Do Differences in Attractiveness Really Matter?

If you see your partner as more attractive, does that affect your relationship?

Posted May 10, 2014

In the late 1990s, Hollywood often employed a classic recipe for sitcom success: Pair an average-looking funny guy with an attractive woman. The King of Queens, starring Kevin James and Leah Remini, may be the best example, but we also saw this dynamic on Everybody Loves Raymond, According to Jim, and others. The shows typically focused on communication between the spouses, but rarely mentioned the apparent mismatch in attractiveness levels between the mates. 

Do differences in attractiveness levels really matter? And, if they do, how do they impact communication between partners? This is a large topic, but I’ll review some theoretical and research-based explanations to provide some insight.

If I were to ask you to rate yourself on physical attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being not attractive and 10 being very attractive, you know fairly well where you fall. This speaks to the matching hypothesis (Walster et al., 1968), which argues that we date relatively “in our league.” In other words, we date individuals with similar levels of physical attractiveness. Our 1990s sitcoms, however, departed from the matching hypothesis. Discrepancies like they portrayed may influence romantic partner communication, though the question of how is complicated.

I’ll review two ways: mate value discrepancy and dependence power.

A mate value discrepancy occurs when one thinks there is a mismatch in the value of mates between partners. That is, one believes his or her partner is of higher or lower value than he or she is, in terms of what they have to offer. (This is another common sitcom trope, even in shows for younger audiences, in which a young man pursuing an apparent higher-value mate, like Boy Meets World and The Wonder Years.)

Sidelinger and Booth-Butterfield’s research offers one example of how this discrepancy may influence communication processes: When someone thought their partner was of a higher mate value, they were also more jealous and more forgiving of their partners. Applied to King of Queens, the character played by Kevin James would have higher levels of partner jealousy while also being more forgiving of Leah Remini’s. It is assumed here that such behaviors are driven by the discrepancy and associated fear of loss.

This leads us to another romantic partner communication process: dependence power.

Power dynamics are always at play in relationships. One relevant process is dependence power. Perceptions of dependence power are formed when one compares one’s commitment level to that of his or her partner’s, as well as the perceived quality of each other’s relational alternatives. Applied to King of Queens the Kevin James character may perceive, due to Leah Remini’s attractiveness, that she has better relational alternatives and, therefore, is less committed to the relationship. Interestingly, such perceptions may influence the decision to communicate about problematic events (Samp & Solomon)—namely, when one is dependent on their partner, one may withhold complaints. This is further complicated in light of Sidelinger and Booth-Butterfield’s findings.

Collectively, the research about mate value discrepancy and dependence power helps highlight how differences in physical attractiveness may influence communication. It is important to note that differences in attractiveness levels will not always pay out as detailed here—couples with perceived mismatched levels of attractiveness can certainly find love and maintain healthy relationships.

That said, we are designed to be aware of physical attractiveness from a very early age—consider the research finding that babies stare at photos of attractive faces longer than less attractive faces, which implicates that perceptions of physical attractiveness play a role in the management of romantic relationships.

It’s complicated, and there are no easy answers.

Happy dating and mating.

Follow me on Twitter @therealdrsean for relationship commentary/links, complaints about mass transit, and support for WVU Athletics. Continue to follow this blog for future entries about deception, online dating, using affection to lie, workplace romance, and other issues that make obtaining and retaining a mate oh so interesting.   

Horan, S. M. (forthcoming). Physical and social attractiveness. In C. Berger and M. Roloff’s (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of interpersonal communication.

Samp, J. A., & Solomon, D. H. (2001). Coping with problematic events in dating relationships: The influence of dependence power on severity appraisals and decisions to communicate. Western Journal of Communication, 65, 138–160.

Sidelinger, R. J., & Booth-Butterfield, M. (2007). Mate value discrepancy as a predictor of forgiveness and jealousy in romantic relationships. Communication Quarterly, 55, 207-223.

Walster, E., Aronson, V., Abrahams, D., & Rottman, L. (1968). Importance of physical attractiveness in dating behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4, 508-518.