Study shatters May-December romance myth

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Engaged

Actor Jeff Goldblum with his finacee, Emilie Livingston. (Alexandra Wyman, Getty Images)

One might get the impression — what with 61-year-old Jeff Goldblum proposing to his 31-year-old girlfriend and an Esquire writer in his mid-50s deigning to admit 42-year-old women are attractive and the hugely popular "Modern Family" centering around patriarch Jay (Ed O'Neill, 68) and his wife Gloria (Sofia Vergara, 42) — that age ain't nothing but an aphrodisiac.

Older dudes want trophy wives and gorgeous gals want money. Right? Wrong.

All wrong, according to a new study by University of Notre Dame sociologist Elizabeth Aura McClintock. With the exception of a few high-profile examples (Bruce Willis, 59, and his wife Emma Heming-Willis, 35; Donald Trump, 68, and his wife, Melania Trump, 44), the majority of people seek mates who are, above all else, similar to them.

McClintock analyzed 1,507 heterosexual couples who were dating, living together or married to determine how people select their partners. She compared instances of "matching" — when people choose a mate with similar education, physical attractiveness and other key traits — to instances of "exchange" — when couples enter a relationship that offers them something they don't have in exchange for something they do.

"Beauty-status exchange accords with the popular conception of romantic partner selection as a competitive market process," McClintock writes in her study, published in last month's American Sociological Review.

"Beauty-status exchange," she writes, usually refers to couples "in which an economically successful man partners with a beautiful 'trophy wife.'"

But when researchers account for the physical attractiveness of men and the socioeconomic status of women — rather than simply seeking out examples of beautiful women partnered with wealthy men — the "beauty-status exchange" all but disappears.

"Economically successful women partner with economically successful men, and physically attractive women partner with physically attractive men," The Atlantic's James Hamblin writes in his analysis of McClintock's study.

"The study concludes that women aren't really out for men with more wealth than themselves, nor are men looking for women who outshine them in beauty," Hamblin writes. "Rather, hearteningly, people really are looking for compatibility and companionship. Finding those things is driven by matching one's strengths with a partner who's similarly endowed, rather than trying to barter kindness for hotness, humor for conscientiousness, cultural savvy for handyman-ship, or graduate degrees for marketable skills."

McClintock told Hamblin that we perpetuate the trophy wife notion by relying on our culturally ingrained biases.

"There's a bias toward seeing women who are married to high-status men — who are themselves high-status — as being more attractive," she says. "It creates this self-affirming circle where we never even stop to ask if we perceive the man as good-looking. We just say she's good-looking, he's high status — and she's good-looking in part because the couple is high-status."

It's a bit of a chicken/egg conundrum: Which came first, the beauty or the status?

But the answer, according to McClintock's study, isn't the most relevant point. Her conclusion is that the majority of both men and women seek partners who are more similar to them than dissimilar.

"Controlling for matching," she writes in her study, "eliminates nearly all evidence of beauty-status exchange."

In the real world, that is. Us Weekly is another story.

hstevens@tribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13

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