As the old 1963 Jimmy Soul song advises, “If you wanna be happy for the rest of your life / never make a pretty woman your wife / so for my personal point of view / get an ugly girl to marry you.” While the notion was soon denounced for being retrograde, shallow, lookist and sexist — and the song itself would eventually be banned from the radio — the idea that pretty women are trouble has stuck with us culturally. New research confirms that more attractive people may actually have trouble staying in long-term relationships—but it’s just as true for men as it is for women.
Psychologist Christine Ma-Kellams at the University of California, Santa Cruz, recently published a study of four experiments in the journal Personal Relationships that found a link between being attractive and marriage length, Broadly reported. The four experiments found that men’s faces rated as more attractive (by independent coders) in two high school yearbooks from the ‘70s and ‘80s had briefer marriages; actors and actresses rated more attractive were married for less time; people rated more attractive who are in exclusive relationships tend to show more interest when presented with other potential relationship options; and when you make someone feel more attractive (by showing them pictures of less attractive people), they, too, will show more interest in other attractive people.
“I think attractiveness gives you more options in terms of relationship alternatives, which might make it harder to protect a relationship from outside threats,” Ma-Kellams told Broadly. “In this sense, having too many other choices is likely not beneficial for relationship longevity.”
The idea here is that if you don’t think you’re too hot to trot, you’re likely more invested in doing the work relationships require rather than ditching for sunnier pastures. But there are a few caveats here, which Ma-Kellams notes in the study. With the high school yearbook ratings, they were looking at pictures of 17- and 18-year old men — faces only — with no clear sense of how good looking they were later, or how well they aged.
With the other experiments, people were simply shown photographs of other attractive people, not interacting in any way. So though it’s worth noting that, depressingly, while just looking at other hot people may be all it takes to make you perk up about a new romantic avenue, that doesn’t mean the people in those photographs are an actual threat — or that, in the end, you wouldn’t be motivated to make your existing hot-person relationship work.
However, what isn’t hard to understand here is that good-looking people have more options in the sexual marketplace, and when you have more options, you may not always think it’s worth doing the tedious, boring work of making a real relationship with another human last for the long haul. Why would you? There is always another hot person right outside, ready to give this thing a shot.
The idea of too many choices being a bummer instead of a boon isn’t new, either — the paradox of choice idea from Barry Schwartz argues that, at least on a consumer level, too much choice can be bad. The famous experiment involved consumers having 24 jars of jam to choose from versus six. Those staring down 24 options had more anxiety not just over picking one jam, but also with being happy with that choice later. The idea has since been criticized — new studies have found that no one likes just one option, either. And some research has shown that having a lot of choice is great when you know exactly what you want.
But back to that Jimmy Soul song. Another lyric in the song — “ An ugly woman cooks her meals on time / She’ll always give you peace of mind,” suggests that a woman who has fewer options and less beauty capital is going to be more invested in your happiness, more interested in pleasing you. We can assume this is because, ostensibly, she’s actually grateful to have you.
We never know how good looking the man in the Jimmy Soul song is, but Ma-Kellams’ research found no significant difference in gender in her research, meaning that women looking for long-term security would do just as well to not marry a looker, either. The less-attractive man may realize he needs to stay attentive and invested to keep a woman, too. (If you’re both hot, you’re both going to be equally threatened by other options, it would seem.)
Though dating and finding a mate is its own consumerist marketplace, it’s hard to say whether the paradox of choice research applies to mate choices, but there’s some logic to it: Part of settling down is about knowing what you want, picking the best option and committing to it, after surveying the scene of what’s out there. Other people may always come and go, but in the end, most people realize that believing the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence is a self-defeating attitude toward love (if you want it to last).
As philosophy professor Ruth Change once argued about picking between two options, committing to something and sticking with it confers value on it. In other words, by choosing someone, you are saying they are worth choosing. All you really have to do, then, is choose your choice, commit to having made it, and stop constantly wondering if there’s a better option out there. That’s apparently only easier said than done though if you’re not super hot, which in the end, is good news for most of the rest of us.