Beauty and the Beast

This week I find myself thinking and writing once more about my late colleague Norval Glenn, a versatile and thorough scholar whose work will long outlive his physical presence. Norval held that the family was, and remains, a cornerstone of the social order and a central element in fostering the common good. Unlike many, he felt no particular compulsion to bow down to emerging sacred cows.

In preparing remarks for his memorial service several months ago, I stumbled across an article he wrote for SmartMarriages, an organization long popular among marital and family therapists. It was the kind of piece he wouldn’t get much credit for professionally, and yet it’s one of those contributions that tend to far outweigh a dry, academic journal article in its reach, impact, and importance. It was on “exogenous match quality,” or rather finding the right match in a potential spouse.

Ever the sociologist, Norval focused on the social stuff at stake when someone looks for a mate: the shifting market dynamics, the optimal settings for circulation of possible partners (in other words, where you’re most likely to meet the widest variety of people), and the risk of premature entanglements (that is, going too far too fast). One of his conclusions made me smile: “The most stable and successful marriages are likely to be those in which the spouses are substantially more desirable to each other than they are to most other people.” That’s a nice way of saying that it’s a great thing when two people love each other far more than anybody else ever would. We can all think of numerous examples where instead of a “10” marrying another “10,” a 3 will marry a 4 (but see each other as 8’s).

It’s fair to say that—for all our pious jabbering about being attuned to other, “higher” criteria for our spouses—Christians really don’t contest the top priority many give to comparative physical attractiveness. Christians and non-Christians alike tend to marry at or near “their level” of attraction, neither scoring someone “out of their league” nor dipping too far down into the barrel. It’s a very human thing, and a permanent trait in the marriage market. Don’t feel you have to apologize for it. But nor should you deny that it’s true.

My discussion of marital mentalities in Premarital Sex in America hints that Norval was onto something. In Chapter 6, I explore not only who marries young, but who divorces young, and why. Wouldn’t you know it—physical attractiveness plays a part. Attractive mates are the most apt to wonder whether they “settled” too easily and too early, especially given their own (presumed) recognition of their continued elevated value in the wider mating market. Thus, predictably, more beauties than beasts opt out of marriage and back into the pool. Although only 9 percent of young-adult men in the sample reported being divorced (by age 24), 19 percent of the most attractive men—rated as such by themselves and the interviewer—were divorced. The same pattern is present but weaker among women, which makes sense: as I’ve stated elsewhere, women are in a structurally weaker position in today’s mating market, and comparative physical attractiveness is typically not quite as big a deal to women as to men. I talk about why that is in Chapter 3 of Premarital Sex in America. (Tune into this blog long enough, and you’re sure to hear more about sexual economics.)

Of course, we can’t determine for sure whether attractiveness really contributes to divorce, or whether perhaps divorcees consider themselves more attractive (or immature or self-centered or independent, all variables that are similarly related to young divorce) for some reason. Being rejected, of course, might conceivably contribute to perceiving oneself as unattractive. This interpretive challenge is one of the many “which came first” puzzles that social scientists wrestle with.  But where we saw one, we were more apt to see the other. So, think twice before publicly tweeting, posting, or saying silly stuff about your smokin’ hot wife (or husband). Everybody knows smokin’ is risky behavior.


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