially during the first seven years.

Too often, we take for granted that once a relationship is signed, sealed, and committed, we can relax and feel safe and secure about our future. In fact, the marriage rate is declining and only about one out of every two couples report marital satisfaction. We also know that more men and women today are either single or expect to be, than ever before in history. Marriage, as an institution, is becoming less appealing, and the glue that keeps partners married, less cohesive.

We have learned from the survey that how we look, as well as how we feel about how we look, is an important ingredient in the glue that keeps relationships satisfying. And unless we continue to nourish it, we risk diluting the strength of our bonds. Obviously, that doesn't mean we should focus only on our appearance and physical attraction; couples that do are at risk as well. But, instead of relying on good communication or interpersonal skills alone, we might attend to our own appearance and let our mates know the importance of doing the same.

For example, you might consider telling your partner what appeals to you about their appearance. Do you like his eyes? Does her long hair turn you on? Surely, when you first met, there were lots of compliments in the air. How often do you express your admiration now?

On the flip side, partners also need to find ways to let each other know when something is bothering them about their mate's appearance. Do it with kindness, but be genuine, like you would if you were commenting on a habit or behavior that is bothersome. How many times have you told your mate, "Please put down the toilet seat" or "You need to cut down on your spending this month"? Saying, "I prefer your shirts tucked in," or "Would you consider wearing your hair up tonight since I love it that way," are important pieces of information your partner may want to know, especially given that the result may fuel the much-needed attraction in your long-term relationship.

Looking our best as we age

We can't stop the aging process, but there are things we can do to prolong the health and vitality of our faces and bodies so we remain attractive to our mates. We have learned that an aging appearance is noticed by both men and women, and especially in the first years of a relationship.

As a result, from the start of any relationship, it is important to practice healthy routines. Avoid cigarettes and excessive drinking and maintain good sleeping and eating habits. As a marriage progresses and people age together, other factors may increasingly influence the way partners appear to one another. Good communication and shared interests probably help sustain attraction between couples as they age. Likewise, unhappiness often diminishes attraction. When relationships are new, emotional factors are less powerful influences on physical attraction, so it is especially important to pay attention to your appearance early on.

Some relationships suffer when couples believe that looks shouldn't matter as they get older. For example, men who develop a beer belly from too much drinking, or women who put no effort toward losing pregnancy weight sometimes take it for granted that these physical changes don't, or shouldn't, impact their relationship. Some men and women just feel they are too busy to care. But that approach is risky, especially given the fragility of today's marital bonds.

The seven-year itch

So, what have we learned about the "Seven-Year Itch?" Clearly, there are many factors that contribute to a couple's growing dissatisfaction during the early phase of a relationship. To reduce it to the loss of attractiveness is obviously too simplistic. These first seven years are often filled with starting families, building careers, and firming the marital foundation. Young couples like Scott and Mary have a lot on their minds. But as this survey reminds us, they cannot dismiss the role that feeling attracted to one another plays in the success of their long-term relationship. The key is incorporating this awareness into everything else that we know about how couples succeed—or don't—in today's culture.

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