Ah, romance. What noble graces flow from Cupids’s bow? What are the mystical forces that draw people together? Turns out, there is often more, and sometimes less, to true love than meets the eye—or than meets our nearly unconscious sociological impulses.
Assistant Professor Elizabeth Aura McClintock, a recent hire in Notre Dame’s Department of Sociology, maintains a professional interest in a field that most of us at one time or another have tried an amateur hand at: mapping out the rules of attraction in dating and marriage.
“My research focuses on gender and inequality in the context of romantic and sexual relationships, particularly in partner selection and relationship formation and in the dynamics of negotiation and compromise within established relationships,” she says. “I am interested in how intimate relationships reflect, perpetuate, and potentially alter gender, class, age, and racial inequality.”
McClintock’s studies on topics such as the impacts of age and attractiveness on mate selection or the effects of gender and income on relationships can help us understand a little bit more exactly how Cupid’s arrow is directing our lives.
In the Eye of the Beholder
In her research on gender and age differences, McClintock found that the older men are when they marry, the more years senior to their brides they are—whether it is a first or subsequent marriage.
“Since the prevailing standard of beauty favors young women, the older men are when they marry, the more they find women their own age unattractive relative to younger women, leading them to marry down in age,” she says. “The consequence for women of men’s preference for youth is more often that they remain unmarried than that they end up married to less educated men.”
Another of McClintock’s recent research projects, “Desirability, Matching, and the Illusion of Exchange in Partner Selection,” tests and rejects the “trophy wife” stereotype that women trade beauty for men’s status.
“Obviously, this happens sometimes,” she says, pointing to Donald Trump and Melania Knauss-Trump as an example. “But prior research has suggested that it often occurs in everyday partner selection among ‘normal’ people … noting that the woman’s beauty and the man’s status (education, income) are positively correlated, that is, they tend to increase and decrease together.”
According to McClintock, this prior research has ignored two important factors. “First,” she notes, “people with higher status are, on average, rated more physically attractive—perhaps because they are less likely to be overweight and more likely to afford braces and nice clothes and trips to the dermatologist, etc.” Second, she says, “the strongest force by far” in partner selection is similarity—in education, race, religion, and physical attractiveness.
After taking these two factors into account, McClintock’s research shows that there is not, in fact, a general tendency for women to trade beauty for money.
“Indeed, I find little evidence of exchange, but I find very strong evidence of matching,” she says. “With some exceptions, the vast majority of couples select partners who are similar to themselves in both status and in attractiveness.”
Off the Beaten Path
McClintock has also conducted research on gender-atypical career selection and its impact on marriageability—what happens to a man’s marriage prospects when he pursues a career more associated with women, such as nursing or elementary school teaching, and what happens when women enter traditionally male careers.
“There is no harm to women when they enter fields dominated by men, perhaps because women are usually respected and rewarded for ‘breaking the glass ceiling,’” she says. “Men, however, are heavily penalized for taking work more associated with women.”
In fact, she reports, working in a female-dominated occupation reduces men’s odds of marriage in a given year by almost 25 percent, even after controlling for income, occupational prestige, and education. When McCormick replicated the analysis using a different dataset that allowed her to control for sexual orientation and physical attractiveness, she found that working in a predominately female job reduces men’s odds of marriage in a period of about six years by almost 30 percent.
Men who break such cultural barriers may be perceived as “less masculine” by prospective partners, although it is still unclear whether women are rejecting these men consciously or unconsciously.
But after years of studying how men and women reach decisions regarding the objects of their affection, there is one thing McClintock can say with authority: “What people say they want in their partner seems to be fairly disconnected from what they really go for.”