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Can Beauty Hurt Your Odds of Having a Good Marriage?

Beauty as a social handicap

I am not saying that all beautiful people have bad relationships and less successful marriages. Research and common sense suggest that beautiful people probably have a greater number of choices when choosing a mate. Beauty also confers other clear advantages. Physical beauty can pave a smoother path in life—beautiful people are sometimes given opportunities that others don't have, and are let off the hook more easily when they behave badly (“don't hate me because I'm beautiful”).*

It's hard to say this any better than Julian Fellowes does in his novel Snobs:

“Of the four great gifts that the fairies may or may not bring to the christening—Brains, Birth, Beauty, and Money—it is Beauty that makes locked doors spring open at a touch. Whether it is for a job interview, a place at a dining table, a brilliant promotion or a lift on the motorway, everyone, regardless of their sex or sexual proclivity, would always rather deal with a good-looking face. And no one is more aware of this than the Beauties themselves. They have a power that they simultaneously respect and take for granted."**

With the greater number of partners available to them, do the most beautiful among us have the best chance for a successful marriage? Perhaps not. Even though the Hollywood set appears to have won the genetic lottery, the failure to create sustainable marriages is painfully apparent within this starry tribe.

With a few notable exceptions, which everyone points to as exceptions to the rule, like the marriage of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, a good marriage seems to be particularly elusive among exceptionally attractive people in the media. There are no doubt multiple reasons for the failure of so many Hollywood marriages - could beauty be one of them? Could be it that beauty in itself might actually may be a disadvantage to forming a successful marriage in some ways?

In my book, Marriage, for Equals: The Successful Joint (Ad)Ventures of Well-Educated Couples, I discussed the ways in which an untreated trauma history chums the water for the psychopathic sharks in the dating pool. That is, those with a history of trauma are more likely to attract abusive individuals. In the same way, physical beauty chums the water for those in the dating pool with a variety of negative traits. For example…

• Those who seek shallow sexual-economic transactions instead of a loving, respectful relationship

• Those who are more likely to treat a person as a possession

• Those who seek to display external signs of success to make up for a rather rotten core self

• Those whose eyes are riveted to beauty and who may be vulnerable to “trading up” for ever more beautiful spouses as the previous ones age

This last category of individuals brings to mind a young couple I once met on an airplane. When this newly engaged couple learned that I was studying newlywed marriage, they spontaneously began to share their love story with me. Their courtship had been short, a six-month whirlwind sparked by stormy-eyed feelings of mutual attraction. I asked each of them what had led them to fall in love with the other person. The response I heard from the young man was very troubling.

He said: “Because she's the hottest woman in the room in every room we go into…she's a lingerie model.”

This statement made his fiancée glow with happiness. Dark clouds were forming in my mind, and I thought about this conversation long after that brief interaction. In trying to put my finger on what was so unsettling about that statement, I realized that I can't think of any 60-year-old lingerie models. If marriage is to be forever, it cannot be based on something so shallow. What sounded like a compliment to his fiancée was, to my mind, an ominous statement about a relationship built on a foundation of shifting sand.

At some point, this beautiful young woman certainly will not be the most beautiful woman in the room any longer, and the husband who married her for this reason will be drawn to whoever upstages her as she ages. Even if she were to continue being the hottest woman in the room, defying all odds and the realities of the aging process, a man so influenced by physical beauty will usually have a keen eye for novelty (i.e. beauty as it takes form in a sequence of new partners). Along these lines, those who rely on their looks to hold onto their partners are playing a losing game.

Further, possessing extremely good looks confers some unfortunate psychological challenges. For example, the most beautiful people are often the most insecure of all. Like a person who is flush with material wealth, the possessors of great beauty often struggle with questions about why people seek them out and what people are really after when they form relationships with them. They often ask themselves whether their friends are true friends or whether they are attaching themselves—by way of an entourage—because of their obvious physical beauty.

In fact, some research supports the idea that physical beauty does not lead to higher self-confidence.*** Great beauty is a form of social capital, yet when others respond to it as such, great beauty may put people at higher risk of failing to develop strong character. No doubt, some people are truly beautiful, inside and out. For others, however, if rewards in life come fairly easily, the hard work of managing disappointment and coping with negative emotions may be somewhat stunted.

Perhaps this is why the most beautiful among us are also more likely to have a “spoiled child” element in their personalities—that is, an expectation that their wishes will be granted with little opposition, resulting in an acute coping crisis (an adult tantrum) when their desires are not met. Those who frequently indulge in adult tantrums do not generally inspire love and affection in their mates.

Related to this, self-absorption and narcissism may also be occupational hazards of the beautiful life. Those with these character traits and behaviors may inspire lust in their partner’s eyes, but reflections of love and respect will be much more elusive. While they may desire to have a loving relationship with their partners, they lack the foundation of good character to achieve this.

So, although it might seem counter-intuitive to make the argument that beauty is a social handicap, when we consider the multiple potential effects of beauty on relationships, it is quite possible that in many cases, it may actually lead to some unique disadvantages for creating a successful and lasting marriage.

*Etcoff, N. (2000). Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

**Fellowes, J. (2004). Snobs. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, pp. 106-107.

***Abbott, A.R. and Sebastian, R.J. (1981). "Physical attractiveness and expectations of success." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 7, 481-486.