How to Maintain Monogamy after Infatuation Wears Off
Research suggests strategies for maintaining healthy, long-term relationships.
Posted July 18, 2018
Relational monogamy is a social, cultural, and spiritual ideal. Yet within romantic relationships, particularly over the long term, some people struggle with temptation, particularly in settings where they are presented with romantic alternatives. There are methods of resistance, but the success of such measures depends on the commitment of the parties, as well as the stage of the relationship.
Is it Possible to Be “Just Looking” or “Just Talking”?
There is an argument that a partner's attention to relational alternatives who are strangers is harmless because that partner is “just looking.” However, whether one is looking online or off—and there are many websites dedicated to curious partners—there is usually a link between attention to any relational alternatives and infidelity. Attention often translates into intention.
Relational alternatives are not always strangers, of course. They are also ex-partners, professional colleagues, neighbors, and friends. This is why many couples actively take steps to reduce exposure to romantic temptation. Many partners find no upside, but plenty of downside, to agreeing to have lunch or dinner with an ex, or meeting alone with an attractive single client or customer. Such situations, they may fear, could result in more than “just talking.”
So in a world filled with romantic alternatives, how do the happiest couples make it work? Many actively employ strategies to maintain monogamy.
Refocusing Wandering Eyes
In a study entitled “Ain't misbehaving?” (2017), Brenda H. Lee and Lucia F. O´Sullivan examined a number of strategies used to maintain monogamy.1 They recognized infidelity as a common problem in relationships, citing prior research showing that 90% of partners had an opportunity to be unfaithful, and that many took advantage.
They note that infidelity is complicated by the fact that many partners have different ideas about exactly what it means to be unfaithful. Is an emotional affair cheating, or is adultery limited to physical extra-relational affairs? Within heterosexual couples, is making new cross-gender friends cause for concern?
In reviewing survey responses from 741 adults in the United States who were involved in intimate relationships, Lee and O'Sullivan identified three factors that characterized the 24 strategies that emerged:
Proactive Avoidance of attractive alternatives.
Relationship Enhancement — focusing on improving the quality of one's current relationship.
Low Self-Monitoring and Derogation — downplaying the allure of attractive relational alternatives.
The authors define derogation, which they note can occur both explicitly and implicitly within committed relationships, as a cognitive and perceptual bias that helps partners maintain monogamous relationships. They describe it as "a tendency to devalue alternative partners, which is most marked when the alternative poses a significant threat, when the alternative is attractive, and when the individual is faced with an actual opportunity to be involved with the alternative." The authors point out, however, that derogation of relational alternatives is more likely to be successful in the short term, and that problems arise with repeated, consistent exposure to an attractive romantic alternative. This is why affairs often arise in the workplace or other venues where people see each other every day.
Lee and O´Sullivan found that although pro-monogamy strategies were commonly endorsed, they were generally unsuccessful. Other research, however, suggests that the success or failure of such strategies may depend on the stage of one's relationship.
New Relationships: Infatuation Breeds Fidelity
For the study, “Executive control and faithfulness” (2018), Ryuhei Ueda et al. asked men in romantic relationships to perform a date-rating task in which they rated their interest in dating an unfamiliar female.2 They found that active regulation of interest in romantic alternatives was required by men more often in long-term relationships than in the early stages of a relationship.
The authors recognized the function of executive control in the “derogation effect,” where people in romantic relationships downplay the value of alternative partners. They noted, however, that there are other methods of maintaining monogamy, one of the most important being what they described as the “intensity of passionate love” for a current partner. Particularly in the early stages of romance, according to the authors, people may be under the influence of “involuntary romantic infatuation,” sustained by the brain´s reward system. Although such passionate love is pleasurable and, indeed, addictive, it decreases over time.
Worth the Effort
Plenty of couples happily celebrate wedding anniversaries each year, and stay together for decades. Solid, healthy relationships are not only possible but probable between partners actively committed to each other. After short-term infatuation wears off, long-term relationships can provide stability, support, companionship, and well-being. They are indeed worth the time and effort necessary to sustain them. The good news is that deliberate behavioral control can regulate interest in relational alternatives, allowing partners to maintain monogamy.
1. Brenda H. Lee and Lucia F. O´Sullivan, ”Ain´t misbehavin? Monogamy maintenance strategies in heterosexual romantic relationships,” Personal Relationships 25, 2018, 205-232.
2. Ryuhei Ueda, Kuniaki Yanagisawa, Hiroshi Ashida, and Nobuhito Abe, ”Executive control and faithfulness: only long-term romantic relationships require prefrontal control,” Experimental Brain Research 236, 2018, 821-828.