A study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found evidence that people with low body image have less satisfying relationships partly because they project their insecurities about their bodies onto their partners. This bias was most evident among women, with women who felt less attractive tending to think their partners were less attracted to them, and in turn, reporting lower relationship and sexual satisfaction.
The study was motivated by evidence that people with low body image tend to have less satisfying relationships. Study authors Allanah Hockey and her team proposed that this effect might be explained by a thought pattern called a “projection bias”, whereby people assume that others share the same thoughts and beliefs as they do.
The researchers conducted two studies, the first one among 197 heterosexual couples who had been together for an average of 2.88 years. Both members of the couples completed separate questionnaires assessing their own body satisfaction and relationship satisfaction. They also rated the attractiveness of their partners’ body type and appearance. Finally, each partner rated the extent that they believe they match their partners’ ideal standards of attractiveness.
First, there was evidence of a self-related projection bias — the less women and men found themselves attractive, the less they believed their partners found them attractive, too. Interestingly, this projection bias appeared to affect women’s relationship satisfaction, but not men’s. Women with lower body image had lower relationship satisfaction, through the belief that their partner was also unsatisfied with their body. Furthermore, women who believed their partner was attracted to them reported more satisfying relationships, regardless of how attractive they found their partner.
For men, the extent that they believed their partners were attracted to them was unrelated to their relationship satisfaction. Instead, the extent that men found their partners attractive was the best predictor of men’s relationship satisfaction.
In a second study, Hockey and her team recruited 97 heterosexual couples, with an average relationship length of 3.91 years. This time, the researchers took participants’ weight into account, given that weight can affect body image and satisfaction. The study included a measure of body mass index (BMI) as well as sexual satisfaction.
In line with the first study’s findings, women who believed their partners were more attracted to them had greater relationship and sexual satisfaction. Next, although women with higher BMIs tended to believe their partners were less attracted to them, women’s BMI was not significantly tied to their partners’ level of attraction to them. As the study authors say, this suggests that “women’s weight was not central to their partner’s attraction to them.” However, women with higher BMI had lower relationship and sexual satisfaction through the perception that their partners were less attracted to them.
For men, body image was not related to the extent they believed their partners found them attractive. It was also not tied to their or their partners’ relationship or sexual satisfaction. However, the extent that they felt their partners were attracted to them, and the extent that they were attracted to their partners, were both positively tied to men’s relationship and sexual satisfaction.
“Together, these results suggest that women’s attraction to their partner is potentially of less importance to their relationship and sexual satisfaction than how they feel about their own body, whereas for men, attraction to their partner is central to relationship and sexual satisfaction,” Hockey and colleagues say.
The authors note that their research was cross-sectional, and causality between variables could not be explored. However, the findings reveal interesting relationships. “We find that women’s (but not men’s) assumptions about their bodies are linked to how they think their partner perceives them . . . Similarly, women’s (but not men’s) relationship satisfaction is strongly associated with their perceptions of their partner’s attraction to them, again, showing that women’s relationship quality is perhaps inextricably linked to a focus on partner evaluations.”
The study, “Body Image Projection Bias in Heterosexual Romantic Relationships: A Dyadic Investigation”, was authored by Allanah Hockey, Caroline L. Donovan, Nickola Christine Overall, and Fiona Kate Barlow.