Beginning with Goffman in 1952, psychologists have been convinced that people have a strong tendency to choose partners whose physical attractiveness is equal to their own, leading to the so-called “matching hypothesis.”
Many people think Sting and his wife, Trudi Styler, look a lot alike. The couple has been together since 1982, were married in 1992, and have 4 children. This is perhaps an unusual amount of longevity for a celebrity relationship.
Now James McNulty of the University of Tennessee and his colleagues have challenged that notion. They argue that most of the matching hypothesis work focuses on new relationships, but that the longer satisfaction of couples as a function of relative attractiveness is poorly understood. Instead of looking at new couples, McNulty et al.’s participants had been married within the last six months, but had been together for nearly 3 years.
The 82 couples were asked to discuss a personal problem with their partners for 10 minutes, and videotapes were rated to determine how supportive participants were of their partners’ goals, such as eating healthier, exercising more, or finding a new job.
Raters also evaluated the participants for facial attractiveness, and found that in about one third of the couples, the husband was more attractive. In another third, the wife was more attractive, and in the remaining third, the husband and wife were about equally attractive (we might consider these the “matching” group).
When wives were more attractive than their husbands, they behaved quite well. However, when husbands were more attractive than their wives, both behaved rather badly.
The data supported the following conclusion by the authors:
“In sum, these results suggest that it is less relevant to the satisfaction and behavior of married couples that spouses be attractive on an absolute scale or similarly attractive to each other as it is that wives be more attractive than their husbands.”
Although McNulty et al. are concerned that matching only works at first, G.L. White (1980) found that couples who were matched in physical attractiveness were most likely to still be together nine months later .
In my experience, the happiest couples I know are those who actually look like they go together. Participants have no difficulty matching the photo of a wife they don’t know with her real husband out of a choice of four men’s photographs. I must admit that I always thought Mr F was WAY better looking than I ever was, but many people mistake us for brother and sister.
1. White, G. L. (1980). Physical attractiveness and courtship progress. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 660-668.