Research reveals several pitfalls, but one important exception.
Do you have your eye on a potential partner? Do you believe she (or he) is much more attractive than you are? If so, you may want to give your pursuit a second thought: A variety of research suggests that couples who do not match one another in their approximate levels of physical attractiveness tend to have less successful romantic relationships.
Research suggests that partners who match one another in physical attractiveness—two moderately attractive, highly attractive, or unattractive individuals—are more likely to stay together over the long term than couples who are less similar in attractiveness (Feingold, 1988). Although we generally find particular good-looking individuals to be attractive, we also (correctly if not consciously) intuit that we will have a more successful relationship if our partner matches our own level of physical attractiveness (Montoya, 2008). Therefore, we are more likely to initiate and try to maintain a relationship with a potential partner who matches our own level of physical attractiveness (Ha et al., 2010; Shaw Taylor et al., 2011).
When I was a child, my father used to sing us a song which went, “If you want to be happy for the rest of your life, never make a pretty woman your wife…” (Soul, 1963). My brothers and I thought this song was funny, so my father often sang it to us. With the lyrics in mind—and the relevant research in hand—my colleagues and I examined this phenomenon ourselves (Fugère et al., 2015). We investigated women’s perceptions of their own physical attractiveness as well as perceptions of their partners’ physical attractiveness and their self-reported levels of commitment and flirting, and their thoughts about breaking up. We found that most women reported that they perceived their partners to be similar to themselves in levels of physical attractiveness, or even slightly more attractive—potentially exhibiting “partner enhancement” or “positive illusions” (see Morry et al., 2010; Conley et al., 2009). More important, women who viewed themselves as being more attractive than their partner reported being less committed to their current relationship, and reported considering more appealing alternative partners. They also engaged in more flirting with other men and thought more about breaking up with their current partner. Other research suggests that mismatched couples may have shorter relationships due to increased jealousy on the part of the less attractive partner (Swami et al., 2012).
Why Do We Enter Into Mismatched Relationships?
While writing about our research, a reporter from The Daily Mail asked us why women might choose to be involved in relationships with men who are not as good looking as they are. We did not investigate why women initiate such relationships, but there are several reasons why women might choose to date partners who are not as attractive as themselves:
- We of course often date other people for reasons besides physical attraction; perhaps these women dated their partners because they found them to be intelligent, wealthy, or witty.
- When we begin a relationship, we tend to see our partners positively and tend not to see their negative qualities for a few months (Sprecher, 2001). It is possible that these women didn’t focus on a mismatch in physical attractiveness until they were already deeply involved in the relationship.
- Some individuals have an insecure attachment style, always desiring to have a partner and feeling uncomfortable when they are single (Hazan and Shaver, 1987). It is possible that these women considered any relationship to be better than no relationship.
An Exception to the Rule
Although most research shows that we tend to date others who we perceive as similar to us in physical attractiveness, recent research by Hunt et al. (2015) shows an exception to this tendency: If couples begin dating soon after meeting, they are more likely to match one another in attractiveness, but if couples have known one another for a long time before they begin dating, they are less likely to match one another in physical attractiveness. If you have a long friendship before you begin dating, then, physical attractiveness may be less important to relationship initiation or maintenance.