Q: I’ve heard that we’re romantically attracted to people who look like us. Is that true? I don’t think any of my boyfriends have looked anything like me, but I’ve seen couples who look so similar they could be related.—Wondering
A: There is this notion that opposites attract. Actually, the opposite often seems to be the case. According to research on “assortative mating,” people tend to pair up with partners who are physically similar to them—creating a matchy-matchy assortment—more often than would be expected through random chance.
To explore how much matchiness is appealing to us, social-personality psychologists R. Chris Fraley and Michael J. Marks used a computer to blend each research participant’s face into the face of a stranger of the opposite sex. They did this to increasing degrees, morphing in 0 percent, 22 percent, 32 percent, 39 percent, and 45 percent of the research participants’ features. Their research participants rated the strangers’ faces most sexually appealing with the 22 percent blend.
In another morphing study, neuropsychologist Bruno Laeng and his colleagues mixed each participant’s face with that of their romantic partner—with 11 percent, 22 percent, and 33 percent blending. And again, 22 percent was picked consistently—suggesting that people find their romantic partners more attractive when they look just a bit like them.
Granted, it could be a coincidence that the exact same percentage—only 22 percent morphed—popped up in both studies. However, what’s noteworthy is that more resemblance didn’t lead to more attraction. This jibes with how some degree of similarity is genetically beneficial, increasing the likelihood of desirable traits showing up in partners’ children. (Tall plus tall equals tall.)
However, evolution seems to have installed a psychological mechanism to keep us from lusting after extremely similar partners, such as siblings and first cousins. Such close relatives are more likely to have the same rare recessive genes for a disease. A recessive gene when paired with a dominant gene (say, from a genetically very different partner) doesn’t express—that is, the person doesn’t develop the disease. But when two recessive genes get together…PARTAAAY!
This isn’t to say everyone’s going to resemble their romantic partner, but we seem subconsciously drawn to people who share our features to some extent.
Q: I’ve been with my wife for 23 years. I know sex is important, but sometimes we’re tired or not in the mood. I want to keep our intimacy alive. What are some things we can do to stay connected physically?—Embarrassed Having To Ask
A: Many couples do eventually need help from a professional to connect physically—whether it’s an advice columnist, a sex therapist, or a bank robber who leaves them duct-taped together in the vault.
It turns out the answer isn’t all that complicated: Basically, you just need to bring in some of the G-rated part of foreplay and afterplay (without the sex in between). Psychologist Debby Herbenick and her colleagues note that researchers have found three things—kissing, cuddling, and massage—to be “important aspects of sexual intimacy … associated with relationship and sexual satisfaction.”
Helpfully, the Herbenick team chiseled apart what they call the “KCM composite”—the way kissing, cuddling, and massage get mushed together in studies. They felt that this blending might obscure “important differences” in the effect of each. In fact, they found that cuddling seems to be uniquely powerful, increasing emotional intimacy (as well as sexual pleasure) in a way kissing and massage do not.
Though you’re seeking a solution for when you’re too zonked for sex, it’s important to make sure that cuddling is often an end in itself. This, paradoxically, should help keep your sex life alive: Your wife will see your cuddles as an expression of your love rather than a sign that you just want something out of the sexual vending machine. Ultimately, cuddling for cuddling’s sake is probably the best way to keep from getting to the point where “taking care of her in bed” involves holding a mirror under her nose to see if she’s still breathing.