Male Mate Guarding and Female Beauty

Although movies often focus on courtship, fading to black immediately after the wedding ceremony, most of us know that it’s not until after you snare a partner that the real hard work begins. You might have convinced them to give you a shot, but you’re going to need to keep offering reasons for them to stay, otherwise they might decide that there are plenty more fish in the sea and you’re the small fry they’d rather throw back.

This is where the concept of mate retention behaviour comes in. Mate retention behaviour is a catch all term used by relationship researchers to describe all those little things we do to keep our partner from leaving. They stem from the downright desirable (such as buying your partner a gift or asking them to marry you) to the manipulative (like pleading that you can’t live without them, or pointing out the flaws in your romantic rivals) sown to the reprehensible and violent (like physically attacking people who make a pass at your partner). A whole spectrum of tactics, all with one thing in common: they’re exercised with the intention of keeping your partnership intact.

Many (well, some) men like to keep their partner happy and their relationship intact by giving flowers. Man with bouquet… by, CC BY 2.0

Now, I’m sure that most of you are fairly personable. Well, I say I’m sure. I’ve never met any of you. But let’s just say that I hope you’re the kind of person who’d prefer to take your other half to a nice restaurant and a show in the hope of cementing your bond, rather than threatening suicide or bashing competitors into a pulp. Which begs the question, why do some people engage in certain types of mate retention behaviour and not others? If we truly want to hold onto our partners, why don’t we all use every trick in the book, from red roses to bashed noses?

Other men like to duff up their rivals, like this pair of cool dudes. This would also count as a Mate Retention Behavior if the point was to prevent the other guy hitting on your squeeze. “Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting” — 1975 by Tony Alter, CC BY 2.0

Researchers at Nova Southeastern University in Florida and Oakland University in Michigan published some research this month that examined this very question. Specifically, they investigated the influence of the couple’s attractiveness on the type of relationship strengthening behaviours they produced. Valerie Starratt and Todd Shackelford recruited over 200 men, each of whom was in a long term committed relationship with a woman. The men completed standard questionnaires that give an indication of how attractive they think they are, and how attractive they think their partner is. Then they reported how often they engaged in a list of 38 mate retention behaviours.

The researchers grouped these behaviours into two thematically dissimilar categories. Behaviours like buying your partner an expensive gift, holding hands, offering compliments or proposing marriage were classed as benefit provisioning behaviours. Just another way of saying that these are nice things to do. The remaining behaviours, things like threatening to leave if your partner cheats on you, snooping through their personal belongings, preventing them from meeting new people, or duffing up your rivals, were grouped together as cost inflicting behaviours. The sort of things that really aren’t cricket.

Analysis of the men’s responses showed that men’s attractiveness isn’t linked to any of the mate retention behaviour types. Attractive men don’t do nice or nasty things to keep the relationship going any more, or any less, than their photogenically challenged peers. It turns out that it’s the female partner’s attractiveness that’s key. Men who had attractive partners produced more of the nice kind of mate retention behaviours than men who had less attractive partners. But it wasn’t all engagement rings and roses for pretty women – the partners of attractive women didn’t perform any fewer of the negative, cost inflicting behaviours. So, regardless of a woman’s attractiveness, she’s just as likely to suffer her time being monopolised, and her mobile phone being checked for other men’s numbers.

I’m guessing this guy this nothing to worry about. His New Flame by zizzybaloobah, CC BY-NC 2.0

So why this difference between the way men treat pretty and not so pretty women? Starratt and Shackelford reason that more attractive women need a greater positive inducement to stay in the relationship, since they could always go out and find someone who is willing to shower them with gifts and affection. Less attractive women, apparently, don’t warrant such treatment, since men recognise that these women’s options are limited. Men seem to unconsciously be reasoning that, if nobody else is likely to buy her flowers or diamond rings, then I don’t have to either.

But if that’s the case, why wouldn’t men go all out to keep an attractive partner, increasing their rate of not only nice but also nasty mate retention behaviours, using means both fair and foul? Well, it could be because the outcomes of using negative behaviours are a lot less predictable than the outcomes of positive behaviours. For example, if you start a fight with a potential rival, there are two ways it could go. And one them hurts. Even if you win the fight, your partner might think you’re a tool, and leave anyway.

As America’s finest poet, Dr Hook, once observed, when you’re in love with a beautiful woman you better watch your friends. According to Starratt and Shackelford, you can watch your friends all you want, but perhaps you’re better off not kicking seven bells out of them for staring at your girlfriend’s cleavage.

Starratt, V. G., & Shackelford, T. K. (2012). He said, she said: Men’s reports of mate value and mate retention behaviors in intimate relationships. Personality and Individual Differences, 53(4), 459–462. Read summary

The content of this post first appeared in the June 2012 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.