Christie Brinkley and Billy Joel. Paulina Porizkova and Ric Ocasek. Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles. J.Lo and Marc Anthony.
What do these couples have in common, other than the fact that they’re all extremely famous? You guessed it: All four couples consist of a gorgeous woman who married — how to say this gently? — a man who was shortchanged in the looks department.
Maybe you’re thinking this isn’t so unusual. After all, there have been many instances in which beautiful women were attracted to men of wealth and power, regardless of what they looked like.
That’s all true, agreed Benjamin Karney, professor of social psychology and co-director of the Relationship Institute at UCLA. But the key factor in determining whether such "odd" couples are happy in their marriages seems to depend on the "relative attractiveness" between the man and the woman, he explained. His research suggests that in cases where attractive women are married to less attractive men, the chances for happiness are fairly high.
"The [less attractive] husbands seemed to be basically more committed, more invested in pleasing their wives when they felt that they were getting a pretty good deal. Because for men, the attractiveness of their wives is part of the deal," said Karney, who is also an adjunct behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation.
"For women, that’s not part of the deal. The deal that women get isn’t being with an attractive man. It’s being with a protective man, or a wealthy man, or an ambitious man, or even a sensitive man. So they didn’t care as much about the appearance of their husbands."
Karney began studying the interactions of 82 newlywed couples in their mid-20s while he was on faculty at the University of Florida. He continued his work after joining UCLA’s Department of Psychology in 2007 and published several papers on the study, including one that he co-wrote with colleagues from the University of Tennessee and the University of Toledo. That paper, "Beyond Initial Attraction: Physical Attractiveness in Newlywed Marriage," appeared in the Journal of Family Psychology.
"We know that physical attractiveness really matters when people are getting to know each other. There are decades of research [that show that] people who are physically attractive are treated very differently by strangers," Karney said. "We wanted to know, does it matter in a relationship, too? Being attractive is good, if someone doesn’t know you. But what about husbands and wives? Have they moved beyond physical attractiveness? Does it not matter anymore — or does it still kind of matter?"
In their study, Karney and his colleagues asked the newlywed couples to talk about personal issues. "We asked them, what are you doing in your life that you’re working on that you need help with? It could be anything from ‘I want to go back to school,’ or ‘I want a different job,’ or ‘I want a better relationship with my mom.’ Lots of different things."
The researchers would then leave the room, but would videotape the couples talking. They observed how effectively the couples talked about each other’s issues, noting that some couples acted liked a team in dealing with the problems, with both spouses actively involved.
"Some couples, not so much," Karney said wryly. "Some couples said, ‘Hey, you’ve got a problem? How is that my problem?’ Or some couples said, ‘You’ve got a problem. You know why? Because you’re doing something wrong.’ There are lots of ways to mess up that kind of interaction. Discussion is an opportunity, but not every couple takes advantage of that opportunity."
The researchers then sought to find out why some couples came together to solve problems, and why other couples didn’t. To do this, they trained a team of undergraduates to rate how physically attractive the couples were. The students were shown photos of the couples, one spouse at a time, and rated them on a scale of 1 to 9, where 9 was "a supermodel" and 1 was "a very unattractive person." The average score, not surprisingly, was 5.
One of the team’s findings, which was consistent with just about every other study done on attractiveness in couples, showed that both partners tended to be similar to each other, Karney said. In other words, attractive people tended to be married to other attractive people.
"What we wanted to know is, does how attractive you are — or how attractive your partner is — predict how much help you get, and how much help you give?" Karney said. "The first thing we looked at was the basic effect of each person’s attractiveness. We found that the husbands who were more attractive seemed to be less satisfied, even as newlyweds. And we wanted to know why."
Karney and his colleagues then started looking at the difference between the husbands’ and wives’ attractiveness and discovered something important. "We could look at them and say, ‘OK, these husbands are less attractive on an objective scale than their wives.’ The interesting thing is that those husbands were happier than the other husbands. And those husbands were more helpful. And they were more effective and more positive when helping their wives with their problems."
When studying the opposite occurrence — attractive men who had married less attractive women — the researchers found that the husbands were less satisfied in their marriages, and less helpful in the interactions with their wives.
"They were basically saying, ‘Huh, looks like I settled a little bit,’ " Karney said. "They were saying, ‘I’m more attractive than you, but I’m still with you.’ But they didn’t seem to be quite as motivated to help out their wives when they were more attractive than their wives."
What’s interesting is that the wives’ own attractiveness didn’t seem to matter — they were more affected by their husbands’ satisfaction, Karney noted. When their husbands were happy, the wives were happy, and when their husbands were unhappy, they were unhappy. They didn’t seem as responsive, or sensitive, to how attractive their husbands were.
"There are lots of reasons why people stay together, and lots of reasons why people are committed to each other," Karney said. "So it would be an exaggeration to say, ‘Well, no woman should ever marry a man who is more attractive than she is.’ But it is true that on average, when men are more attractive than their wives — in this sample, at least — it looks like they were less invested. Maybe because they knew that they might have more alternatives — better alternatives, potentially.
"Whereas the men who were with the attractive women said, ‘Woo hoo! I lucked out!’ "