If you’ve ever dated someone who was visibly different from you—like a different race or a different age—you’ve probably felt at some point like somebody was giving you the side eye. And you’re probably right. Research has shown that society does not look kindly on “mixed-status” relationships, or couples that appear to be very different from one another. People subconsciously assign value to one trait over the other, and the perceived “unequalness” makes them uncomfortable.
A series of experiments by Brian Collisson at Azusa Pacific University and Jennifer Lee Howell at Ohio University showed that couples that don’t match up size-wise—when one in the pair is significantly heavier than the other—are also subject to prejudice. They’re viewed similarly to the way mixed-race partners and couples with a big age gap have been shown to be viewed—onlookers have the tendency to think one person is benefitting more from the relationship than the other.
“What’s driving a lot of (people’s prejudice) is this idea that one person is dating out of his or her league,” Collisson said to Rewire. “That’s really unfair because a lot of people bring a lot more to the table than these superficial traits.”
The researchers asked participants to answer questions about couples made up of two thin people, two overweight people and one thin person and one overweight person. Participants said they preferred the matched-weight couples over the mixed-weight couples. When asked to play matchmaker to a bunch of fictional people, participants matched them up by weight and body size. They disliked mixed-weight couples being put together. And when asked to give dating advice to mixed-weight couples, they told them “to go on less active, public and expensive dates, display less physical affection, and delay introductions to friends and family.”
When studying “sensitive social subjects” like prejudice, researchers take a lot of steps to assure participants that their answers are anonymous, Collisson said.
But in this study, participants “were so open with their dating advice especially for these couples, it was really alarming,” he said. “That’s because some stereotypes are more socially acceptable than others, weight being a more socially acceptable (prejudice) than skin color for example.”
In the 21st century, why on earth would anyone care about the weight of the people in a relationship? Isn’t the most important thing that they love each other?
Well, as humans, we’re drawn to maintaining the status quo. The status quo is comforting, and, without thinking, we sometimes rail against things we think might upend the systems and ideologies we’re used to. The researchers found that the participants who most defended the status quo also reported being the most uncomfortable with mixed-weight relationships. Because of the negative way society views people who are overweight, people who are most comfortable with the status quo would see a mixed-weight couple as a symbol that the hierarchy (“thin is better than fat”) is being leveled out. It’s a sign that things might not stay the way they’ve been for so long.
Both people in a mixed-weight partnership are liable to be the target of stigma from outside folks, the researchers wrote. But they’re also more likely to experience conflict within their relationship. It’s possible that the increased fighting and breaking up is a result of society looking down on this type of relationship, they wrote.
“People take it too far—when you see a couple walking down the street, you don’t get a chance to find out how intelligent they are, or funny they are, or how great their personality is,” Collisson said. “People cant read through (other) people’s skin like that.”
So if you’re in a “mixed-status” relationship of any kind, find ways to talk about your differences in a positive and productive way. Listen to each other and learn from one another’s experiences. Don’t let societal pressure dictate the way you live your lives together.
“One of the things I love most about social psychology, even though we point out the worst parts of human nature, it’s refreshing to document what our biases are, and allow future researchers to say, ‘How do we change this, how do we make people less prejudiced?,'” Collisson said. “The more exposure (people) have to these different couples, the more they’ll realize that they’re making a mistake, they’re judging a relationship before they get to know the actual couples.”
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for the daily newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she edits and writes the articles that appear on Rewire, and works with its pool of freelance journalists. She has also written episodes of PBS Digital Studios series “Sound Field” and “America From Scratch.” She’s the host of the history webseries “30-Second Minnesota,” which was nominated for an Upper Midwest Regional Emmy Award. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.