According to research published in Personality and Individual Differences, a person’s level of commitment to their romantic relationship depends on how attractive they perceive their partner to be. But the study also found that people tended to feel less committed the more attractive their partners perceived themselves.
Romantic relationships enrich people’s lives in numerous ways, but they do not always last. An important ingredient to a successful long-term relationship is a person’s willingness to commit to their partner. Psychology studies have so far revealed that couples are more committed when they feel highly satisfied with their relationships and when they perceive alternative partners to be unappealing. The authors of the current study proposed another possible predictor of commitment — partner physical attractiveness.
“Since the beginning of my psychology studies, I was fascinated about the research involving romantic relationships. In particular, what brings two people together, how they influence each other and what factors make their relationship last,” said lead researcher Tita Gonzalez Avilés of the Friedrich-Schiller University in Jena, Germany.
“We know from previous research that physical attractiveness is an important and desirable characteristic in a potential mate, and thus, plays an important role in the initiation of a romantic relationship. However, less was known about its potential impact in established relationship: Is attractiveness linked to how much partners want to maintain their relationship and feel emotionally attached to it, i.e., how committed they are? And does similarity in attractiveness between partners play a role? We took a closer look at these questions.”
Since the physical attractiveness of one’s partner has been tied to better relationship satisfaction, Gonzalez Avilés and her team proposed that it should also play a role in commitment. To explore this, the researchers analyzed data from a larger longitudinal study among romantic couples residing in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland.
The researchers focused on data from the third wave of the study, which included 565 couples who had been together for an average of 9 years. Both partners completed surveys that measured commitment using 9 items (e.g., “I feel strongly connected to my partner”). They also rated their partner’s and their own attractiveness on a scale from 1 to 10.
An analysis of the data revealed that as ratings of partner attractiveness went up, so did commitment. In other words, the more respondents found their partners attractive, the more they felt committed to their relationships. Previous psychology findings might offer an explanation for this, having shown that attractiveness tends to coincide with positive qualities like good health, greater social influence, and job success. The benefits of these positive characteristics likely extend to the partners of attractive people, which could explain why people are drawn to attractive others and more motivated to stay in a relationship with them.
“People felt more committed to their romantic relationship, the more attractive they perceived their partners. As physical attractiveness is a desirable trait in a partner, being in a relationship with an attractive person is likely to be more desirable to maintain,” Gonzalez Avilés told PsyPost.
Next, the researchers unearthed an unexpected finding. While self-ratings of attractiveness were unrelated to a person’s own level of commitment, people with greater self-rated attractiveness had partners who were less committed to the relationship. In other words, a person’s commitment dropped the more their partner found his or herself to be attractive.
One explanation for this could be that people who feel more attractive behave differently around potential alternative partners. If this behavior is picked up on by a current partner, it could cause them to feel less committed to the relationship.
“Interestingly, high attractiveness was not unequivocally beneficial for commitment: The more attractive people perceived themselves, the lower their partners’ commitment to the relationship. People who perceive themselves as attractive may act differently in the presence of romantic alternatives, which could lower the partner’s commitment,” Gonzalez Avilés explained.
“Finally, although people perceived themselves as similar in attractiveness to their partner, perceived similarity was not associated with higher commitment. Similarity in attractiveness in romantic couples might not necessarily be driven by a preference but rather because people who are similar in attractiveness are more likely to meet. Thus, because any similarity in attractiveness would be the result of a passive rather than an active force, the consequences for commitment may be minimal.”
One limitation to the study was that attractiveness was scored using only a single item. Gonzalez Avilés and her colleagues mention that it would be interesting to see whether the relationship between attractiveness and commitment would remain if additional attractiveness ratings were included, such as independent ratings by others outside the couple.
“Future studies may benefit from testing whether the significant associations between partner’s attractiveness and commitment persists when these ratings are supplemented with alternative measures, such as third-party photo ratings of appearance. In addition, all findings are based on correlational data, so causal effects cannot be inferred,” Gonzalez Avilés said.
The researchers emphasize that attractiveness seemed to play a different role in commitment depending on whether attractiveness was self-rated or rated by a partner. They say this points to the importance of considering the perceptions of both members of a couple when studying intimate relationships. Notably, no sex differences were found for any of the above effects, suggesting that attractiveness plays a similar role in commitment among both men and women.
The study, “Committing to a romantic partner: Does attractiveness matter? A dyadic approach”, was authored by Tita Gonzalez Avilés, Robert P. Burriss, Rebekka Weidmann, Janina Larissa Bühler, Jenna Wünsche, and Alexander Grob.