How do you prevent infidelity? You may think the answer is simple: Avoid temptation. This approach is logical, biblical, and sensible. But is it practical? If your eyes are open, you are going to see attractive alternatives. But according to research, seeing does not have to lead to cheating. The best way to avoid infidelity may ultimately depend less on what you see, and more on your ability to regulate what you do.
Resisting Temptation Is Largely About You
In an article entitled “Look but Don't Touch?” (2019), Ashlyn Brady et al. investigate the ability of partners to avoid infidelity in the face of attractive alternatives.[i]
They recognize that infidelity is the most common predictor of romantic breakups. They also acknowledge the practical reality that life involves regular encounters with attractive relational alternatives. Although they note that paying attention to tempting alternatives increases the chances of being unfaithful, they suggest this link should be mediated by the ability to resist temptation.
Window Shopping and Self-Regulation
Brady et al. begin their article with a few pithy quotes, one of which is particularly relevant to the “just-looking” excuse: “'A girl can still admire, can’t she? Even those who can’t go in the store can still window-shop, right?'—Colleen Houck (2011).
The issue with this defense, if we want to call it that, is it begs a larger question; Why are you looking? We already live, work, and socialize in a world filled with attractive alternatives. From the media to the corner market, physical beauty is abundant. But window shopping implies the type of proactivity that threatens relational stability and fosters insecurity.
Noting that attractive people are “hard to ignore,” Brady et al. recognize that prior research has established that people are quicker to notice attractive others and spend more time looking. The question then becomes, What do you do after you look?
The Significance of Self-Regulation
Brady et al. surmise that looking is more likely to lead to cheating when people lack the self-regulatory ability—which they define as “the ability to resist initially satisfying impulses (e.g., infidelity) that hinder distal goals (e.g., maintaining an exclusive relationship).” The best way to prevent infidelity appears to be to possess and exercise the ability to self-regulate. But is this easier said than done?
Recognizing a larger body of literature, Brady et al. note that self-regulatory ability strengthens our ability to resist temptation in a variety of areas, such as eating and gambling, and is impacted by situational as well as dispositional factors. They also note that although, in general, an individual's self-control is usually a stable trait, it can be impaired due to states such as intoxication, illness, or stress. This is no doubt why drinking at singles bars is a risk factor for infidelity for committed individuals
Brady et al. note that self-regulatory ability may help committed partners resist the temptation to pursue relational alternatives when they happen to like what they see. After noticing forbidden fruit, a partner could resist further contact to maintain the exclusivity of a current relationship.
Using a sample of newlyweds, they demonstrated that the link between paying attention to attractive alternatives and infidelity was dependent on individuals’ self-regulatory ability to resist this temptation. They note that the tendency to notice attractive relational alternatives was linked with being unfaithful for those with lower self-regulatory ability, but not for those with higher self-regulatory ability.
Brady et al. note that their research challenges the widespread belief that paying attention to romantic alternatives is always injurious to relationships because it heightens the risk of infidelity. They found this risk was increased only among those who do lack the self-regulatory ability to resist that temptation.
Consequently, they suggest that if one is able to maintain self-regulatory ability, he or she would not need to stifle the impulse to notice attractive alternatives. In fact, they observe that some research suggests that intentionally avoiding attractive people may backfire, prompting enhanced attention to attractive others and positive attitudes about infidelity.
But not all partners want to run the risk of testing the boundaries of self-regulation. Many happy couples subscribe to the tried-and-true notion that the best way to prevent giving in to temptation is to avoid it.
Committed partners seeking to maintain exclusivity play it safe. They do not frequent singles bars, browse online dating applications “just to look,” or manipulate circumstances to “run into” someone they find attractive. By intentionally avoiding compromising situations, they also avoid relational complications. Happy couples maintain their relationships by enjoying each other, not eyeing alternatives.
[i]Brady, Ashlyn, Levi R. Baker, and Rowland S. Miller. 2019. “Look but Don’t Touch?: Self-Regulation Determines Whether Noticing Attractive Alternatives Increases Infidelity.” Journal of Family Psychology, August. doi:10.1037/fam0000578.