A journalist recently called me to discuss an article suggesting that our unconsciousminds may help us to stay faithful to our current romantic partners (Cole et al., 2016). The call made me think about the ways we try to maintain our relationships, from strategies for keeping ourselves faithful to those aimed at keeping our mates faithful. I refer to these as "secret strategies" because nearly all are unconscious or subconscious.
Madeleine A Fugère Ph.D. is a professor of Social Psychology at Eastern Connecticut State University, where she teaches courses in Social Psychology, Statistics, Research Methods, and Attraction and Romantic Relationships. She is the author of The Social Psychology of Attraction and Romantic Relationships (Palgrave Macmillan) as well as numerous journal articles related to attraction and romantic relationships.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
1. See Your Partner through Rose Colored Glasses
As we review in our book, a common mechanism which helps to keep us faithful to our mates is “partner-enhancement” or “positive illusions.” Both terms refer to the fact that we tend to see our romantic partners more positively than they see themselves (Morry et al., 2010; Conley et al., 2009). For example, you might perceive your partner as more respectful or tolerant than he perceives himself to be. Partner enhancement is more common among dating couples than married couples, suggesting that it may be helpful in maintaining our current relationships. Intuitively, in both gay and lesbian as well as heterosexual couples, those who view their partners more positively also report more relationship satisfaction (Conley et al.). Partner enhancement is not limited to personalityperceptions; we also tend to augment our partners' appearance. We rate our own partners as more physically attractive relative to ratings made by more objective individuals as well as ratings made by our partners themselves (Swami et al., 2012). We also tend to rate our partners as more physically attractive than ourselves (Swami et al.; Fugère et al., 2015). This enhanced perception of the attractiveness of our mates may also help to keep us committed to our current relationship partners (Swami et al.; Fugère et al.).
2. See Alternative Partners as Less Attractive
Consistent with the idea that we see our own partners as more attractive, in committed relationships, we may also see alternative partners as less attractive. For example, when presented with an attractive member of the opposite sex, college students in committed romantic relationships actually reported that they found that attractive individual less attractive and felt less desire to date that person than those in less committed relationships (Johnson and Rusbult, 1989). In fact, the more attractive the alternative partner, the less attractive these students rated him or her. Similarly, in new research using a photograph matching task, students who were very satisfied with their current partners chose a less attractive manipulated photograph as matching the target person's real photograph (Cole et al., 2016). This finding suggests that participants actually perceived the alternative partner as less attractive and were not consciously modifying their responses. The authors of this research conclude that when we are in very satisfying relationships, we try to protect those relationships by downgrading potential rivals.
3. Increase your Interpersonal Distance
You may be familiar with the idea that people who are attracted to one another also tend to get closer to one another in physical proximity (see a summary of this research here). Conversely, when we are in love, our unconscious seems to prompt us to maintain a larger physical distance between ourselves and attractive others, perhaps through the neuropeptide oxytocin, which is associated with the experience of romantic love. In new relationships, couples that have higher levels of oxytocin are more likely to stay together than counterparts with lower levels of oxytocin (Schneiderman et al., 2012). In a fascinating research project, men in romantic relationships who were administered oxytocin via a nasal spray maintained a larger physical distance between themselves and an attractive female experimenter. Single men and men who were administered a placebotended to move closer to the experimenter (Scheele et al., 2012). Increasing our distance from others while staying close to our mates may also aid in the maintenance of our current relationships.
4. Spot and Avoid Cheaters
A variety of research suggests ways to identify and avoid potentially unfaithful partners. For example, women can accurately judge whether men have been unfaithful in the past simply by looking at facial photographs (Rhodes et al., 2014). In this research project, men who looked more masculine were expected to be unfaithful more often. However, more attractive men were perceived as more trustworthy. Men were less able to accurately judge women's infidelity and were generally biased toward assuming women were faithful. Given that individuals who have cheated in the past may be more likely to cheat again in the future, it may be especially advantageous to be able to identify unfaithful partners before we have invested in these relationships. Moreover, disagreeableness and a lack of conscientiousness are associated with an increased risk of infidelity (Schmitt, 2002). Avoiding relationships with those who are likely to cheat or have cheated in the past would appear to decrease the likelihood of ending up with a partner who will cheat.
5. Have More Sex
An exciting way to enhance relationship satisfaction and to keep our lovers faithful may be to have more sex. Researchers Pham et al. (2014) found that men whose attractive female partners had more male friends and co-workers (and thus the men had more potential rivals) reported having more sex with their female partners. The researchers postulate that this increase in sexual activity may be designed to keep their mates happy and faithful (as well as having other reproductive advantages).