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KNOXVILLE — The poet John Keats wrote, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

A team of social psychologists, led by assistant professor Jim McNulty at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, found Keats may have been onto something — if he had made a distinction between the beauty of the husband and the wife.

The study by McNulty and collaborators Lisa Neff of the University of Toledo and Ben Karney of the University of California, Los Angeles, found that married couples communicate more positively with each other when wives are more attractive than their husbands. Their findings were published in the Journal of Family Psychology in February.

Previous research has shown that people positively evaluate and prefer to enter into relationships with others who are attractive. This study was an effort to answer the questions “Does physical attractiveness continue to predict outcomes in established relationships, such as marriage? Or are the benefits of attractiveness limited to formative stages of new relationships?”

For the study, researchers examined 82 couples in the first six months of their marriages. Spouses reported their marital satisfaction and were rated by trained observers regarding their levels of attractiveness and the positivity of the interactions with each other.

“Prior studies of physical attractiveness in new and hypothetical relationships suggest that physical attractiveness should be associated with more positive outcomes in marriage. Results of the current study offer inconsistent support for this prediction,” the study states.

But the researchers found “both spouses tended to behave more positively when wives were more attractive than their husbands.” Both spouses behaved “more negatively when husbands were more attractive than their wives,” according to the study.

“Certainly, physical attractiveness is not the only thing that matters to marriage,” McNulty says. “At a more general level, the study suggests that spouses will behave more positively when their partners meet the desires that are important to them.”

McNulty, an assistant professor of psychology, has been on the UT faculty since 2005. His research focuses on the development of newlywed marriages, and he addresses this issue through four longitudinal data sets he has assembled with colleagues. For more information, visit his Web site:


Elizabeth Davis, UT media relations, (865) 974-5179,