Although there has been much psychological research on the effects of physical attractiveness in the initial formation of romantic relationships, much less attention has been given to the role of attractiveness in an established relationship such as marriage.
To examine this issue, James K. McNulty, Lisa A. Neff, and Benjamin R. Karney conducted a study that investigated the role of physical attractiveness in recently wed couples.
Their results were published in the Journal of Family Psychology in 2008.
In their study, 82 heterosexual couples who had been married within the last six months individually completed a questionnaire and also participated in a video-recorded interaction in which they discussed a personal problem with their spouse.
Trained research assistants then rated the levels of facial attractiveness and marital interaction behavior of each spouse in the videotape.
Overall, there was no evidence found that being more attractive provided any benefits to marriage. That is, couples who were both rated as more attractive were not any more satisfied with their marriage than couples who were both rated as less attractive.
What was important, though, was the difference in attractiveness between the two spouses.
“Although more attractive wives behaved more constructively during social support interactions with their husbands, more attractive husbands behaved less constructively and were less satisfied with their marriages,” explained McNulty and his colleagues.
But how did wives behave when their husbands were more attractive than them? Surprisingly, they tended to behave more negatively towards their husband than women who had husband who were less attractive than them.
In other words, what seemed to best predict both husbands and wives displaying positive marital behavior was wives being more attractive than their husbands.
According to McNulty and his colleagues, this may be because “attractive men have available to them more short-term mating opportunities which may make them less satisfied and less committed to maintain the marital relationship through their behavior.”
In addition, women with husbands who are more attractive than them may behave more negatively towards their attractive husband because of his own lack of positive marital behaviors.
“Because physical attractiveness is less important to wives, in contrast, relative attractiveness may only affect them through its effect on husbands. That is, because the satisfaction and behavior of husbands’ should positively predict the satisfaction and behavior of wives, less attractive wives’ may be less satisfied and behave more negatively in response to their more attractive husbands.”
The findings of the study suggest that what is most important in an established relationship is not the absolute level of attractiveness of ones partner, but his or her relative attractiveness.
“Whereas the attractiveness of two individuals may have independent effects on their relationship when they first meet, the relationship between their levels of attractiveness may have the greater impact on the relationship as partners grow interdependent.”
McNulty, J.K., Neff, L.A. & Karney, B.R. (2008). Beyond initial attraction: physical attractiveness in newlywed marriage. Journal of Family Psychology, Vol 22, No 1: 135-143.