“Is she really going out with him?’ asks the old Joe Jackson song about a mixed-attractiveness couple. ‘They say that looks don’t count for much — there goes your proof.’ High society used to abound with couples in which the woman was far more beautiful than the man. But while we can still point to famous aesthetically mismatched partners (pudgy Trump and pulchritudinous Melania anyone?), the mating patterns of the young now mean we are witnessing the death of the mixed-attractiveness couple.
This is thanks to the way millennials fall in love — more often than not, online. They flick through potential matches on sites such as Match.com and MySingleFriend with distressing rapidity, discounting anyone they don’t fancy straight away. This process becomes even more savage on apps such as Tinder, Bumble, Happn and OK-Cupid. Habitually, users barely bother to write anything about themselves, opting instead to upload snaps of significant parts of their anatomy. If you spot a young person furiously attending to their phone, chances are they are swiping through thousands of faces — right for ‘yes’ and left for ‘no’ — and bypassing hundreds of members of the opposite sex with whom they might actually be compatible in favour of those they find simply delectable.
Multiple studies have shown that the most successful relationships are built through ‘assortative mating’ i.e. pairing up with those who share the same background, social aspirations, education and attractiveness. But only the latter is readily apparent on dating apps. When couples who fancied each other rotten find the physical fascination wearing off, those who met via dating apps may discover that they have nothing in common with their partner besides relative good looks.
When it comes to long-term love, the lack of mixed-attractiveness couples marks a troubling trend. Research shows that it takes between 18 months and three years for a relationship to move on from the ‘being in love’ phase. But, as Louis de Bernières put it in that passage so often read out at weddings, real love ‘is what is left over when being in love has burned away… Those that truly love have roots that grow towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms have fallen from their branches, they find that they are one tree and not two.’
Ariane Sherine and Cosmo Landesman guide you through the world of dating apps
I discovered this to my cost seven years ago, during my relationship with my daughter’s father. When we first met in a crowded pub, our mutual physical attraction was so powerful we didn’t notice that, other than sharing a profession, we had little in common. He liked art films, foreign literary novels and playing football: I preferred Hollywood blockbusters, comic fiction and going to watch stand-up comedy. He drank wine and was a seasoned traveller; I was teetotal and had never ventured out of Europe.
We weren’t even similar in character: he was adventurous, sporty, mentally stable and private, while I was risk-averse, sedentary, had an anxiety disorder and, as this piece would suggest, often used truths from my personal life to illustrate my journalism. When I had a major nervous breakdown, fell pregnant, put on weight, and we moved in together, our relationship broke down. We struggled along but split up before our third anniversary: we simply weren’t compatible enough to withstand serious difficulties.
Fascinatingly, it turns out that the longer two people know each other before beginning to date, the less important beauty is, and the more likely the partners are to differ in attractiveness. In one experiment at the University of Texas in Austin, researchers asked students to rate their classmates for desirability (including non-physical attributes) at the start of term, and after knowing them for three months. While students agreed who was attractive to begin with, their ratings at the end of term differed. Over a three-month period, personality had a powerful effect.
When looking for love, young people might do better to revert to the slower courtship rituals of past generations. After all, mutual beauty is a flimsy basis for a relationship. If, instead, a partnership is founded on shared hobbies and genuine friendship, it is more likely to be able to withstand the vicissitudes of life. Beauty always fades with time, but relationships need not fade with it.
I don’t regret my passionate but ultimately doomed romance — without it, our wonderful, sweet and hilarious five-year-old girl would never have been created. But I can’t help but think how much better it would have been if we’d been compatible as people, and if I were now married to the father of my child.
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