Today we navigate the thorny territory of physical attractiveness and what happens when you feel like you’re just not attracted anymore. The answer to this dilemma is maybe not what you would expect!
So you’ve been married a while, maybe twenty years or more. And maybe you’re finding that your spouse is settling into middle age and no longer taking care of themselves physically. And you still love them, but you’re finding it harder and harder to be attracted to them, at least on a physical level. This is a common enough challenge.
Does Physical Attractiveness Affect Marriage?
Research generally shows that there is a link between how attractive you perceive your spouse to be and how satisfied you are with the marriage[i]. This effect is generally much more pronounced for men than for women. Probably because we are socialized that way.
What happens as couples get older? Husband’s perception of their wife’s attractiveness appears to remain important, but this factor becomes less important for women over time. Here are three studies that looked into this issue: Meltzer et al[ii] in 2014 found that for the first 4 years of marriage, physical attractiveness of your spouse was a strong predictor of marital satisfaction for men, and a less important predictor for women.
Murstein & Christy[iii] back in 1976 investigated the same thing in
What about when one spouse becomes less attractive or “lets him/herself go”? Couples normally rate themselves as being equal in terms of attractiveness at all stages of life[v]. This means that a young couple might both decide they are not supermodels or anything but they are both a solid 7 out of 10. Maybe 20 years later they give themselves a 5. Maybe in their golden years a 2 or 3 — but generally in a couple each spouse will give themselves an equal score to their spouse.
However, when this was not the case and one spouse lets him or herself go or becomes less attractive in their spouse’s eyes, the researchers noted that this normally does not impact marital quality[vi].
That comes as a bit of a surprise, right? Let’s look at it in a bit more detail.
How Is Attraction NOT Linked to Marital Quality?
The reason declines in physical attractiveness tend not to impact marital quality is that attraction is based on much more than physical appearance. Attraction to your spouse is partly physical but is also strongly determined by the levels of intimacy in your marriage, the emotional connection between you, the quality of time spent together, your attentiveness to one another, the level of support your spouse offers, your self esteem, the frequency of sex and other relationship factors[vii].
In other words, attraction is a multi-dimensional experience. This makes sense, of course, although I think the truth of this is obscured in a pornified culture. In a pornified culture you are led to believe that the most attractive person offers the best sexual experience. In reality, a lifetime of developing all these beautiful facets of marriage (emotional, spiritual, relational) are what culminate in the best sexual experience.
That is a lovely concept and a true one that we should all strive for. But the flip side is also true: that if you are less attracted to your partner, while you may have fixated on their physical appearance, it is much more likely that the overall marital quality is just not there. In other words, you are frustrated with your spouse, or resentful, or disappointed, or upset. And consequently, you are not sexually attracted.
When you run into this issue of feeling like you are no longer attracted, it is probably high time that you focused on restoring the quality of your marriage by dealing with the underlying emotional, relational and spiritual problems — rather than just buying your spouse a gym membership.
I think I can illustrate this reality rather crudely. Imagine you were single for a moment and you had the opportunity to marry the most beautiful woman in the world. There’s one issue: she’s a total brat. Entitled, stuck up, selfish, self-centred, self-absorbed. You’d be like, “Nah, thanks, I’ll take a pass on that”. Or, as a woman, you could marry the sexiest man on earth — except that you know he’s physically and emotionally abusive. Same thing: not worth it, or to put a finer point on it, the whole package is definitely not attractive.
And that’s my point: if you’re not attracted to your spouse it’s more likely because there’s something wrong with the whole package. It is highly unlikely this it is only about their change in physical appearance.
Now, if you’re listening today you may also be tuned in because you’re on the receiving end of this and you’ve had some very damaging messaging around your body image. And you need to heal from that messaging. Today’s bonus guide for our patrons teaches you how to learn to love your body again. This is not hocus-pocus but is based on a research study that looked at how believers can use Biblical statements about our bodies to restore healthy, loving self-image. As we noted in episode 88 of our podcast, this is one essential element of improved sexual functioning. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Negative Beliefs About Physical Attractiveness
Let me take a moment to give you a bit of background psychology on how people “let themselves go” before looking at how you can counter this influence.
Our society has a very narrow view of attractiveness. To be considered beautiful a person must be youthful, slim, fashionable etc. When a person reaches a certain age they may feel that they cannot live up to this standard of beauty anymore. They come to believe that they are “past it” now and cannot be attractive, and so they stop trying to be attractive.
And when they stop trying to look good and stop taking care of themselves physically, their spouse is likely to notice this and actually find them less physically attractive as well. So thinking yourself unattractive becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy[viii].
Maybe you can recognize this kind of effect in your own situation. Perhaps your husband used to take great pride in his looks or his super toned body but now that he’s pushing fifty he feels he can’t compete with the younger models at the gym. And so rather than humiliate himself by looking second-best, he’s given up entirely.
On the flip side, the cycle can also go the other way!
When a person believes they are attractive, this causes him or her to put more effort in to appearances, act more confidently, and have higher self-esteem. This has the effect of causing other people to see them as more attractive. The belief about attractiveness is the catalyst here. This means that if you can discover ways to increase the romance, passion and attraction between you and your spouse through working on issues like intimacy, attentiveness, support, sex and so on) then you can help your spouse feel more attractive. That’s the belief catalyst. This in turn will cause them to act in ways that make them feel more attractive.
The cool thing here is that you can actually be part of starting a
positive cycle by investing your marriage overall. Really, in this approach,
the physical attractiveness becomes a secondary gain. But then we already
established that in all honesty it is probably a secondary issue to the real
challenges you’re facing as a couple anyways. Smart hey?
[i] Andrea L. Meltzer et al., “Sex Differences in the Implications of Partner Physical Attractiveness for the Trajectory of Marital Satisfaction.,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 106, no. 3 (2014): 418–28, https://doi.org/10.1037/a0034424.
[ii] Meltzer et al.
[iii] Bernard I. Murstein and Patricia Christy, “Physical Attractiveness and Marriage Adjustment in Middle-Aged Couples,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 34, no. 4 (1976): 537–42, https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1997.
[iv] J. L. Peterson and C. Miller, “Physical Attractiveness and Marriage Adjustment in Older American Couples,” The Journal of Psychology 105, no. 2d Half (July 1980): 247–52, https://doi.org/10.1080/00223980.1980.9915158.
[v] Peterson and Miller.
[vi] Murstein and Christy, “Physical Attractiveness and Marriage Adjustment in Middle-Aged Couples.”
[vii] Roy F. Baumeister and Ellen Bratslavsky, “Passion, Intimacy, and Time: Passionate Love as a Function of Change in Intimacy,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 3, no. 1 (February 1, 1999): 49–67, https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327957pspr0301_3; Jennifer Leigh Griffith, “Linking Social Support and Sexual Interest among Older Adults in Intimate Romantic Relationships,” 2015.
[viii] Pepper Schwartz, Sarah Diefendorf, and Anne McGlynn-Wright, “Sexuality in Aging,” in APA Handbook of Sexuality and Psychology, Vol. 1: Person-Based Approaches (Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association, 2014), 523–51, https://doi.org/10.1037/14193-017.