It may be romantic to whisper “I only have eyes for you” to your lover on a warm, starry night. You truly feel, in the moment, that you want no other person, nor will you ever want anyone else. The memes of modern culture have led us to believe that once we commit to someone, they should be the only person we’ll ever want. So when people in monogamous relationships find themselves being attracted to other potential partners—or worse yet, when they fantasize about a romantic encounter with another person—they often feel guilty.
One common strategy for assuaging guilt is projection. This is a psychological process in which you attribute your own feelings to another person. Let’s say you’re angry with your spouse for not keeping a promise, but you decide it’s too trivial to quarrel about. So you repress your anger, but then you think you hear a peevish tone in your partner’s voice. “What are you so angry about?” you demand, completely bewildering your significant other. Likewise, when we feel guilty, we sometimes project that guilt onto the victim.
Projection occurs because we have a tendency to think other people have the same wants and desires we do. Particularly in intimate relationships, we tend to think that the way we feel is how our partner feels as well. This kind of egocentric thinking can have both positive and negative consequences for a relationship.
Let’s take Bob and Carol, a newly married couple, as an example. When they were dating, they began seeing themselves as quite similar to each other, and this perception drew them closer and helped bind the relationship. They were confident committing to the marriage because each believed the other had the same long-term goals.
Ted and Alice, another newly married couple, are friends with Bob and Carol. Lately, Bob finds himself fantasizing about Alice, and this distresses him. Since they have so much in common, Bob reasons, Carol must also be fantasizing about Ted.
This line of reasoning led psychologists Angela Neal and Edward Lemay to wonder if they could detect projection of guilt in monogamous couples. Specifically, they had two hypotheses:
To illustrate these hypotheses with an example, consider a time when Bob fantasizes about an encounter with their friend Alice. He projects his feelings onto his wife Carol by thinking that she must be fantasizing about their friend Ted. This makes him angry, and so he starts criticizing her and acting selfishly. By blaming Carol, Bob relieves his own guilty feelings, but he also damages the relationship by punishing her for a transgression she hasn’t committed.
The researchers then recruited 96 heterosexual couples in long-term committed relationships for the study. Every evening for a week, each partner responded to a brief questionnaire. Specifically, the researchers measured the following variables:
Since each partner responded separately to these questions, the researchers could not only measure perceived attraction of the respondent’s partner toward others, they could also determine how accurate that perception was. In other words, the researchers found out how much Bob thought Carol was interested in Ted, but they also found out how much Carol really was interested in Ted as well. If Bob’s assessment of Carol’s straying eye is similar to her own report, this suggests accurate perception and not projection. However, if Bob’s assessment greatly exceeds Carol’s report on days when he also fantasized about Alice, then this suggests that projection took place.
The data clearly showed evidence of projection. On days when one partner fantasized about an encounter with another person, they tended to assume similar feelings on the part of their spouse. Furthermore, they tended to express more anger and engage in more negative behaviors toward their partner. Thus, when Bob projects his own wandering eye onto Carol and then punishes her for it, he is apparently trying to alleviate his own guilty feelings.
This study provides two take-home messages for couples in committed relationships. First, it’s important to separate thoughts from behaviors. The expectation that you’ll never have eyes for another person once you commit to your partner is simply unreasonable. It’s perfectly normal to find yourself attracted to people other than your mate, and there’s nothing wrong with fantasizing about illicit encounters, either. When these thoughts come to you unbidden, you should treat them as they are—mere fantasies and nothing else. Furthermore, you need to accord your partner that same freedom of thought.
Second, when that green-eyed monster rises within you, you need to carefully consider its source before acting on it. If all you have is a vague feeling your partner is straying without any concrete evidence, you’ll simply do more harm than good to the relationship if you punish them for their supposed transgression. And this is especially true when those jealous feelings are a response to the guilt you have for your own wandering eye.
Monogamy is not a nature state for humans, and a wandering eye is only to be expected. There’s nothing wrong with indulging in fantasies of torrid love affairs with other persons. Indeed, they can even rekindle the flame when the spark has gone out of an otherwise monotonous relationship.
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. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1177/0265407517734398