In the second of a five-part series on love and relationships, Tom Matlack and author Laura Munson debate the question: How important is physical appearance to long-term fidelity?
MUNSON: Many of us fear this question because many of us liked our 20-year-old bodies better than our current (44-year-old, in my case) bodies. The beer commercials tell us we’re supposed to. But I’d be willing to bet that even if we still had that bikini body (and some of us do, so power to you!), we’d still look in the mirror and find something wrong. I remember looking in the mirror and thinking my butt was big when I weighed 25 pounds less than I do now and I was in the prime of my physical life. I’d do anything to have that “big butt” back. But would I really? Is that what I need in order to feel attractive? My 44-year-old mind tells me that I know better. In longterm committed relationships, what perhaps was once about physical attraction morphs into a seasoned love that transcends physicality. Not always—but hopefully. Because our bodies will change and sag and even be riddled with sickness.
My husband used to say, “You’re beautiful and you’re going to get more beautiful with age.” That was his 20-year-old self being caught in the beauty myth. Life becomes about a lot more than what your butt looks like. We’ve been through death, near divorce, birth, career changes—the regular stresses and gifts of life. And I’ve learned that the most freedom I’ve felt is in letting go of that beauty myth. That’s not where your power lies. It lies in forgiveness, loving kindness, going easy on your partner in rough times, not taking things personally, being personally responsible, and re-creating yourself in every moment. It’s about having fun and waking up every day agreeing that you’re going to be the best married person you can be. If it’s my butt that keeps my husband around, then I don’t want that marriage. I think respect goes miles farther than any ass ever did—and that the definition of beauty changes as you grow.
MATLACK: I agree with you that appearance in marriage is filtered through the eyes of “seasoned love.” I have told my wife on numerous occasions that if she were to get plastic surgery, as many of the women in our circle of friends have, I would be enormously disappointed. To me, beauty isn’t about artificial perfection. It’s about the natural aging process. My wife is more beautiful to me now than the day I met her. At 46, she keeps herself in great shape and has the long lines, figure, blond hair, and startling blue eyes of a shooting star. But it’s not that she looks young, it’s that she’s mine, and we love each other. It’s the feeling of her body and all the little things that make her uniquely her that I adore, and that make her so beautiful.
I was at a Christmas party recently, talking to a group of guys I barely knew. My wife walked across the room behind me in a black dress and high heels. Every one of the guys’ eyes followed her from one doorway to the other. Finally, one guy, Jim, said, “Who is that?” Another guy laughed. “That’s Tom’s wife!” Jim high-fived me and then gave me a bear hug in congratulations.
None of this is meant to say that my wife is a model or is going to be on the front page of Glamour anytime soon (though I think she should be!). Objectively, she is a very beautiful woman. To me, she is the most beautiful woman on earth—because I adore her. I never think about other women because she is everything I’ve ever wanted.
There is an important distinction here: physical appearance is not the same thing as attraction. From a male perspective, many very beautiful women become immediately unattractive as soon as they open their mouths. Attraction has to do with the whole person, inside and out. And fidelity, in the long term, has to do with an enduring attraction built on passion that colors the way a husband looks at his wife. It is not about looking like a Victoria’s Secret model, but about a husband feeling a pounding in his chest when he sees the woman he has come to know over the course of years and—despite inevitable difficulties of marriage—still has an animal attraction that he can’t even fully explain. It simply is. She is the one. Not in a magazine cover kind of way, but an in-the-flesh, real, three-dimensional, human-connection kind of way.
That’s how I feel about my wife, and, I’d like to believe, why she can attract the glances she does at a party. She is not just hot—she’s loved.
MUNSON: Please tell me that you shared this response with your wife. What a love letter. I wonder if it’s a rare one though. I’m not sure most people would describe their spouses this way. Too many people dwell in the “what’s wrong” with their partner instead of “what’s right.” Often, it’s about outer appearance. And once you start doing that, you get off each other’s team. I have always felt that my husband and I are on the same team, even when we went through a significant marital crisis that almost led to separation. Couples meet in a place of oneness and co-creation. I don’t believe in the Jerry Maguire “you complete me” concept. I believe in Rilke’s notion of being guardians of each other’s solitude, or individuality. That kind of love brings longevity. That kind of love is not about the way a person looks.
Read the first of this series: “Great Sex or Fighting Fair?“
Laura A. Munson, author of This Is Not the Story You Think It Is, wrote one of the most widely read and talked about New York Times Modern Love columns ever: “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear.” She lives with her family in Montana. You can visit her website, and find her on Facebook and Twitter.
—Photo by Rachel Davies/Flickr
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Tom Matlack, together with James Houghton and Larry Bean, published an anthology of stories about defining moments in men’s lives — The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood. It was how the The Good Men Project first began. Want to buy the book? Click here. Want to learn more? Here you go.
The comment by Matlack is the stupidest I have every read on the subject. His friends are high-fiving when his wife walks by, and somehow he is able to comment on attractiveness in longterm relationships? In other news Romney says that money doesn’t buy happiness. Tell that to the guy who is losing his house, or the guy who’s friends cringe when his wife walks by. The question of “do looks matter” cannot be answered if your wife is hot. My guess is that looks do matter, otherwise you you would have ended up with someone more average looking, who… Read more »
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I loved the reference to Rilke’s quote on guarding each other, one of my very favorites that totally nails everything you’ve said in your article. Great!
I’m not married, but am going to marry my girlfriend…my experience is much like yours, great read.
Tom, A beautiful sentiment you share about your wife. It really is a love letter. It’s a wonderful ideal to aspire to. I have moments where I feel that way about my wife. I don’t doubt your sincerity as an individual, and I know you’ve shared some deeply personal things before. But, realistically I have to take what you say with a grain of salt because of the format. This is hardly a confidential medium. I mean, anyone and everyone in the world can read what you say about your wife here, including her, and once it’s out there it’s… Read more »
We’ve recently moved. I was unpacking all the ‘non-essentials’ the other day and hit the box where we’d packed all our framed family photos, including the folder of Glamor Shots I’d had done decades ago. Sometimes I think he still sees me that way, and not the woman I see in the mirror. We’ve both changed—he used to have hair on top of his head, not on his chin–but we’re still attractive to each other. And it’s been almost 42 years.
Personally I think Marnia Robinson’s view is more to the point here (see reuniting.info and her book Cupid’s Poisoned Arrow). Focus on attraction and its corresponding sexuality, lust, appearance, and bigger longer orgasms may in fact backfire, leading to increased infidelity. While Robinson argues that this is because of brain chemistry being thrown off for up to 2 weeks after orgasm, thus creating a kind of addictive cycle of seeking greater and more varied thrills, one could equally argue that a focus (especially an excessive focus) on the superficial will lead to superficial comparisons. Whereas if the focus is put… Read more »
I see from the first few responses (and yes, I understand Amy’s was not intended to be a comment, but interesting article) that more was being read into the question than was really there. Social biases and cultural conditioning do exist, but that was overstating the point. The way I see it, if your primary interests are with appearances, and your sensibilities are offended by “perfection”, if you are too lazy to put the required effort into depth, then physical appearance will probably matter a whole lot. In that context, dissatisfaction with your partner’s appearance, assuming changes in that appearance… Read more »
I’m a lecher. I want to have everything, from everyone, in every imaginable way. I married my wife because I love her more than however much I might enjoy orgy porgy. When I leer at others she tells me it hurts her feelings, I tell her to be happy that she is better than ‘literally’ everyone. She takes it to mean that I would take anything. Reconciling this is the work of our marriage, not the joy of romance, not the secret of the sexes, the work. The work is worth it because she is, and because I am. The… Read more »
Love adheres to no specific formula. A lot of truly successful marriages begin as intellectual attraction that morphs into physical attraction as well. Which should come first? Who is to say? Most important, I think, is that a man and a woman at least begin their relationship on the same page—that their individual needs and views overlap successfully. When my wife’s favorite cousin, a widow, summed up the virtues of a new boyfriend she’d met online—”He’s good in bed”—we knew the relationship would be short-lived. Tom Matlack’s description of his relationship with his wife, as detailed above, is really a… Read more »
Let’s just state the obvious and say that women are often far more superficial in their outer appearance. It’s not just men driving this superficiality; women are their own worst enemies and are the ones driving the market that sells them products. “plastic surgery, as many of the women in our circle of friends have” As a rule of thumb, women who put such extra effort into their superficiality are compensating for deficiencies in their personalities…fugly on the inside and best avoided. These insecure types will be constantly fishing for compliments to feed their fragile egos. “I never think about… Read more »
Thanks for the applause, thankfully NAWALT.
Dude, lighten up. The truth is that I really don’t think about other women. But you don’t have to believe me there. I DO agree with you that much of the beauty complex is self imposed by women. It pains me greatly to watch the extent to which my wife and daughter feel the weight of female eyes on how they look. Not sure if that starts with some sense that men view them that way, but a lot of “beauty” is certainly about keeping up with the cat fight rather than anything to do with guys (I like my… Read more »
I think it comes down to one simple thing: if you love someone enough, you always see them in a better light then anyone else.
I have not read the above piece, nor did I comment on it. Tom Matlack asked me to respond to a question about looks and fidelity which I thought would be used in a piece. My comment can remain above, although I still have not read the piece, as I’m on deadline, and was last night when I took time out to comment for what looked like a quote that was being requested for a piece he was writing.
Apologies for the miscommunication Amy. Your comment stands on its own and adds to the overall conversation. @tmatlack
No more mushy talk. Puleeze, I’m getting embarrassed. Hee, hee
Romantic love begins with the eyes and finds its duration in the chest and mind. To deny the initial importance of physical attraction is frankly disingenuous; however, as love deepens, what i see as “sexy” or attractive in my lover has far less to do with the standard measures (that admittedly have their place early on) and more to do with simple gestures, hidden sparks, and a silent language and desire earned over years together. Her sexy little sounds and glances turn me on– even her scent. This kind of attraction is gained over time–because we have grown together and… Read more »
I love this response. Thank you, Matthew Piepenburg.
Attraction in general has to be in tact- that doesn’t necessarily mean how one “looks”.. If you have a stunning spouse yet you’ve lost respect for them somehow- that will cause a rift that goes deeper than how they look in a bathing suit!
I find the notion that men “should” be attracted to women for what’s within — which is just not how male sexuality works — extremely damaging. As I write in my recent Psychology Today piece on the truth about beauty: http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201010/the-truth-about-beauty No man will turn his head to ogle a woman because she looks like the type to buy a turkey sandwich for a homeless man or read to the blind. A man can think you’re a beautiful human being but if you let yourself go to seed, there’s a good chance he’s not going to be sexually attracted to… Read more »
I’ll keep myself pretty, but I’m not putting any more work into my appearance than my spouse does. If I have to put ten more minutes into my appearance, than I expect him to do it, too, regardless of what science says, which doesn’t even try to figure out if it’s a culturally conditioned thing or not. Physical appearance is a subjective thing. In some cultures, women don’t have to do anything to keep up their appearance. Fat, AKA, letting your self go in American culture, is seen as beautiful in some cultures, because it means you have wealth and… Read more »
Wow, I so disagree with this. I wanted a man who had some means in the economy but who had the skills and emotional availability to be a good parent. I do not prefer men with “high status, power, and access to resources” if they don’t show that interest and ability in being a good dad. I reject them if they don’t show that interest and ability in being a good dad. I’d like for him to take his physical appearance as seriously as I take mine – that is, to stay in good health and good physical shape. I… Read more »
Also, if you read a book like “Passionate Marriage” by David Schnarch, “How Do I Get Through To You,” by Terry Real or “The Gender Knot” by Alan Johnson, you get a very different idea of what men’s priorities are. They discuss how men get socialized into sex being the only way they can connect with another human being and also how they can see women only as objects. These are self-actualized men, though, who have either had their emotional lives nurtured as children (or who have developed that as adults through therapy, etc), who have looked at how patriarchy… Read more »
Sounds like evolutionary biology as justification for Social Darwinism. While I think that it’s reasonable to keep up some amount of grooming, exercising, and overall healthy living (for both men and women), an orientation towards the superficial is more likely to lead to infidelity IMHO.
Jesus what a depressing outlook. Why should I try getting involved long term with any man in that case? No matter how much I work on my appearance, eventually I’ll get old and lose my looks. You are saying it is impossible for a man to really care about a woman. That sends a horrible message.