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Sexual objectification in romantic relationships is related to lower relationship satisfaction

By Steph Anderson

*From the SPARK Research! Blog Archive: This blog was originally written for SPARK, a girl-fueled organization working to ignite an anti-racist gender justice movement

Valentine’s Day – that pink, red, and white chocolate-covered day where you have the chance to tell everyone how much you care for them. I have to confess: it was one of my favorite days growing up. The anticipation of carnations, chocolates, or Disney-themed cards from a “secret admirer” (even if it was my bestie) always made me feel good about myself. I mean – who doesn’t want to be the object of someone’s desire, right?

With the Valentine’s season in our minds, I’m starting to wonder if being an object or treating someone else this way is a good for relationships. I know that when I’m dating someone, I often think – and sometimes worry – about how my partner thinks I look. Am I sexy enough? Is he/she satisfied with my body? In all honesty, I’ve also been critical of the way the person I’m dating looks. Has this form of objectification affected my relationships?

A lot of the research we discuss in the SPARK Research Blog has focused on self-objectification – how we look at our own bodies as objects. When we self-objectify, we focus more on how we appear and not so much on how we feel within our bodies or what we’re capable of accomplishing. For example, how am I supposed to really enjoy the experience of devouring Valentine’s Day chocolates, if I’m busy worrying about how I look while I eat them?

But our blogs haven’t yet explored how objectifying someone else may relate to how we objectify ourselves. And what about how all of this objectifying affects our relationships?

Researchers Eileen Zurbriggen, Laura Ramsey, and Beth Jaworski[1] wanted to know. Specifically, they wanted to know if objectifying ourselves relates to objectifying our partners. They were also interested in understanding how self-objectification and partner-objectification – objectification of the person we are dating – affect how satisfied people are in their relationships.

To find out the answers, they asked a group of young men and women to answer questions about their attitudes toward their bodies, their appearance and the bodies and appearance of their partners. They also answered questions about how satisfied they are overall with their romantic relationships.

What did they find? First, they found that the more we objectify ourselves the more likely we are to objectify others. You might be thinking what I did: Isn’t it good to some extent if your partner objectifies you or you objectify him or her? Isn’t that what sexual attraction and sexual desire are all about? Zubriggen, Ramsey, and Jaworski point out that thinking your partner is attractive is different than thinking about him or her as an object. The researchers didn’t, for example, ask participants if they found their partner attractive. They asked them if they focused their attention on their partner’s appearance and body.

So what does this mean for the quality of our relationships? The researchers found that, overall, the more men and women objectify (either self-objectify or objectify their partners) the less satisfied they are in their relationships. The researchers caution that when we think of our partners as objects of our own desire, we may run the risk of not seeing them as humans with desires of their own. That may keep us from thinking about what our partners need or want, which can, in turn, leave us feeling less connected to our boyfriend or girlfriend and less satisfied overall with our relationship.

It is important to note, though, that not only women objectified themselves. Like other research has found, men in this study were just as likely to self-objectify as women were. It might be that being exposed to objectification (through magazines, TV, etc.) can cause us not only to self-objectify, but also to believe that all people – not just ourselves – should be judged by their appearance. And that takes the humanity away from us all.

So for this Valentine’s Day, I shifted my focus from the external to the internal. I thought about all the great qualities that I admire in myself and make sure I really listen to the people I love – my parents, friends, and significant other. Oh, and of course I ate – and enjoyed – a thousand delicious chocolates. That’s really what Valentine’s Day should be about anyway.

[1] Zurbriggen, E. L., Ramsey, L. R., Jaworski, B. K. (2011). Self- and partner-objectification in romantic relationships: Associations with media consumption and relationship satisfaction. Sex Roles, 64, 449-462.

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