Trophy Wife Myth Busted: People Choose Partners Like Themselves

Wedding Couple
(Image credit: © Dotzidea |

Here's some bad news for men with highly successful careers and fat wallets: You probably will not end up with a "trophy wife," a new study suggests.

When researchers compared qualities such as level of attractiveness and socioeconomic status within couples, they found almost no evidence of the trophy wife stereotype, which suggests attractive, young women tend to marry rich and successful men.

Instead, couples are far more likely to end up together because they share similar traits. For example, attractive, wealthy or highly educated people are more likely to choose a partner with the same qualities. The same is true for less attractive, low-earning or less educated people. Trophy wife marriages still happen, but not nearly as often as expected, the study revealed. [7 Beauty Trends That Are Bad for Your Health

"I find that handsome men partner with pretty women and successful men partner with successful women," Elizabeth McClintock, a professor of sociology at Notre Dame who conducted the study, said in a statement. "So, on average, high-status men do have better-looking wives, but this is because they themselves are considered better looking — perhaps because they are less likely to be overweight and more likely to afford braces, nice clothes and trips to the dermatologist, etc."

McClintock analyzed the traits of about 1,500 couples in their early 20s who were either married, living together, or dating a minimum of three months. She looked for evidence of any beauty-status exchange: attractive people who "trade" their good looks for a wealthy partner or a partner with high social status.

Beauty-status exchange makes it possible for an attractive woman to climb the social ladder by marrying a wealthy and often less-attractive partner. While McClintock did find a strong correlation between level of attractiveness and socioeconomic status, the two traits usually go hand in hand. Studies published in the Journal of Applied Psychology and the National Bureau of Economic Research have shown that more attractive people tend to be more successful economically, and it may explain why the stereotype persists.

"I've heard doctors' wives referred to as trophy wives by observers who only notice her looks and his status and fail to realize that he is good-looking too and that she is also a successful professional — or was before she had kids and left her job," McClintock said in the statement.

McClintock's study, published on June 9 in the journal American Sociological Review, also reveals a problem with the "wife" part of the trophy wife stereotype. Even though research published last August in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has shown that men may be threatened by women's success, in the few couples who did show some kind of beauty-status exchange, the less attractive but more successful partner was not always a man. So, trophy husbands are likely just as common (or uncommon) as trophy wives.

Further, McClintock found that the evidence for any kind of beauty-status exchange disappeared in more committed couples. If the study only included the 543 married couples and threw out the data from the other couples living together or just dating, then there would be absolutely no evidence of exchanging looks for money, according to McClintock.

Trophy wives aren't the only marital myth busted by science. Researchers, who detailed their work in April 2013 in The Review of Economics and Statistics, put the kibosh on "sugar daddies," finding that men married to younger women earned less money than their counterparts with similar-age wives.

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Kelly Dickerson
Staff Writer
Kelly Dickerson is a staff writer for Live Science and She regularly writes about physics, astronomy and environmental issues, as well as general science topics. Kelly is working on a Master of Arts degree at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, and has a Bachelor of Science degree and Bachelor of Arts degree from Berry College. Kelly was a competitive swimmer for 13 years, and dabbles in skimboarding and long-distance running.