Men place a higher value on the attractiveness of their life partners than women, one group of psychologists says.

Southern Methodist University psychologist Andrea Meltzer and colleagues drew on four different studies with a pool of more than 450 newlywed heterosexual couples. At the start of the studies, independent researchers scored the attractiveness of the husband and wife in each pair. Experimenters then interviewed the newlyweds and followed up later, asking them to rate their marital satisfaction on eight separate occasions over the next four years.

“Whereas husbands were more satisfied at the beginning of the marriage and remained more satisfied over the next four years to the extent that they had an attractive wife, wives were no more or less satisfied initially or over the next four years to the extent that they had an attractive husband,” Meltzer and colleagues wrote in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The finding jives with similar research by co-author and University of California psychologist Benjamin Karney. Karney and colleagues have interviewed and observed newlyweds, and found that generally, husbands and wives were nicer to each other when the woman was more attractive, but more negative in relationships where the husband was more attractive.

"There are lots of reasons why people stay together, and lots of reasons why people are committed to each other," Karney told UCLA’s news service. "So it would be an exaggeration to say, ‘Well, no woman should ever marry a man who is more attractive than she is.’ But it is true that on average, when men are more attractive than their wives — in this sample, at least — it looks like they were less invested. Maybe because they knew that they might have more alternatives — better alternatives, potentially. Whereas the men who were with the attractive women said, ‘Woo hoo! I lucked out!’ "

But other psychologists are a bit skeptical about the claim that a man’s looks matter much less than a woman’s in heterosexual relationships. Other research that examines a variety of relationships, from marriage to nonmarried couples to speed-dating participants, has suggested that the sexes place pretty much equal importance on looks in their romantic partners.

In a forthcoming critique of Meltzer and colleague’s paper [PDF], a group of psychologists led by Paul Eastwick and Lisa Neff at the University of Texas at Austin say the sex-based effect on valuing attractiveness that the other researchers found isn't actually that large. Eastwick is also one of the authors of a forthcoming meta-analysis – a study of studies – in Psychological Bulletin [PDF] that finds no similar sex-based effect on romantic partner preferences among 97 study samples spanning 30,000 participants.

“In short, the prior foundation of data does not support Meltzer et al.’s contention that there is a sex difference in the association of physical attractiveness with romantic evaluations, even with objective measures and in the married samples they deem most relevant to the test of the hypothesis,” Eastwick and colleagues wrote.