The Key Role of Body Image in Happy Relationships

New research shows the role of body image in your relationship satisfaction.

Posted Aug 04, 2018

nd3000/Shutterstock
Source: nd3000/Shutterstock

How do you feel when you take an honest look at your body in the mirror? Do your hips seem too wide or your chest too narrow? Do you feel ashamed that you’re not as perfectly proportioned as you would like to be? Your body image is the view you have of your own physical features. It includes the actual way you see yourself when you look at your reflection but even more importantly, the inner view you carry around about how you appear to others. It's one thing to think your appearance isn't quite up to snuff but what you may not realize is that when you’re dissatisfied with your body image, you can carry these negative self-perceptions into your relationships. Discomfort with your body can translate into discomfort with the sex you and your partner have. In turn, your partner may feel that you’re not happy with the relationship in general, and a vicious cycle becomes set into motion.

Researchers who study body image have long understood its relationship to overall feelings of identity. You are, after all, a physical being, and the awareness of how you look becomes intimately tied to your self-concept in general. To feel good about yourself, you need to feel good about your body, not just how you look when you’re dressed. When you do, you’ll be less inhibited with a partner who sees that body as it is, without the disguise provided by your clothing. According to Utrecht University’s Femke van den Brink and colleagues (2018), many adults who seek sex and couples therapy are unhappy with their physical appearance. They note that body image, in turn, is “consistently and meaningfully related to sexual satisfaction in both women and men."

The Dutch authors propose that the link between body image and sexual satisfaction can best be understood from the standpoint of objectification theory. Although originally applied to women alone, van den Brink et al. believe that it now applies to the experiences of both men and women. The focus on bodily appearance in the media, according to objectification theory, leads people to treat themselves as objects to be evaluated based on how they look, or what’s called “self-objectification.” The link between body image and sexual satisfaction occurs because “body self-consciousness during sexual activity with a partner can be distracting, thereby interfering with pleasure of the experience and sexual satisfaction." In other words, if you’re too busy thinking about how you look, especially if you are focusing on what’s wrong with your unclothed appearance, it will be difficult for you to experience the sensations involved in physical contact with your partner. Previous research also supports the link between body image and overall satisfaction through the “risk regulation model” in which people avoid “emotionally risky, relationship-enhancing behaviors" because they think those behaviors will lead to rejection. Fearing that your body looks ugly to your partner, you'll find excuses not to have sex.

There is research to support the body image/sexual satisfaction/relationship satisfaction link, but as van den Brink and colleagues note, none has been conducted using both members of the couple. The interdependency of romantic partners, they believe, must be taken into account because their views of themselves and each other can interact in important ways.

The 151 couples who completed the online questionnaire in the Dutch study ranged from 18 to 49 years old, with an average age of 22 for women and 24 for men. All were heterosexual, and in a committed relationship for at least 6 months. Van den Brink and her coauthors measured body image using 13-item scales developed for both men and women with such items as “I respect my body.” The body image scale for women focused on the idealized media images of women as thin, and for men on images of men as being muscular. A 28-item scale measured sexual satisfaction, also specifically directed at women vs. men. Women were asked “Do you find your sexual relationship with your partner satisfactory?” and men were asked “Do you enjoy having sexual intercourse with your partners?” A 6-item questionnaire assessed overall relationship satisfaction. The partners were also asked to report on the length of their relationship with their current partner.

The statistical method the authors used took advantage of the dyadic nature of the data based on the approach known as the “actor-partner interdependence model” or “APIM.” Using this model, the Dutch researchers were able to assess the impact of joint and separate body image and sexual satisfaction on the outcome measures of perceived relationship satisfaction for each partner.

Contrary to their prediction, the linkages from body image to sexual satisfaction to relationship satisfaction occurred primarily within the individual members of the couple while the dyadic effects were negligible. In addition, there were no gender differences, indicating that the negative effects of body image apply equally to men and women. This was notable, given that the majority of body image studies have been conducted on women, based on the assumption that men are less impacted by media portrayals of the ideal male physique. As the authors concluded, “A positive body image is equally important in shaping positive sexual and relational experiences for men and women." Moreover, the link between sexual and relational satisfaction was just as strong for women as for men, again running counter to the stereotype that women value emotional intimacy and men value physical intimacy.

The authors did note that they may not have captured the nuances associated with negative body image because their scale measured body acceptance on a single positive dimension. Had they tapped into negative body image, it is possible that dyadic effects may have been observed. Feelings of depression and stress associated with a negative body image could have affected the way the partners view the relationship even if lack of a positive body image did not. Further, the study’s measures didn’t tap whether partners express their body image concerns to each other. It would seem that knowing your partner’s body image is less than optimal could help you be more supportive of your partner’s engaging in what he or she perceives as the emotional risk of being seen by you during sex.

To sum up, the Dutch findings point to an important but overlooked component of relationship satisfaction. Being able to visualize your body in a positive manner may contribute in ways you hadn’t realized to the long-term fulfillment that comes from a sexually and emotionally satisfying relationship.

References

van den Brink, F., Vollmrann, M., Smeets, M. M., Hessen, D. J., & Woertman, L. (2018). Relationships between body image, sexual satisfaction, and relationship quality in romantic couples. Journal of Family Psychology, 32(4), 466-474.