Focusing on Looks Puts Cold Water on Romance

angry couple (Image credit: Dreamstime)

Sure, it's nice to have a looker at your side. But it turns out that concentrating on their partners' physical attractiveness may make people less happy in relationships, new research suggests.

The study also saw that magazines and movies that portray people as sex objects can cause you to see your partner in that light, though not yourself.

Self-objectification — when a person is obsessively concerned about he or she looks — has been shown to affect women's self-image, school performance and life happiness. But this quality hasn't been studied much in the context of romantic relationships. Partner-objectification, where that focus is placed on a partner's physical qualities over everything else, hasn't been studied at all in this context.

"If you have these kinds of thoughts and beliefs about your partner, it might be a block that stops you from having that intimacy, which is important in relationships," said study researcher Eileen Zurbriggen of the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Studying students

For her study, Zurbriggen polled 159 sophomores at her university. The students were asked to fill out a survey on their romantic relationships (current or previous), their media consumption and their feelings of objectification.

Objectification was measured by how strongly the students agreed or disagreed with statements such as: "I rarely think about how I/my partner looks"; "I rarely compare how I/my partner looks with how others look"; and "I often worry about whether the clothes I'm/my partner is wearing make me/them look good."

The men showed higher levels of partner-objectification than the women, but both reported similar levels of self-objectification, in contrast to previous studies. Women are traditionally believed to be more self-objectifying.

Zurbriggen noted that UC Santa Cruz is traditionally a liberal institution, which may have skewed these results slightly. It's also possible, she speculated, that exposure to objectifying media is increasing the degree of self-objectification in men.

Zurbriggen also said the participants were young, averaging 19, and none was married, so the results might be different from what she would have gotten from older adults in longer-term relationships

Based on the participants' responses, Zurbriggen found that the greater their consumption of objectifying media of all kinds, the more likely they were to focus on their partner's looks. Self-objectification, however, was linked only to objectifying magazines and not to other media — a similar finding to previous studies.

"Partner objectification was a stronger predictor than self-objectification in determining your relationship satisfaction, for both men and women," Zurbriggen said. "But self-objectification was important in prediction of sexual satisfaction in men, but not in women."

Men found less sexual satisfaction whether they focused on their partner's appearance or on their own, Zurbriggen found.

Objectifying others

The objectification doesn't need to be blatantly obvious to have a negative effect. "In many relationships you don't see a really egregious manifestation of this, but I think it can manifest in smaller ways," Zurbriggen told LiveScience. "If someone gains a little bit of weight, their partner might be unhappy with that or make comments about it."

This goes against theories put forth by some philosophers, including Martha Nussbaum of the University of Chicago, that some objectification can be safe and even enjoyable in a relationship.

Having an attractive partner and being attractive to your partner could increase sexual satisfaction, Zurbriggen said — "When you hear that you are really hot and sexy and that can be satisfying." But Zurbriggen found the opposite effect: Partner-objectification lowered relationship satisfaction, as well as men's sexual satisfaction. This could be because concentrating on your partner's attractiveness tends to make you less concerned with your partner as a whole, leading to a less satisfying relationship and decreased intimacy, she said.

Janet Hyde of the University of Wisconsin, when asked about Zurbriggen's study, called it "new, clever, and important."

Hyde told LiveScience in an email, "So, self-objectification hurts oneself, and then the effects of media exposure seem to extend to partner objectification, which hurts relationships."

Zurbriggen's group is planning to continue following her subjects, who are now in their sixth year of the study.

You can follow LiveScience staff writer Jennifer Welsh on Twitter @microbelover.

Jennifer Welsh

Jennifer Welsh is a Connecticut-based science writer and editor and a regular contributor to Live Science. She also has several years of bench work in cancer research and anti-viral drug discovery under her belt. She has previously written for Science News, VerywellHealth, The Scientist, Discover Magazine, WIRED Science, and Business Insider.