In the second of a five-part series on love and relationships, Tom Matlack and author Laura Munson debate the question: How important is physical appearance to long-term fidelity?
MUNSON: Many of us fear this question because many of us liked our 20-year-old bodies better than our current (44-year-old, in my case) bodies. The beer commercials tell us we’re supposed to. But I’d be willing to bet that even if we still had that bikini body (and some of us do, so power to you!), we’d still look in the mirror and find something wrong. I remember looking in the mirror and thinking my butt was big when I weighed 25 pounds less than I do now and I was in the prime of my physical life. I’d do anything to have that “big butt” back. But would I really? Is that what I need in order to feel attractive? My 44-year-old mind tells me that I know better. In longterm committed relationships, what perhaps was once about physical attraction morphs into a seasoned love that transcends physicality. Not always—but hopefully. Because our bodies will change and sag and even be riddled with sickness.
My husband used to say, “You’re beautiful and you’re going to get more beautiful with age.” That was his 20-year-old self being caught in the beauty myth. Life becomes about a lot more than what your butt looks like. We’ve been through death, near divorce, birth, career changes—the regular stresses and gifts of life. And I’ve learned that the most freedom I’ve felt is in letting go of that beauty myth. That’s not where your power lies. It lies in forgiveness, loving kindness, going easy on your partner in rough times, not taking things personally, being personally responsible, and re-creating yourself in every moment. It’s about having fun and waking up every day agreeing that you’re going to be the best married person you can be. If it’s my butt that keeps my husband around, then I don’t want that marriage. I think respect goes miles farther than any ass ever did—and that the definition of beauty changes as you grow.
MATLACK: I agree with you that appearance in marriage is filtered through the eyes of “seasoned love.” I have told my wife on numerous occasions that if she were to get plastic surgery, as many of the women in our circle of friends have, I would be enormously disappointed. To me, beauty isn’t about artificial perfection. It’s about the natural aging process. My wife is more beautiful to me now than the day I met her. At 46, she keeps herself in great shape and has the long lines, figure, blond hair, and startling blue eyes of a shooting star. But it’s not that she looks young, it’s that she’s mine, and we love each other. It’s the feeling of her body and all the little things that make her uniquely her that I adore, and that make her so beautiful.
I was at a Christmas party recently, talking to a group of guys I barely knew. My wife walked across the room behind me in a black dress and high heels. Every one of the guys’ eyes followed her from one doorway to the other. Finally, one guy, Jim, said, “Who is that?” Another guy laughed. “That’s Tom’s wife!” Jim high-fived me and then gave me a bear hug in congratulations.
None of this is meant to say that my wife is a model or is going to be on the front page of Glamour anytime soon (though I think she should be!). Objectively, she is a very beautiful woman. To me, she is the most beautiful woman on earth—because I adore her. I never think about other women because she is everything I’ve ever wanted.
There is an important distinction here: physical appearance is not the same thing as attraction. From a male perspective, many very beautiful women become immediately unattractive as soon as they open their mouths. Attraction has to do with the whole person, inside and out. And fidelity, in the long term, has to do with an enduring attraction built on passion that colors the way a husband looks at his wife. It is not about looking like a Victoria’s Secret model, but about a husband feeling a pounding in his chest when he sees the woman he has come to know over the course of years and—despite inevitable difficulties of marriage—still has an animal attraction that he can’t even fully explain. It simply is. She is the one. Not in a magazine cover kind of way, but an in-the-flesh, real, three-dimensional, human-connection kind of way.
That’s how I feel about my wife, and, I’d like to believe, why she can attract the glances she does at a party. She is not just hot—she’s loved.
MUNSON: Please tell me that you shared this response with your wife. What a love letter. I wonder if it’s a rare one though. I’m not sure most people would describe their spouses this way. Too many people dwell in the “what’s wrong” with their partner instead of “what’s right.” Often, it’s about outer appearance. And once you start doing that, you get off each other’s team. I have always felt that my husband and I are on the same team, even when we went through a significant marital crisis that almost led to separation. Couples meet in a place of oneness and co-creation. I don’t believe in the Jerry Maguire “you complete me” concept. I believe in Rilke’s notion of being guardians of each other’s solitude, or individuality. That kind of love brings longevity. That kind of love is not about the way a person looks.
Read the first of this series: “Great Sex or Fighting Fair?”
Laura A. Munson, author of This Is Not the Story You Think It Is, wrote one of the most widely read and talked about New York Times Modern Love columns ever: “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear.” She lives with her family in Montana. You can visit her website, and find her on Facebook and Twitter.
Tom Matlack is just foolish enough to believe he is a decent man. He has a 16-year-old daughter and 14- and 5-year-old sons. His wife, Elena, is the love of his life.