Close your eyes and imagine your girlfriend is working late with an attractive coworker that you suspect she has a crush on. Or think about your husband hanging out at his high school reunion with an old flame that he has never gotten over. Such thoughts probably don’t make you feel good, and you may be anxious or upset knowing that your partner was tempted by the fruit of another (or what researchers refer to as “attending to an attractive alternative partner”). It may seem like common sense that such suspicions of a partner’s potential betrayal undermine the quality of a relationship. If you think your partner has his or her eye on someone else, that would hurt your relationship, right? Well, relationship science say otherwise — it may not be that simple. New research suggests that suspicions of partners’ temptations can actually increase commitment in relationships.
In a study1 of nearly 100 dating and married heterosexual couples, partners each answered questions about their own interest in other people every day for a week, and also indicated whether they thought their partners were interested in others each day. They also answered daily questions about how much mate guarding they engaged in that day. Mate guarding involves behaviors like keeping an eye out for people who show romantic or sexual interest in your partner and trying to monopolize his or her time — basically, trying to limit their opportunities to interact with others that might steal them away from you. Finally, each day both members of the couple indicated their commitment and relationship satisfaction.
When people suspected their partners were tempted by or attracted to others, they mate guarded more. This isn’t much of a surprise — if you believe your relationship is threatened, you’re motivated to do something about it. More importantly, mate guarding on one day was associated with the partner having higher commitment to the relationships the next day. However, commitment on one day was not related to mate guarding the next day. In other words, it’s not that more committed people mate guard more, but instead, those that mate guard have partners that become more committed.
Essentially, people feel more committed after their partners mate guarded them. Additionally, the researchers found that the effects of perceived temptation and mate guarding on commitment were heightened for “jealous people” (read more about the “jealous type” here). If you’re the jealous sort, you are especially likely to mate guard when you are suspicious of your partner. Now we’re not saying that extreme, creepy, or dangerous forms of mate guarding like spying on your partner or keeping them from leaving the house are good for your relationship; we definitely don’t endorse that sort of behavior. What we are saying is that after you try to protect your relationship, your partner feels more attached to that relationship, for better or for worse. Although suspicion and jealousy are not particularly pleasant experiences, they are associated with your partner having elevated relationship commitment (read more about the benefits of commitment here).
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1Neal, A. M., & Lemay, E. P. Jr. (in press). How partners’ temptation leads to their heightened commitment: The interpersonal regulation of infidelity threats. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
Dr. Le’s research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships.