Relational monogamy is a social, cultural, and spiritual ideal. Yet within romantic relationships, particularly over the long term, some people struggle with temptation, particularly in settings where they are presented with romantic alternatives.
Thankfully, there are methods of resistance. The success of such measures, however, depends on the commitment of the parties, as well as the stage of the relationship.
Is it Possible to Be “Just Looking” or “Just Talking”?
With strangers, there is an argument that attention to relational alternatives is harmless because a partner is “just looking.” Unfortunately, whether one is looking on or offline (there are unfortunately too many Internet sites dedicated to curious partners), there is usually a link between attention to relational alternatives and infidelity. Attention often translates into intention—to do more than look.
Relational alternatives are not always strangers. They are ex-partners, colleagues, neighbors, and friends. This is why many couples actively take steps to reduce exposure to romantic temptation. Many partners find no upside and plenty of downside to agreeing to have lunch or dinner with an ex-flame, or meeting alone with an attractive single client or customer. Such situations may ultimately result in more than “just talking.”
So in a world filled with romantic alternatives, how to happy couples make it work? Many of them actively employ strategies to maintain monogamy.
Refocusing Wandering Eyes: Strategies for Monogamy Maintenance
In a study entitled “Ain´t misbehaving?” (2017), Brenda H. Lee and Lucia F. O´Sullivan examined a number of strategies used to maintain monogamy.[i]They recognized infidelity as a common problem in relationships, citing prior research that showed that 90% of partners had an opportunity to be unfaithful, and unfortunately, many take advantage of that opportunity.
They note that infidelity is complicated by the fact that many couples have different ideas about what it means to be unfaithful. Is an emotional affair cheating, or is adultery limited to having an extra-relational physical affair? With heterosexual couples, is making new cross-gender friends cause for concern?
In reviewing survey responses from 741 adults in the United States who were involved in intimate relationships, Lee and O´Sullivan identified three factors that characterized the twenty-four strategies that emerged: Proactive Avoidance of attractive alternatives, Relationship Enhancement (focusing on improving the quality of one´s current relationship), and Low Self-Monitoring and Derogation (downplaying the allure of attractive relational alternatives).
The authors define derogation, which they note can occur both explicitly and implicitly within committed relationships, as a cognitive and perceptual bias that helps partners maintain monogamous relationships. They describe derogation as “a tendency to devalue alternative partners, which is most marked when the alternative poses a significant threat, when the alternative is attractive, and when the individual is faced with an actual opportunity to be involved with the alternative.”
The authors point out, however, that derogation of relational alternatives is more likely to be successful in the short term. Problems arise with repeated, consistent exposure to an attractive romantic alternative. This is why affairs often arise in the workplace, or other venues where people see each other every day.
Sadly, Lee and O´Sullivan found that although pro-monogamy strategies were commonly endorsed, they were largely unsuccessful. Other research, however, suggests that the success of monogamy maintenance strategies may depend on the stage of the relationship.
New Relationships: Infatuation Breeds Fidelity
In a study entitled “Executive control and faithfulness” (2018), Ryuhei Ueda et al. asked men in romantic relationships to perform a date-rating task where they rated their interest in dating an unfamiliar female.[ii] They found that active regulation of interest in romantic alternatives was required by men more often in long-term relationships than in the early stages of a relationship.
They recognize the function of executive control in the “derogation effect,” where people in romantic relationships downplay the value of alternative partners. They note, however, that there are other methods of maintaining monogamy. One of the most important is what they describe as the “intensity of passionate love” for a current partner.
Particularly in the early stages of romance, the authors explain that people may be under the influence of “involuntary romantic infatuation,” sustained by the brain´s reward system. Although such passionate love is indeed both pleasurable and addictive, it decreases over time.
Good Relationships Are Worth the Effort
There are plenty of couples that happily celebrate wedding anniversaries each year, having been together for decades. Solid, healthy relationships are certainly not only possible, but also probable between partners who are actively committed to each other.
After short-term infatuation wears off, long-term relationships provide stability, support, companionship, and well-being. They are indeed worth the time and effort necessary to sustain them.
The good news is that deliberate behavioral control can regulate interest in relational alternatives, allowing partners to maintain monogamy. The benefits of committed relationships are indeed worth the effort.
[i]Brenda H. Lee and Lucia F. O´Sullivan, ”Ain´t misbehavin? Monogamy maintenance strategies in heterosexual romantic relationships,” Personal Relationships 25, 2018, 205-232.
[ii]Ryuhei Ueda, Kuniaki Yanagisawa, Hiroshi Ashida, and Nobuhito Abe, ”Executive control and faithfulness: only long-term romantic relationships require prefrontal control,” Experiemental Brain Reseaerch 236, 2018, 821-828.