A wise man (with amazing hair) once crooned “don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”. The statement’s intended interpretation is that we often take for granted the positive characteristics of our romantic partners up until the moment the relationship is lost.
But is it possible that there are some things we do know we have before we’ve lost them, and that we go out of our way to hang on tight? In a recent study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Joshua Oltmanns, Patrick Markey, and Juliana French hypothesized just that. Specifically, they argued that people in relationships are especially in tune how their own physical attractiveness stacks up relative to their partner.1 And when an individual perceives their partner is the relatively more attractive one, they will do things, subtly and not so subtly, to keep their hotter partner all to themselves.
The researchers recruited 73 heterosexual couples from Villanova University and asked couple members to independently complete a measure of mate retention behavior. Specifically, each couple member indicated (a) the extent to which their partner did things that are designed to keep them (the reporting partner) from thinking they can leave the relationship, or what is referred to as intersexual manipulation, and (b) the extent to which their partners did things that are meant to keep other people from thinking they can or should steal or ‘poach’ their partner, or what is referred to as intrasexual manipulation. Intersexual manipulation included negative things like telling their partners they couldn’t find a better partner or trying to make their partner jealous, and positive things like showing love and care for a partner or making an effort to look better. Intrasexual manipulation included acting very possessive of their partner when around others and bad-mouthing thee partner around others (to make their partner appear less attractive). The research team also took several photographs of each couple member and separately asked 12 judges to rate the attractiveness of each individual on a scale from 1 to 7 (i.e., from not to hot).
In general, more attractive people reported their partners displayed more inter- and intra-sexual mate retention tactics than did less attractive partners. In other words, the more attractive you are, them more your partner does things to keep you around. How nice of them, right? And what about when judges rated one partner as relatively more attractive than the other? In those relationships, the less attractive partner was particularly likely to engage in intrasexual manipulation – for example, a male who was rated as less attractive than his female partner was more likely to badmouth is partner around other males. Relatively less attractive women did the same types of things.
Although people can and do often take their partners for granted, this research suggests that there are some characteristics that are simply too hard to overlook. People generally value having a physically attractive partner, but that attractiveness potentially creates insecurity for a relatively less attractive individual so they try to protect their partners by messing with how other people might view their hotter counterpart.
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1Oltmanns, J. R., Markey, P. M., & French, J. E. (2017). Dissimilarity in physical attractiveness within romantic dyads and mate retention behaviors. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 34, 565–577.
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