We Project Onto Romantic Partners Our Own Desires To Cheat

Why do we stay with one partner over another, when there are so many attractive alternatives? If we are in a committed dyadic relationship, the threat from moving to alternative partners, sexually or romantically, is one of the greatest. Infidelity is a main predictor of relationship break-up, and relationship stability depends, among other things, on guarding against infidelity. Jealousy and suspicion, on the other hand, can drive a wedge into intimacy, and set up destructive cycles which ironically can end up resulting in infidelity, when jealously drives a loved one into the arms of another. However, when our relationships aren’t going well, and suspicion may be well-founded, paying attention to warning signs may either allow issues to be addressed before they become terminal, or may allow for a less painful separation than would be the case with breaking-up after infidelity.

But how do we know when our suspicions are well-founded, or are merely the result of our own disavowed desires for others being projected on to our partners (or both)? This is a tricky question, and for the individual one best addressed through introspection, soul-searching, self-exploration and challenging conversations. However, new research on how projection can affect perception of romantic partner’s attraction to others can help inform our efforts to understand ourselves and those close to us.

In order to examine to what extent projection may play a role in whether or not people believe their romantic partners are attracted to others, researchers Neal and Lemay (2017) designed a study to sort out how much projection of one’s own forbidden inner desires may play out in what we see in others. They propose that if people are attracted to alternative partners, they will be more likely to see their partners as being likewise attracted to others, and will therefore be more likely to respond with negative emotions and behaviors—as if their partner had actually cheated on them.

Why might we project our desires onto our romantic partners?

Neal and Lemay review the literature behind their work on projection in romantic relationships. According to interdependence theory, the more we depend on one another, the more mutual and overt our dependence is, and the more interconnected we become, the more our self-concepts will come to overlap. If this is true, it would be more likely to support the presumption that whatever we think and feel, so must our partners also think and feel. It’s a basic, first-order approximation of others’ motives—other people must be motivated the same way I am, so I’ll make my first guess about what you are doing based on my own sense of what I am doing. Of course, these assumptions are often wrong—I may not know my own motivations very accurately (most of us don’t, but we often think we do) and the other person may have different motivations than my own, regardless.

The study authors go on to note that people who are interested in “engaging in extradyadic relationships” may be more likely to believe their partners are also interested, citing prior work on projection. They note that prior research shows that people may project their own internal states and behaviors onto other people when it comes to other key relationship factors: attachment style, dishonesty, responsiveness, closeness, caring, feelings of relationship equality, and enjoyment of sex. We tend to see ourselves in others, and we tend to see what we need or want to see. Projection, they say, may be motivated on many levels—seeing a partner as wanting to cheat may help alleviate our own feelings of guilt and rationalize our own desires.

On the other hand, if we are committed, we may ignore the possibility that our partner is not, downplaying threats to the relationship. Psychologists call these factors, collectively, “projection bias“, a tendency to skew perception of reality to come into line with our own inner experience. Projection bias may therefore exert a distorting effect on interpersonal reality, for example enhancing justified suspicion or fueling jealousy when it is not justified. Projection bias works with accurate perceptions of reality, potentially misleading us as emotional reasoning prevails over emotionally-informed reasoning. In particular, they point out that if we project our own attraction to others onto our partners, and then respond with anger and related negative behaviors (e.g. jealousy, suspicion, dismissiveness, withdrawal, etc.).

Study design

In this study, Neal and Lemay recruited 96 heterosexual couples, ranging in age from 18 to 70 years old, 75 percent of whom were younger than 25 years old, and the majority of which were Caucasian. The average relationship length was 3.23 years, and approximately 80 percent were dating, 15 percent were married, and 5 percent were engaged. The majority reported seeing their partners daily.

The study lasted 7 days, and each day all participants completed a brief questionnaire in the evening. Each day they assessed the following:

  1. Anger: How angry they felt toward their romantic partner that day;
  2. Negative Behaviors: How critical or insulting were they toward their partner, how selfish were they with their partner, and how cold were were they with their partner;
  3. Own Extradyadic Attraction: How much they themselves had been attracted to others that same day, including how much romantic or sexual interest toward someone else, how much time spent thinking about someone else, how many other people did they “check out” that day, how many people other than their partner did they flirt with that day;
  4. Perceived Partner Extradyadic Attraction: How much did they think their partner was attracted to someone else that day, rated on the same four dimensions as their own self-rating of extradyadic attraction.

They used a variety of statistical analyses to look at relationships among the variables above for each couple, looking to compare accuracy of perception of partner’s extradyadic attraction against projections of one’s own attraction, and correlated projected perception of attraction with anger and negative behavior toward partners.

Results

They found that people were able to notice when their partners were attracted to others, day to day. However, people’s own attraction to others (projection) had a larger effect size on perceiving attraction to others in partners than their accurate perceptions of that attraction. In other words, projection of their own desire for others accounted for more of the sense that their partner was interest in others than they were able to pick up on their partner’s reported interest in others. This finding was true day to day, a well as over the whole time of the study, suggesting projection of own attraction onto romantic partners is both a state as well as a trait variable, though the overall duration of the study was brief.

With regard toward anger toward partners, not only was anger greater (as one would expect) when people perceived their romantic partner as interested in others, anger was also higher for people with higher levels of their own attraction to others, independent of their partners level of attraction, supporting the notion that projection of one’s own attraction independently leads to anger toward romantic partners. They also found that the greater one’s own temptation toward others, the greater the anger toward romantic partners. 

Likewise, they found that projected attraction predicted all negative behaviors, independent of the partner’s actual attraction to others. These findings for anger and negative behaviors were generally true day-to-day as well as over the course of the study. These effects held when researchers controlled for the partner’s self-reported attraction to others, lending further evidence to the hypothesis that projection of one’s own attraction predicted anger as well as negative behaviors toward romantic partners, independent of the reality of their partner’s feelings.

Additional considerations

In general, this research lends preliminary support to the long-held notion that people can project their own desires onto others, at least when it comes to fears of infidelity. That’s a major finding, because we often are not open to the possibility that our own (often guilty) desires may influence how we see our romantic partners—though some are more open than others, and it often seems that the lower self-awareness is, the greater is projection. Denial is a powerful precursor to projection.

The idea that we see in others what we are uncomfortable seeing in ourselves is a familiar psychoanalytic concept, and core to therapeutic process when it comes to psychodynamic therapy. After all, the basic idea that we see aspects of our developmental past in our therapists (transference), is fundamentally projective—as is the notion that therapists may be influenced by our own developmental experiences in doing the work of therapy (countertransference).

In psychoanalytic psychotherapies (including psychodynamic therapy), developing greater awareness of unconscious processes such as projection is one of the ways we can not only better understand ourselves, but also can catalyze change by helping us perceive and enjoy a broader range of choices than when we are bound by projections and other defensive operations.

When it comes to romantic relationships, especially committed romantic relationships, attraction to others is one of the main threats of loss. Unlike loss due to dying, loss due to a decision to end the relationship by picking another person tends to be associated with betrayal and injury, if infidelity is present, as well as lowering self-esteem when we feel we have been deemed less desirable than another, even inadequate or unsuitable—and causing pain due to feelings of rejection. Because finding a mate is often a major life goal associated with feelings of accomplishment and status, loss of a relationship is often a major blow. It’s great if we can part amicably and mutually, but that can seem all too rare.

The findings of the present study are important because they show that, at least in this sample of nearly 100 relationships, a significant component of suspicion that romantic partners are thinking about others is inflated and often inaccurate, and more reflective of our own desires than the desires of our partners. Because projections of our own desire for people outside of committed relationships may lead us to also feel more anger toward our partners, and to act more negatively with them, at times we will end up undermining our investment in committed relationships by failing to take our own feelings into account. Even when participants were aware of their attraction toward others, they were not aware of how this influenced how much they were suspicious of their partner, suggesting that greater self-awareness about how much we tend to use projection can change the way we perceive our partner’s fidelity.

When we are feeling most concerned about our partner’s commitment, for example, we might ask ourselves how much we ourselves are longing for someone else. We might remind ourselves that this could make us more suspicious and angry, and to act more hostile and withdrawn—potentially pushing our partners away further, and providing false evidence that our suspicious were correct. Such thinking may drive jealousy and serve to alleviate our own guilt for thinking about being unfaithful, and end up pushing us apart, or even possibly catalyze abuse and domestic violence. If we are aware of, and accept, attraction to others as a normal experience, it may be potentially healthy source of novelty if shared in a useful way by couples.

Furthermore, by recognizing, accepting and embracing our own desires as well as those of our partners—rather than disavowing and projecting out of guilt or shame—we have a shot at using self-awareness and dialogue to address relationship issues, dealing with potential sources of conflict constructively, rather than letting them drive us apart. On the other hand, we may also be better able to recognize when it is time to move on, and part ways more amicably with less chance of betrayal and injury. In yet other cases, projection of commitment and trust may help to glue the relationship together, as positive perceptions of oneself may also be seen in our partners.

It will be interesting to see where this research goes. Because the sample is relatively young and homogeneous, it will be important to conduct research with more diverse couples and other relationship configurations (e.g. non-traditional relationships). It will also be important to look at longer spans of time than a week, and to look at a broader range of emotions and behaviors, including both positive and negative emotions and behaviors, and how they play out over a longer span of time in terms of overall relationship stability. Can interventions help turn the tide when projection threatens trust—for example, does greater emotional awareness lead to people making better choices individually, potentially addressing potential areas of destructive conflict more constructively—and if so, what works and under what circumstances?

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