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How Attractive Alternatives Can Threaten a Relationship

When ambivalence gets complicated by desire.

Key points

  • It's normal to experience ambivalence about a romantic relationship at times.
  • Many people think about potential alternative partners. This only threatens the relationship if strong feelings of desire emerge.
  • Relationship ambivalence can also occur due to a life transition, stress, or relationship conflict.
Ben White / Unsplash
Source: Ben White / Unsplash

A new paper published in the journal Emotion explores an under-researched area of relationship science: ambivalence in romantic relationships. According to the researchers, most people in romantic relationships can identify attractive alternatives in their life, or someone they find attractive or would date if they were not with their partner. However, it only becomes a source of stress and ambivalence when they have strong feelings of desire for the attractive alternative.

“Most people do or will experience ambivalence at some point in their relationship,” says Giulia Zoppolat, a psychologist at Vrije University in Amsterdam and lead author of the research. “Our studies show that people are more likely to experience ambivalence when relationship-relevant events happen, such as when people feel pulled towards someone other than their partner. In this situation, people are forced to weigh the pros and cons of each option, which increases their ambivalence as they assess the positive and negative aspects of their relationships.”

To better understand this phenomenon, the researchers recruited hundreds of couples in the Netherlands that were in long-term relationships and asked them about their feelings towards their partner, whether or not they had an attractive alternative in their life, and, if so, how attracted to them they were.

The researchers also asked participants to rate their personal and relational well-being, such as how much stress they felt in their relationship and if they had frequent thoughts about breaking up with their partner.

“Our main question was what happens when people feel desire towards someone other than their romantic partner,” says Zoppolat.

They found that while most people could identify an attractive alternative in their life, it was primarily feelings of desire towards the attractive alternative, not just that this person existed, that increased ambivalence.

“Having attractive alternatives in one’s life should not necessarily sound alarm bells, but feelings of desire towards them might,” says Zoppolat.

The authors note that there are other factors that might cause relationship ambivalence, such as a major life change like relocating or just having experienced a big fight. But the presence of an attractive and desired alternative is perhaps the most common source of relationship ambivalence.

The authors offer some words of wisdom for people struggling with relationship ambivalence.

“The first takeaway is that it is normal to have attractive alternatives in one’s life, but that this is not necessarily a threat to your relationship,” says Zoppolat. “What does make people pause and re-evaluate things is when there are strong feelings of desire towards someone else. The second takeaway is that, when this happens, this is a stressful situation. I would argue that it is important to recognize this stress and acknowledge that mixed and conflicting feelings are normal in this situation. This does not mean that the relationship is necessarily doomed, just that it might require a bit more attention to sort out one’s feelings and decide what the best course of action is, whatever that may be.”

The authors found no evidence of gender differences in the amount or type of ambivalence experienced by a partner, nor were there any age differences.

Facebook image: shurkin_son/Shutterstock

References

Zoppolat, Giulia (Interview). When do attractive alternatives become a threat to your relationship? Therapytips.org, January 13, 2022.

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