Living in Los Angeles can make being in a relationship hard. The person sitting next to you in the café is almost always attractive, and people are still playing volleyball on the beach in their swimsuits in December when most others in the rest of the country are pulling their parkas out of the closet. There is always some temptation…some attractive alternative.
Of course, attractive people live in every city and season. Resisting attractive alternatives is one of the biggest challenges to any relationship. Let’s face it, even the best relationships have their good times and bad. When things aren’t going so well, that good-looking cashier you chat with in the grocery store line suddenly seems flirtatious and interested, or you suddenly notice that hottie in the lunchroom.
Of course, you know that if you indulge it means the end of your relationship, and you will lose all the current and future benefits of your relationship. Often, that thought is enough to motivate most people to avoid the temptation. And yet some give in to temptation, and many relationships end due to infidelity. Relationships ebb and flow, and there will always be temptation, so why do people sometimes resist and at other times fall prey?
Much research has been done to investigate this question, and it turns out there are things in our relationships that help us resist these temptations. For example, when we are in a committed relationship, we tend to view our partners with a rosy glow. Think of the last time you listened to your friend prattle on about the great qualities of his or her partner while thinking, “Really, he/she isn’t that great.” You’ve probably done the same thing when in a relationship. Sandra Murray and her colleagues at the State University of New York at Buffalo have studied this process of enhancing your partner through positive illusions. They showed that the tendency of people to enhance their view of their romantic partners in this way protects the relationship. It makes people more satisfied with their relationship and less likely to let it dissolve. After all, if your partner really is that great, you aren’t going to want to go out with someone else.
But that isn’t all. People in relationships also tend to look for the bad sides of attractive alternatives. Dennis Johnson and Caryl Rusbult, who were researchers at the University of North Carolina, showed that the more invested people were in their relationships, the more they tended to put down possible alternatives to the relationship. For example, in one study, participants were given photos and mock dating service applications to judge. Those who were very committed to their romantic partners tended to view the potential partners as less attractive, less dependable, less funny, etc., than those who were not very committed to their romantic partners. This tendency was the strongest when the participants were told that the alternative was highly attractive. In other words, when the threat to the relationship was the strongest, people were the most likely to point out the downsides of the alternative.
People in good relationships also change how they see the physical qualities of attractive alternatives. Jeff Simpson and his colleagues showed that people in committed romantic relationships found photos of younger opposite-sex individuals less physically attractive than participants who were single. But when the participants judged older opposite-sex individuals or younger same-sex individuals, participants in relationships saw them as just as attractive as participants not in relationships.
There is even evidence that people in committed relationships may not even notice attractive alternatives. Rowland Miller, a professor at Sam Houston State University, showed that the more people were satisfied with and committed to their relationships, the less time they spent looking at photos of attractive opposite-sex individuals. Overall, the less time they spent looking at the photos, the more likely they were to still be dating the same person two months later.
At the heart of all of this might be an experience almost everyone is familiar with: love. I, along with some excellent colleagues, have done some research showing that the momentary experience of love (i.e., that feeling of being close and connected to your romantic partner) relates to couples spending more time together and making more long-term plans for the relationship. The more time you spend with your partner, the less chance there is that you will run off with someone else.
But it gets even more interesting. In another study, we made participants feel either love or desire for their romantic partner and then asked them to push the thought of an attractive alternative out of their mind. Those who were feeling love for their partners were able to push those thoughts out of their mind and keep them out. Those who were feeling desire for their partners were successful at first, but then they had a flood of thoughts about the alternative. When we asked participants to recall their tempting alternative soon after that, the participants who felt love for their partners had trouble remembering what made the alternative attractive. Feeling love helps people resist the allure of attractive others, by keeping tempting thoughts and memorable details out of conscious memory. It seems that love creates a protective veil over partners’ hearts and minds.
There is a theme in all of these studies: high quality relationships change the way we see our partners and temptation. The more loving our relationships are, the more we admire and pay attention to our partners. Simultaneously, the more we derogate and ignore attractive alternatives. It isn’t that our romantic partners are actually that good or that the alternatives are really that bad. But being in love makes us believe it. And when we are forced to weigh our romantic options, good relationships subtly tip the scale in favor of staying with our romantic partner over leaving for the attractive alternative, and that is a good thing. If we were to jump from one romantic partner to another, we would never gain the benefits of a quality, loving, long-term relationship, such as sharing joys, supporting each other when times are tough, and raising a family together.
So when you are standing in line waiting for your latte, and that really hot guy turns to talk to you, think back to the last time you felt close and connected to your partner, and the temptation to flirt won’t be quite so strong.
For more reading:
Gonzaga, G. C., Keltner, D., Londahl, E. A., & Smith, M. D. (2001). Love and the commitment problem in romantic relations and friendship. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 247-262.
Gonzaga, G. C., Haselton, M. G., Smurda, J., Davies, M. S., & Poore, J. C. (in press). Love, desire, and the suppression of thoughts of romantic alternatives. To appear in Evolution and Human Behavior.
Johnson, D. J., & Rusbult, C. E. (1989). Resisting temptation: devaluation of alternative partners as a means of maintaining commitment in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 967-980.
Miller, R. S. (1997). Inattentive and contented: relationship commitment and attention to alternatives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 758-766.
Murray, S. L., Holmes, J. G., & Griffin, D. W. (1996). The self-fulfilling nature of positive illusions in romantic relationships: Love is not blind, but prescient. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 1155-1180.
Simpson, J. A., Gangestad, S. W., & Lerma, M. (1990). Perception of physical attractiveness: Mechanisms involved in the maintenance of romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 1192-1201.