How Your Unconscious Mind Affects Your Romantic Relationship

Unconscious forces shape your romantic relationship in surprising ways.

Posted May 13, 2019

Joanna Nix/Unsplash
Source: Joanna Nix/Unsplash

Your unconscious mind influences your attraction to others and how you approach relationships, but unconscious forces also continue to shape your long-term romantic relationship in some surprising ways. 


Both men's and women's mating efforts are impacted by their hormones. But even after we have chosen a long-term partner, our hormones continue to affect our relationships. For example, fertile women who perceive their partners as more sexually attractive rate their partners more positively, while fertile women who perceive their partners as less sexually attractive rate them more negatively (Larson et al., 2013). Further, when women's estrogen levels are high, they are more interested in sex with men other than their primary partners, while when their progesterone levels are high, they are more interested in sex with their primary partners (Grebe et al., 2016). Interestingly, men in committed relationships have lower testosterone levels, perhaps signaling reduced mating efforts with women other than their primary partners (Burnham et al., 2003).

Avoiding Others

When we are in long-term relationships, we tend to see our own partners more positively, but we also unconsciously perceive alternative partners less favorably. For example, when presented with a desirable member of the opposite sex, those in committed romantic relationships reported that they found that individual less attractive and felt less desire to date that person than those in less committed relationships (Johnson and Rusbult, 1989). In fact, the more attractive the alternative partner, the less favorably committed participants rated him or her. Similarly, in recent research using a photograph-matching task, participants who were very satisfied with their current partners thought that a less attractive manipulated photograph matched a potential alternative partner’s real photograph (Cole et al., 2016). This finding suggests that participants actually perceived the alternative partner as less attractive and that they were not consciously modifying their responses. The authors of this research conclude that when we are in very satisfying relationships, we try to protect those relationships by unconsciously downgrading potential rivals.

Oxytocin, a neuropeptide linked to pair bonding, may also influence the way we react to our own partners and to others. Couples who have higher levels of oxytocin are more likely to stay together than their counterparts with lower levels of oxytocin (Schneiderman et al., 2012), perhaps because oxytocin causes us to avoid attractive others. In a fascinating research project, men in romantic relationships who were administered oxytocin via a nasal spray maintained a larger physical distance between themselves and an attractive female experimenter, whereas single men and men who were administered a placebo tended to position themselves closer to the attractive woman (Scheele et al., 2012). Unconsciously increasing our distance from others may help us to maintain our current relationships. 

Implicit Attitudes

Implicit attitudes are our unconscious or automatic attitudes toward stimuli. Most researchers use reaction time tasks to assess implicit attitudes; these tasks require individuals to respond so quickly that they can’t consciously modify their responses. For example, McNulty and colleagues (2013) measured implicit attitudes within romantic couples by requiring couples to quickly categorize positive and negative words following photographs of their partners or photographs of control individuals. (Positive implicit attitudes toward a partner were indicated by responding more quickly to positive words following photographs of partners relative to photographs of control individuals.) Newlyweds with more positive implicit attitudes toward their partners were more satisfied with their marriages four years later. Although most couples’ marital satisfaction declined over the four-year period, McNulty and colleagues found that spouses whose unconscious attitudes toward their partners were more positive as newlyweds declined less in marital satisfaction over the four-year period. Spouses who had more positive implicit attitudes toward one another also reported fewer relationship problems over time.

Similarly, Hicks et al. (2016) found that couples with more positive implicit attitudes toward one another reported engaging in sex more frequently. More frequent intercourse may help to keep our relationships faithful. For example, Pham and colleagues (2014) found that men whose attractive female partners had more male friends and co-workers (i.e., the men had more potential rivals) reported having more sex with their female partners. The researchers postulated that this increase in sexual activity was designed to keep their mates happy and faithful. More frequent sex may also prolong your sexual afterglow. Meltzer defines sexual afterglow as "enhanced sexual satisfaction that lingers following sexual activity." She and her colleagues (2017) suggest that this afterglow functions to promote bonding in romantic couples and could also help couples to avoid cheating.

In our long-term relationships, many unconscious influences help to perpetuate our current relationships and deter us from seeking alternative partners. 

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Burnham, T. C., Chapman, J. F., Gray, P. B., McIntyre, M. H., Lipson, S. F., & Ellison, P. T. (2003). Men in committed, romantic relationships have lower testosterone. Hormones and behavior, 44(2), 119-122.

Cole, S., Trope, Y., & Balcetis, E. (2016). In the eye of the betrothed: Perceptual downgrading of attractive alternative romantic partners. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42(7), 879-892.

Grebe, N. M., Thompson, M. E., & Gangestad, S. W. (2016). Hormonal predictors of women's extra-pair vs. in-pair sexual attraction in natural cycles: Implications for extended sexuality. Hormones and behavior, 78, 211-219.

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Johnson, D. J., & Rusbult, C. E. (1989). Resisting temptation: Devaluation of alternative partners as a means of maintaining commitment in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(6), 967–980. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.57.6.967

Larson, C. M., Haselton, M. G., Gildersleeve, K. A., & Pillsworth, E. G. (2013). Changes in women’s feelings about their romantic relationships across the ovulatory cycle. Hormones and Behavior, 63(1), 128–135. doi:10.1016/j.yhbeh.2012.10.005

McNulty, J. K., Olson, M. A., Meltzer, A. L., & Shaffer, M. J. (2013). Though they may be unaware, newlyweds implicitly know whether their marriage will be satisfying. Science, 342(6162), 1119-1120.

Meltzer, A. L., Makhanova, A., Hicks, L. L., French, J. E., McNulty, J. K., & Bradbury, T. N. (2017). Quantifying the sexual afterglow: The lingering benefits of sex and their implications for pair-bonded relationships. Psychological Science, 28(5), 587-598.

Pham, M. N., Shackelford, T. K., Holden, C. J., Zeigler-Hill, V., Hummel, A., & Memering, S. L. (2014). Partner attractiveness moderates the relationship between number of sexual rivals and in-pair copulation frequency in humans (Homo sapiens). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 128(3), 328.

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