Checking out others? You probably think your partner is too.

Source: “Suspicion” by Rachel | flickr CC0 License

People have a tendency to mistakenly believe they have more in common with their romantic partners than they really do. They project their own insecurities and their feelings about the relationship onto their partners.1,2 We often think we’re more on the same page as our partners than we really are. Generally, this breeds greater closeness in relationships.3But what about when it comes to cheating? Do people who are interested in straying from their partner believe that they’re a “catch” and that their partner should be happy to have them and not look elsewhere? Or do people project their own desire to cheat onto their partner and falsely believe that their partners are thinking of straying? New research by Angela Neal and Edward Lemay, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, examined how potential cheaters project their desires onto their partners.4

How did the researchers do it?

Neal and Lemay recruited 96 couples, with an average age of about 23. Both members of the couple completed daily questionnaires about their relationship for a week. The respondents reported on their own interest in potential alternative partners, their perceptions of their partner’s interest in alternative partners, their anger toward their partner, and any negative behavior they expressed toward their partner (e.g., being insulting or cold).

To test participants’ interest in alternative partners, the researchers asked them to rate themselves on four behaviors each day: “Today, I feel interested in having a romantic or sexual encounter with someone else (besides my partner)”, “Today, how much time did you spend thinking about having a romantic or sexual encounter with someone else (besides your partner)?”, “How many other people (besides your partner) did you check out (i.e., look at with romantic or sexual interest) today?”, and “How many other people (besides your partner) did you flirt with today?” They also answered those same 4 questions about their partners.

Did the participants accurately perceive their partners’ level of interest in others, or did they project their own wandering eye onto their partners?

The results suggested that it was a bit of both. Participants’ perceptions of their partners’ interest in other people were correlated with the partners’ own reports of their interest. So people were sensitive to when their partners were showing interest in others. But independently of that, their own interest in alternative partners was related to how interested they thought their partners were. So people did project their own desire to stray onto their partners.

This is similar to the notion of “deceiver’s distrust”: When people lie, they falsely believe that other people are also lying.5 Deceiver’s distrust is often a way to feel better about oneself. You won’t feel that guilty about lying if you think everyone else is lying. The same applies to the desire to cheat. You won’t feel so guilty about checking out another guy/girl if you think your partner is doing the same thing.4

How did people feel about their partner’s wandering eye?

People tended to feel angrier at their partner on days when their partner had actually shown interest in other people. But their perceptions of their partner’s interest showed a stronger link to anger than their partner’s actual behavior. So what you think your partner is up to matters more than what they’re really up to. And when people engaged in this type of projection, they tended to treat their partners poorly — They were more likely to report that they had criticized their partners, or behaved coldly or selfishly toward them.

What does this mean for our relationships?

This study shows that having a wandering eye could be destructive for your relationship in multiple ways:

  • Clearly, one’s own interest in other people suggests there’s trouble brewing, since committed partners pay less attention to potential alternative partners.6
  • Since people project their own desires onto their partner, they end up being angry when they falsely perceive that their partner is also thinking of straying.
  • This projection also causes them to treat their partners poorly, which does further damage to the relationship.

While this research did not directly examine infidelity, interest in alternative partners is often the first step toward cheating on a partner. So this research also means that we may not be as good at detecting our partners’ cheating as we think we are. If our own wandering eye plays a role in how we see our partners’ actions, this is a significant bias.  And when your partner suspects you of straying, it could say more about them than it does about you.  “Suspicion always haunts the guilty mind” (William Shakespeare, King Henry VI, Part III, 1591). 

Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College, who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior. Read more articles by Dr. Seidman on Close Encounters.

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