The poet Khalil Gibran once said “Beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart.” Which we all know, don’t we? After all, there are enough clichés out there to remind us that ‘beauty is only skin deep,’ and ‘it’s what’s inside that counts’. Which are wonderful messages. They are empowering, and equalising and... oh my goodness, will you look at that, there’s a stunning woman over there with a really short, fat man old enough to be her father. I bet he’s filthy rich. Sorry, what were we saying? Oh yes, true beauty is reflected in the soul, the rest is just window dressing... Except that’s not really true, is it?
The expressions ‘punching above your weight’ and ‘out of one’s league’ have always bothered me in their casual offensiveness. The implication being that we all have a level that we are allowed to aim for, and if we set our sights a little higher, in our choice of career, lifestyle, or partner, then we should consider ourselves really lucky if we pull it off.
In 1966 psychologist Elaine Hatfield proposed a theory called The Matching Hypothesis that put forward the idea that when making dating and mating choices, people will choose someone of their own level of desirability, both socially and aesthetically. Over the years, the matching hypothesis, or matching phenomenon, has come to be used specifically when talking about balancing physical attractiveness. Social psychologists have since suggested that a person can compensate for a lack of physical attractiveness by having other advantageous qualities – a fabulous personality, status, money and charm, to name but a few – this is called ‘complex matching’.
Traditionally, when men enjoyed greater commercial success and financial freedom than women, it was a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a jaw-droppingly gorgeous wife – I’m paraphrasing Jane Austen here, but the message is centuries old – if you’re not considered conventionally handsome or beautiful, you’d better make pretty sure that you have other desirable traits to save you from a lifetime of loneliness. In Austen’s time, a good match was judged on the woman’s comeliness and the width of the gentleman’s wallet. She sought a social identity through her husband’s familial connections, earning potential and social standing, while he sought a nurturing wife that would bear him strong, healthy, handsome children. Which leads us neatly to evolution theory. We can’t possibly have a debate about the role beauty plays in relationships without dragging Darwin into it. He was the first to put forward a theory about mate selection in 1871, and various social psychologists have picked up his baton since. The theory goes that people are basically machines programmed to be attracted to mate and continue the human race. Attractiveness indicates good health and fertility and it’s apparently instinctive for both men and women to choose a mate who possess traits that signify an enhanced genetic quality – thereby giving their offspring an evolutionary advantage.
Of course, this all happens subconsciously. When you start talking to a man at a party, it’s doubtful these thoughts are going to be running through your mind. Casual relationships are much more likely to be based on immediate sexual attraction, as your body instinctively reacts to feelings of desire with a cocktail of chemicals – phenylethylamine, dopamine and oxytocin – are released into your brain, your pupils dilate, your heart rate increases and your blood pressure rises. But when we are choosing a life partner, our logical wish list of desirable traits is longer and less focused on looks.
Anna Yates, psychotherapist and hypnotherapist at Elite Mind Solutions, says, “Beauty might be important initially – feeling attracted to someone who is physically or socially compatible to us is almost inbuilt, but falling in love with someone purely because of what they look like shows a certain immaturity. As we age, our experiences and needs at that time shape what we’re looking for in a partner and good looks fall further down the list, replaced instead with dependability, kindness, humour and understanding.”
In for the long run
Exposure and familiarity are breeding grounds for romance to blossom, which is why so many couples start off as friends, or work colleagues. The more time we spend with someone, the more we get to know their humour and their quirks, and we start to see them as a life partner. In these cases, romance and love is built on frequent contact, not immediate attraction, and psychologists say this usually results in relationships that are longer lasting and more satisfying.
Dr Raymond Hamden, clinical and forensic psychologist at the Human Relations Institute and Clinics in Dubai explains that while it is a universal principle that attraction comes first, “the sustainability of a relationship is down to commitment, a shared mission statement in life and appreciation of uniqueness and boundaries. Looks may be the first point of attraction that encourages people to communicate, which in turn builds trust, intimacy, willingness to experience vulnerability with each other, and friendship.”
Thinking about this concept more over the past few years turned into the theme of my first novel, Very Nearly Perfect, where two perfectly matched teenagers meet and fall in love, and then lose touch, only to reunite 20 years later. In those two decades apart, Will has developed a devastating set of cheekbones, and Jayne has cultivated an incredible sense of humour, an inspiring demeanour and is basically rather fun to be around. But in the eyes of contemporary society, eyebrows are raised and whispers of ‘why on earth is he with her?’ provide a permanent backing track to their relationship. When he becomes an internet sensation, it’s not just friends who are wondering what he sees in her, it’s seemingly the whole world.
So what happens if your personalities are perfectly matched, as are your interests, hobbies and sense of fun, in fact you couldn’t be more perfect together, apart from the fact you’re a 10 and he’s dwindling somewhere around the four mark? Or what if he’s turning heads while you’re languishing in his perfectly formed shadow? It’s not necessarily the actual aesthetic imbalance that causes problems, says Prof Madeleine Fugère, but rather when the person becomes aware of it. She led a team of researchers at Eastern Conneticut University in a study that asked 692 women in romantic relationships with men a series of questions about attraction. She says, “We found that when women perceive themselves as more attractive than their mates they are less satisfied with their current relationships and tend to seek alternative – possibly more attractive – partners.”
Dr Hamden agrees that such relationships can face difficulties: “When people actively seek out a partner who is more attractive than them – a trophy wife or husband – this often leads to an unsustainable relationship. Like a trophy, they are only taken down to be shown off, and then put back when they are not needed.”
When the tables turn
Common sense tells us that growing old with a person naturally dictates that looks will change over time and the smooth-faced charmer with a six pack we’re sharing our breakfast table with today will one day be a charmer with a paunch, grey hair and wrinkles.
However, there is another side to this – what about people who have chosen their partners because they are a safe option; they are not going to be chased down streets by lust-struck strangers, and there’s no need to worry about their fidelity. What will happen if the ‘safe’ partner then loses a drastic amount of weight or undergoes plastic surgery?
A major part of Dr Hamden’s therapy work is with clients who are about to undergo gastric-bypass surgery. “I help them, and often their partners, become better acquainted with their real selves and sense of self-worth. The research we’ve done since the surgery first started in the 1970s shows that 98 per cent of people who undergo it have difficulties in their relationships post-surgery. The relationship is no longer balanced, if both partners started off overweight, and one is now slim and considered by society to be more conventionally attractive, this can introduce feelings of insecurity, and completely eschew the dynamics of a relationship – not just with spouses, but often children and wider family and friends too. A change of body image can have a monumental effect on how those close to you now view you, and interact with you.”
The good news is there’s no universal rule of what constitutes beauty. “People are attracted to different things – we’re not born with a predetermined idea of what’s beautiful – our family’s ideals, film stars, celebrities, all play a role in forming our sense of what’s attractive,” says Mind Solutions’ Yates.
Through our unique social conditioning we devise our own set of ideals, but one thing’s for sure, if you’ve selected your long-term partner based purely on animal magnetism, then be prepared that finding things to chat about over your tea and toast in 30 years time might be a little tricky…