Mate guarding in newly-weds

Most Hollywood romantic comedies follow an identical storyline: a man and woman meet, take an instant dislike to one another, overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and in the end fall in love.

That’s usually where the story ends, with the assumption that the couple go on to live happily ever after, but in reality the real drama often comes after the relationship begins. That’s because attracting a partner is only the first hurdle: a much more difficult question is how to keep them.

This is a question that David Buss and colleagues have been investigating for over twenty years, and they’ve come up with a list of 19 tactics — or mate retention behaviours — that people use to maintain their relationships. They range from resource display — spending a lot of money on one’s partner — to appearance enhancement, threats of infidelity, monopolisation of time, violence against rivals, and submission and debasement.

Both men and women use these tactics, though in different proportions. Women, for example, are more likely to improve their appearance, while men are more likely to display their resources by splashing out on gifts.

But what nobody has looked at before is whether these sex differences in mate retention behaviour are stable over time. That is, after the final reel is over and the audience has left the cinema, do the romantic protagonists continue to mate guard in the same way for the remainder of their relationship?

In a paper published in a recent issue of the journal Personality and Individual Differences, Farnaz Kaighobadi of Florida Atlantic University, along with Todd Shackelford and David Buss, sought to find the answer. They gave 107 newlyweds a copy of the Mate Retention Inventory, a questionnaire that measures how frequently a person uses one of 104 mate retention acts. Four years later, the same couples were asked to complete the questionnaire again.

At the start of their marriage, men were more likely to display their resources and submit to their partner, and after four years this hadn’t changed. Women, too, were still more likely than men to report augmenting their appearance. But after four years, women did report more frequently monopolising their partner’s time.

In general, however, both men and women performed all of these behaviours less often as their marriage progressed. Men were less likely to emotionally manipulate their parter, monopolose their time, or to threaten rivals. Women were less likely to insult their rivals or use verbal possession signals, such as warning other people that their partner was taken.

The authors of the paper suggest that this may be because over time couples establish a level of trust that perhaps wasn’t present at the outset of their relationship.

Which perhaps goes to explain why so few romantic comedies are about couples who are four years into their marriage — with less conflict, there’s less of an interesting story, and we couldn’t have that. Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson would be out of a job.


Kaighobadi, F., Shackelford, T. K., & Buss, D. M. (2010). Spousal mate retention in the newlywed year and three years later. Personality and Individual Differences, 48(4), 414–418. Read summary

The content of this post first appeared in the February 2010 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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