If you cannot dance, you will say, "The drumming is poor." — Ashanti saying
Why do we stay with one partner over another when there are so many attractive alternatives? In a committed dyadic relationship, the threat from moving to alternative partners, sexually or romantically, is one of the greatest challenges we face. Infidelity is the main predictor of a breakup, and relationship stability depends, among other things, on guarding against infidelity. Jealousy and suspicion, on the other hand, can drive a wedge into intimacy and set up destructive cycles which, ironically, can result in infidelity, if jealousy drives a loved one into the arms of another. However, when our relationships aren't going well, and suspicion may be well-founded, paying attention to warning signs may either allow issues to be addressed before they become terminal, or allow for a less painful separation than would be the case with breaking up after infidelity.
But how do we know whether our suspicions are well-founded or merely the result of projecting our own desire for other people onto our partners? This is a tricky question, one best addressed through candid self-exploration, soul-searching, and challenging conversations. New research on how projection affects our perception of a romantic partner's attraction to others can help inform our efforts to understand ourselves and those closest to us.
Researchers Neal and Lemay (2017) propose that if people are attracted to alternative partners, they will be more likely also to see their partners as being attracted to others and will, therefore, be more likely to respond with negative emotions and behaviors, as if their partner had actually cheated on them.
Why might we project our desires onto our romantic partners?
Neal and Lemay review the literature behind their work on projection in romantic relationships. According to interdependence theory, the more we depend on one another, the more mutual and overt our dependence is — and the more interconnected we become, the more our self-concepts will come to overlap. If this is true, it would be more likely to support the presumption that whatever we think and feel, so must our partners also think and feel. It's a basic, first-order approximation of others' motives — other people must be like me, so I'll make my first guess about what you are doing, based on my own sense of what I am doing. Of course, these assumptions are often wrong: I may not accurately know my own motivations — most of us don't, but we often think we do — and the other person may have different motivations from me.
The study authors go on to note that people who are interested in "engaging in extradyadic relationships" may be more likely to believe their partners are also interested, citing prior work on projection. They note that prior research shows that people may project their own internal states and behaviors onto other people when it comes to other key relationship factors — attachment style, dishonesty, responsiveness, closeness, caring, feelings of relationship equality, and enjoyment of sex. We tend to see ourselves in others, and we tend to see what we need or want to see. Projection, they say, may be motivated on many levels — seeing a partner as wanting to cheat, for instance, may help alleviate our own feelings of guilt and rationalize our own desires.
On the other hand, if we are committed, we may ignore the possibility that our partner is not, downplaying threats to the relationship. Psychologists call these factors, collectively, projection bias — a tendency to skew our perception of reality to come into line with our own inner experience. Projection bias may enhance justified suspicion or fuel jealousy when it is not justified. Projection bias works with accurate perceptions of reality, potentially misleading us as emotional reasoning prevails over emotionally informed reasoning.
In this study, Neal and Lemay recruited 96 heterosexual couples, ranging in age from 18 to 70 years old; 75 percent were younger than 25, and the majority of which were Caucasian. The average relationship length was 3.23 years, and approximately 80 percent were dating, 15 percent were married, and 5 percent were engaged. The majority reported seeing their partners daily. The study lasted seven days. Each day, every participant completed a brief questionnaire in the evening, assessing the following:
1. Anger: How angry they felt toward their romantic partner that day.
2. Negative Behaviors: How critical or insulting were they toward their partner, how selfish were they with their partner, and how cold were they with their partner.
3. Own Extradyadic Attraction: How much they had been attracted to others that day, including how much romantic or sexual interest toward someone else, how much time spent thinking about someone else, how many other people they "checked out" that day, how many people other than their partner they flirted with, etc.
4. Perceived Partner Extradyadic Attraction: How much did they think their partner was attracted to someone else that day, rated on the same four dimensions as their own self-rating of extradyadic attraction.
They used a variety of statistical analyses to look at relationships among the variables above for each couple, aiming to compare the accuracy of perception of partner's extradyadic attraction against projections of one's own attraction, and the correlated projected perception of attraction with anger and negative behavior toward partners.
They found that people were able to notice when their partners were attracted to others day to day. However, people's own attraction to others predicted how they perceived their partner's attraction to others more strongly than did their partner's actual reported interest in others. This finding was true day to day, as well as over the duration of the study, suggesting projection of own attraction onto romantic partners is both a state as well as a trait, although the study was brief.
With regard toward anger toward partners, not only was anger greater (as one would expect) when people perceived their romantic partner as interested in others, anger was also higher for people with higher levels of their own attraction to others, independent of their partner's level of attraction.
In general, this research lends preliminary support to the long-held notion that people can project their own desires onto others, at least when it comes to fears of infidelity. That's a major finding, because we often are not open to the possibility that our own (often guilty) desires may influence how we see our romantic partners — and it often seems that the lower one's self-awareness, the greater one's projection. Denial is a powerful precursor to projection.
The idea that we see in others what we are uncomfortable seeing in ourselves is a familiar psychoanalytic concept, and core to psychodynamic therapy. After all, the basic idea that we see aspects of our developmental past in our therapists (transference) is fundamentally projective — as is the notion that therapists may be influenced by our own developmental experiences in doing the work of therapy (countertransference). In psychoanalytic therapies, developing greater awareness of unconscious processes, such as projection, is one way we can better understand ourselves. It can also catalyze change by helping us perceive and enjoy a broader range of choices than when we are bound by projections and other defensive operations.
When it comes to romantic relationships, especially committed ones, attraction to others is one of the main threats of loss. Unlike loss due to dying, loss due to a decision to end the relationship by picking another person tends to be associated with betrayal and injury, if infidelity is present, as well as decreased self-esteem when we feel we have been deemed less desirable than another, or, worse, simply inadequate or unsuitable. Because finding a mate is often a major life goal associated with feelings of accomplishment and status, loss of a relationship is a major blow. It's great if we can part amicably and mutually, but that can seem all too rare.
The findings of this study are important because they show that, at least in this sample of nearly 100 relationships, a significant component of suspicion that romantic partners are thinking about others is inflated and often inaccurate, and more reflective of our own desires than the desires of our partners. Because projections of our own desire for people outside of committed relationships may lead us also to feel more anger toward partners and to act more negatively with them, at times we will end up undermining our investment in committed relationships by failing to take our own feelings into account. Even when participants were aware of their attraction toward others, they were not aware of how this influenced how much they were suspicious of their partner, suggesting that greater self-awareness about how much we tend to use projection can change the way we perceive our partner's fidelity.
When we are feeling most concerned about our partner's commitment, for example, we might ask ourselves how much we ourselves are longing for someone else. We might remind ourselves that this could make us more suspicious and angry, and make us act more hostile and withdrawn — potentially pushing our partners away, and providing false evidence that our suspicions were correct. Such thinking may drive jealousy and serve to alleviate our own guilt for thinking about being unfaithful, and end up pushing us apart, or even possibly catalyze abuse and domestic violence. If we are aware of, and accept, attraction to others as a normal experience, it may be a potentially healthy source of novelty.
Further, by recognizing, accepting, and embracing our own desires as well as those of our partners — rather than disavowing and projecting out of guilt or shame — we have a shot at using self-awareness and dialogue to address relationship issues and deal with potential sources of conflict constructively, rather than letting them drive us apart. On the other hand, we may also be better able to recognize when it is time to move on and part ways more amicably, with less chance of betrayal and injury. In yet other cases, the projection of commitment and trust may help to glue the relationship together, as positive perceptions of oneself may also be seen in our partners.
It will be interesting to see where this research goes. Because the sample is relatively young and homogeneous, it will be important to conduct research with more diverse couples and other relationship configurations (e.g., non-traditional relationships). It will also be important to look at longer time spans and a broader range of emotions and behaviors, both positive and negative. Can interventions help turn the tide when projection threatens trust? Does greater emotional awareness lead to people making better choices individually, addressing potential areas of destructive conflict more constructively? If so, what works and under what circumstances?
Neal, A. M. & Lemay E. P. (2017). The wandering eye perceives more threats: Projection of attraction to alternative partners predicts anger and negative behavior in romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Oct.10, pp. 1-19. DOI: 10.1177/0265407517734398