If your boyfriend ranks lower on the "attractiveness scale" than you do, is he more likely to stay faithful? Conventional wisdom says yes. It assumes that less attractive people have fewer opportunities to stray, and that the "less hot" partners in relationship will feel so fortunate to be dating "out of their league" that they'll stay true out of gratitude, if nothing else. While there's very little research on how an "attractiveness disparity" in a relationship intersects with the propensity to be unfaithful, what does exist suggests our assumptions may be all wrong.
"I'm a 7. He's a 4. How could he cheat on me?" Over the phone, Betsy sounded as confused as she was angry. Her boyfriend of two years had just confessed to an ongoing affair, and was now begging for forgiveness. In addition to being unsure whether the relationship was worth trying to salvage, my friend was mystified. For Betsy to call herself an "7" on the attractiveness scale would come across to most as grotesque false modesty. A gorgeous 36 year-old advertising executive, she'd been cheated on by Will, 38, whose resemblance to Paul Giamatti (at his schlumpiest) was striking.
"I assumed he'd never cheat on me," she said. Leery of inordinately handsome men (the sort that most would say were her aesthetic equal), Betsy had been relieved to find herself drawn to the funny, talented, but in the eyes of most, decidedly unsexy Will. "My calculus did involve his not being super-attractive," she admitted; "at least partly because of how he looked, I took his fidelity for granted." With the sexes reversed, dating Will was her way of following Jimmy Soul's famous advice to the effect that "if you want to be happy for the rest of your life, never make a pretty woman your wife."
I shared Betsy's story with the New Inquiry's Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, who recently completed a remarkable three-part series on beauty and infidelity. In the second installment, Whitefield-Madrano examines what little research has been done on how looks –- our own, our partners', and those of the people we cheat with -– impact a decision to be unfaithful. The paucity of studies on the subject is less from lack of interest, she explains, than from the notorious difficulty of assessing something as subjective as attractiveness in social science research. "You can only really study perceptions of beauty and how it drives behavior," she says, "and even then we don't have much." (One study Whitefield-Madrano cites includes this gem: "in our sample, men judged their wife (sic) to be significantly more attractive than did the interviewers." Aww.)
Betsy's assumption that a man who was conscious that he "ranked" below his girlfriend on the attractiveness scale would be less inclined to stray is a familiar one, Whitefield-Madrano points out, but one about which the research itself is inconclusive. While one 2008 study found that heterosexual marital happiness was maximized when the wife was presumed to be hotter than her husband, the data came from a mere 82 couples, each married less than six months. That doesn't tell us much about how the "beauty disparity" impacts long-term relationships.
What the research does show, Whitefield-Madrano points out, is that men who know their female partners are more attractive they are tend to increase their "mate retention efforts." These strategies run the gamut from the nice (being more lovingly attentive) to the abusive (hyper-jealous attempts at control, violence, and what the authors of this study charmingly call "mate concealment.") As she puts it, "getting into a relationship with a man who thinks you're better-looking than he thinks he is carries risk." Part of that risk is the greater likelihood of negative "retention efforts" -– and part of that risk is the false sense of security that an unlovely man will either have fewer opportunities or fewer reasons to cheat.
It's axiomatic that women are raised to believe that beauty has tremendous power. It's one thing to know intellectually that "looks can't buy happiness," but the rewards of beauty seem so profound and so ubiquitous that it's easy to buy into the idea that beauty is leverage. That leverage is relative, which is why Betsy –- who thinks of herself as a "7" –- assumed that her attractiveness would be strong enough to at least keep a "4" faithful. She might have been less certain of her chances with a man who was her aesthetic equal.
Betsy's "calculus" had two flaws. First, it assumed that male infidelity is largely a function of opportunity. She assumed that a good-looking mate would be more likely to stray merely because he could, and that a less-desirable dude wouldn't because he couldn't. Second, she didn't consider the particular way in which less attractive men may crave a sexual affirmation that they very rarely get. A man who knows he's hot may be a narcissist, but the hotter he is the more likely he gets validated for it. The good-looking guy knows that fidelity is a choice; he's presumably aware of his options. When faced with temptation, he can tell himself "I know I could if I wanted to, so why bother proving it, risking this great thing I have?"
On the other hand, the man who doesn't see himself as good-looking is supposed to judge himself astoundingly fortunate to have ended up with a beautiful woman. That can lead – as Betsy assumed it would — to gratitude, but it can also lead to a destructive, ego-driven curiosity. Is this woman who has fallen for me an anomaly, or am I really more attractive than I imagined? Can lightning strike twice? Who else can I pull?
The end result is that "less attractive" men may have additional incentive (but of course, not justification) to cheat. It may be a pathetic excuse for dishonesty, but the unlovely dude's particular set of potential insecurities do deserve to be factored in to the algorithm of infidelitousness. And whatever constellation of factors you use to pick a partner, leave out the false presumption that a homely guy will never stray.
Image via ollyy/Shutterstock.