July 18, 2011— -- Marriages are more satisfying for both partners when wives are thinner than their husbands, according to a new study.
The four-year study of 169 newlywed couples found that husbands were more satisfied initially and wives were more satisfied over time when the fairer sex had a lower body mass index -- a common measure of body fat. The study was published in the July issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science.
"There's a lot of pressure on women in our society to achieve an often unreachably small weight," said Andrea Meltzer, a doctoral candidate at the University of Tennessee and lead author of the study. "The great take-home message from our study is that women of any size can be happy in their relationships with the right partner. It's relative weight that matters, not absolute weight. It's not that they have to be small."
Just how relative weight impacts marital bliss is unclear, but Meltzer has a theory.
"One idea is that attractiveness and weight are more important to men," she said. "That might be why we see this emerging at the beginning of the marriage for husbands, and their dissatisfaction might be affecting wives' satisfaction over time."
The finding held up even when other marital stressors, such as depression and income level, were ruled out. But relative weight is not the only factor that affects marital satisfaction, Meltzer cautioned.
"Obviously a lot of things play into relationship satisfaction and this is just one of them," she said. "It's not a guarantee to be happy in a relationship."
Man and women tend to be happier in a relationship when the men are "more powerful in a benign way," according to Susan Heitler, a couple's therapist in Denver and author of PowerOfTwoMarriage.com.
"The good news is there are many dimensions that symbolize power for men," she said, adding that height, weight, earning capacity, intelligence, education level, personality, even a big smile are all empowering traits. "Those signs of bigness lead to a subconscious feeling within the woman of more security and, in turn, more marital satisfaction."
The effects of marriage on weight, and vice versa, are tricky to tease apart. For women, unhappiness can often lead to weight gain -- a situation that both partners often feel uncomfortable talking about. But Heitler said using open-ended questions to understand the impact of weight changes on the relationship can help.
Instead of asking, 'Are you annoyed that I've put on weight?' try, 'How do you feel about the weight I've gained?' Heitler said. "It's better to know if the weight bothers your spouse than to not have that information."
The importance of relative weight may vary between couples as well as between cultures. Ninety-four percent of the partners involved in the study were white.
"The emphasis on weight is an American and European value," said Heitler. "The finding may be very different among the black community. In Africa, weight is a sign of fertility and voluptuousness. Heavier women are prized in that culture."
Similarly, older partners may weigh the importance of relative weight differently than younger newlyweds.
"The effects of relative weight could definitely change over time," Meltzer said, adding that all the couples in her study were younger than 35 years old. "As attractiveness plays less of a role, perhaps relative weight has less of an effect on satisfaction."