The Marriage Podcast for Smart People


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When Your Spouse Has Let Him/Herself Go and You Are Not Attracted

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 middle aged couples who had been married for between 10 and 20 years. The physical attractiveness of their wife was still an important predictor of satisfaction for men but the reverse was not true for women in this age group. This was also true for older couples who had been married for 30+ years  according to Peterson & Miller,  in a study from 1980[iv]. So attractiveness does remain important on some level throughout marriage, normally moreso for the guys, but not always. 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.