Written by Janet Giron-Legarda
There are benefits to maintaining a committed, long-term relationship, such as working as a team when raising a child and the social alliances that can be gained from the partnership (Maner, Gailliot, & Miller, 2009). Most couples encounter threats that they have to work through in order for the relationship to prevail, but certain obstacles, such as attractive alternative partners, can be difficult to fully overcome. Physically attractive potential mates are everywhere: in class, on the internet, at grocery stores, and across the street. These desirable people can be seen as a threat to a relationship and, therefore, need to be addressed in order to maintain the current partnership (Rusbult, 1980).
Do people in committed relationships actually pay less attention to attractive alternatives?
According to a research study by Maner, Gailliot, and Miller (2009), the only time people in a committed relationship showed lower attention to attractive alternatives was when the participants had been primed to think about their romantic relationship, rather than primed with a neutral stimulus. In any other circumstance, the person in a relationship was just as likely as an unattached person to pay attention to an attractive alternative.
Both men and women have a tendency to pay attention to physically desirable potential mating partners. Attractive men could signify high levels of genetic fitness to potential female mates, while attractiveness in women could signify health and fertility (Gangestad & Simpson, 2000; Pillsworth & Haselton, 2006; Scheib, Gangestad, & Thornhill, 1999; Kenrick & Keefe, 1992; Singh, 1993). People in couples rate possible alternatives lower than single people rate alternatives because their relationship goals are already being met (Maner et al., 2009). When a person is primed to think about their romantic relationship, their attention to attractive alternatives decreases. The temptation to act on feelings elicited from an alternative mating partner can threaten a relationship, and therefore, people “exhibit cognitive processes that help protect their relationship” (Maner et al., 2009, p. 174). Viewing alternatives as less appealing or reducing the attention that is given to them could help “foster long-term pair bonding” (Maner, Rouby, & Gonzaga, 2008, p. 344). The social exchange theory could also play into why individuals in a partnership remain together, at a more conscious level. Exchange theories are based on the analysis of costs and benefits that are associated with romantic involvement. "Companionship, happiness, and feeling loved or loving another were among the most important benefits accompanying romantic involvement. The most serious costs included stress and worry about the relationship, social and nonsocial sacrifices, and increased dependence on the partner" (Sedikides, Oliver, & Campbell, 1994, p. 5).
These studies provide support for the evolutionary theory for maintaining romantic relationships because the studies demonstrate that committed individuals are more likely to pay less attention to attractive alternatives when primed to think about relationships (Maner, Gailliot, & Miller, 2009; Maner, Rouby, & Gonzaga, 2008). Partners who are committed to one another and their relationship can be assured that looking at appealing individuals does not mean that your relationship is doomed. When the people in the relationship are reminded of that partnership, they are more likely to pay less attention to others and focus on their long-term relationship goals.
What should you do if your partner is looking at other people?
Gangestad, S. W., & Simpson, J. A. (2000). On the evolutionary psychology of human mating: Trade-offs and strategic pluralism. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 23, 573-587.
Kenrick, D. T., & Keefe, R. C. (1992). Age preferences in mates reflect sex differences in reproductive strategies. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 15, 75-133.
Maner, J. K., Gailliot, M. T., & Miller, S. L. (2009). The implicit cognition of relationship maintenance: Inattention to attractive alternatives. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(1), 174-179.
Maner, J. K., Rouby, D. A., & Gonzaga, G. C. (2008). Automatic inattention to attractive alternatives: The evolved psychology of relationship maintenance. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29(5), 343-349.
Pillsworth, E. G., & Haselton, M. G. (2006). Male sexual attractiveness predicts differential ovulatory shifts in female extra-pair attraction and male mate retention. Evolution and Human Behavior, 27, 247-258.
Rusbult, C. E. (1980). Commitment and satisfaction in romantic associations: A test of the investment model. Journal of experimental social psychology, 16(2), 172-186.
Scheib, J. E., Gangestad, S. W., & Thornhill, R. (1999). Facial attractiveness, symmetry, and cues of good genes. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B, 266, 1913-1917.
Sedikides, C., Oliver, M. B., & Campbell, W. K. (1994). Perceived benefits and costs of romantic relationships for women and men: Implications for exchange theory. Personal Relationships, 1(1), 5-21.
Singh, D. (1993). Adaptive significance of female physical attractiveness: Role of waist-to-hip ratio. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 293-307.
Dr. H. Colleen Sinclair
Social Psychologist, Relationships Researcher,
Ms. Jessica Utley
Lab Manager of the Social Relations Collaborative and Blog Editor