Should We Prepare Ourselves for Straying?

The dubious value of the romantic backup strategy.

Posted Oct 31, 2017

“The course of love never did run smooth.” —William Shakespeare

To reduce the pain of a potential romantic rejection, some people cultivate back-up romantic options. How beneficial is this preemptive strike strategy?

Love is risky. Lovers are vulnerable to profound frustration, unexpected misfortune, and dishonest behavior. These risky circumstances often generate the stressful situation of having to switch mates. People frequently take precautions aimed at mollifying the painful nature of this switch. Three such major strategies are: enhancing the quality and the commitment of the current relationship; choosing to be romantically alone, or at least being in a non-passionate, committed relationship; and maintaining multiple relationships simultaneously to keep their default options open — should one lover hurt you, there will be others to lean upon.

I focus here on one type of the third strategy: the backup strategy.

The mate-switching hypothesis

“Why have you left the one you left me for?” —Crystal Gayle

David Buss, a highly respected scholar on mating strategies, argues that the romantic fantasy of long-lasting, committed mating rarely materializes in reality. The prevailing circumstances include a gradual inattentiveness to each other’s needs, a steady decline in sexual satisfaction, the exciting lure of infidelity, and the wonder about whether the humdrum greyness of married life is really all life has to offer. Buss further claims that in the context of the struggles against this situation, the major strategy is that of long-term, committed pair-bonding. However, as nothing in mating remains static, and since “evolution did not design humans for lifelong matrimonial bliss,” women (and men) should prepare themselves for the likely situation of marriage dissolution. Buss and colleagues focus their research on women’s mate-switching behavior, as the risk women face in switching mates seems to be higher, and their gain less apparent.

Source: nd3000/Shutterstock

It should be noted that the switching, or the trading-up, hypothesis is not without difficulties. As Shakespeare famously wrote, “Love is not love which alters, when it alteration finds.” In addition to valuing a partner for their attractive qualities, love is also based on the connection and shared history between lovers. Hence, lovers will not trade their current beloved just because they have found someone who appears to be of higher value. However, my focus here is not on the adequacy of the switching hypothesis, but rather on the value of the backup strategy.

Buss and colleagues mention three such major strategies dealing with the prevalence of mate-switching behavior: cultivating back-up mates; implementing affairs; and enacting a breakup. All undermine the feasibility of the committed pair-bond, and regard mate switching as a valuable option to consider.

The backup strategy

"Save a boyfriend for a rainy day - and another, in case it doesn't rain." Mae West

“Too many lovers, Not enough love these days.” —Crystal Gayle

One major strategy for preparing to switch mates is to lay the groundwork for a kind of preemptive strike by cultivating back-up mates—that is, potential replacements for one's current mate, should the relationship implode.

Buss and colleagues show that people of both sexes report having an average of three potential back-up mates. People also indicate that they would be upset if their back-up mates became seriously involved romantically with someone else. (Women are more likely than men to report that they would be upset if their back-up person entered a long-term relationship or fell in love with someone else.)

The backup strategy is used in both dating and committed relationships. This is more evident on dating sites, which offer many prospective partners. People have a long back-up list, sometimes consisting of a few dozen candidates: If one date is not going well, they turn to the next person on the list. Such prosperity decreases people's incentive to focus on a worthwhile partner and invest in deepening their connection. The backup list creates problems associated with “more is less” and “too much of a good thing” and reduces the likelihood of establishing a committed, profound romantic relationship.

The cost of the romantic backup strategy within committed relationships

“Whatever we expect with confidence becomes our own self-fulfilling prophecy.” —Brian Tracy

The backup strategy is often harmful within a committed relationship. The problem is not merely too much of a good thing, but also of a self-fulfilling negative prophecy. Romantic love is not like a computer; in relationships, backup devices not only fail to provide security, but can also cause the whole system to collapse.

A major difficulty of the backup strategy is that it damages the agent’s commitment to the current relationship, making this strategy a self-fulfilling prophecy. While having a back-up list of romantic partners might reduce the cost of separation, it can increase the likelihood of such separation.

Commitment theory distinguishes between factors that motivate connection versus factors that increase the costs of leaving. Loving someone motivates us to establish a romantic connection with that person, while being married can discourage us to leave the relationship because of its high cost. Commitment theory adds another important factor — the alternatives to the present situation. The backup strategy reduces the extent of the cost and increases the weight of the presence of alternatives. In this sense, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The negative impact of such a strategy is particularly evident in low- and medium-satisfied relationships, where commitment is already not high.

Romantic back-up activities are somewhat like window-shopping: You do not intend to purchase anything now, but if you find something attractive, you might acquire it at a more convenient time. Like window-shopping, romantic back-up activities can be pleasant, involving intrinsically valuable activities such as enjoyable flirting. There is nothing wrong with such romantic window-shopping, as long as it does not become an actual back-up alternative about which the shopper constantly ruminates and often considers purchasing.

Another difficulty of the backup strategy is that it is wasteful in terms of resources. We do not lack romantic options today; we have too many. The problem is not finding love, but maintaining and enhancing love for a long time. So investing effort and resources in cultivating further options seems unwise from an evolutionary viewpoint. It might have been of some benefit for our ancestors, who did not enjoy so many romantic options as we do; but today, in light of the abundance of romantic options, it is unnecessary, unwise, and wasteful.

It can be argued that one does not need any backup for brief sexual encounters, but that it is useful in longer relationships, which require time in order to develop. This claim makes some sense; people in longer relationships tend to nurture only a few back-up alternatives. Nevertheless, the lack of ongoing profound interactions with such back-up people reduces the ability to fully examine and nurture those relationships. This reduces the value of the backup strategy, especially in light of the high cost it inflicts on the current relationship.

Romantic back-up behavior and positive illusions

 “Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.” —Soren Kierkegaard

Back-up behavior is often evidence of the agent's realistic awareness that negative events or relationship failure could occur. It is a way of preparing to survive the possibility of breakup, separation, and mate switching. Positive illusions are much less realistic, and in a sense disregard reality. At first sight, then, it might seem that the romantic backup strategy is of greater evolutionary value, as it is more sensitive to objective reality.

Is this indeed the case? In my opinion, it is not.

Both back-up behavior and positive illusions involve self-fulfilling prophecies. However, while in the case of back-up behavior such prophecy often destroys the feasibility of long-lasting, profound love, positive illusions tend to maintain and enhance such love.

It can sometimes be advantageous to disregard the unpleasant aspects of reality, as it increases our chances of fulfilling our positive attitudes. The promise of everlasting love has the function of encouraging lovers to believe in the feasibility of such love. Positive illusions also lead to higher motivation, greater persistence at tasks, more effective performance, and ultimately greater success. Thus, a positive view of the self typically leads a person to work harder and longer on tasks. The same goes for optimism, including unrealistic optimism, which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, the unrealistic nature of positive illusions can also impede our ability to cope with the real problems that arise in intimate relationships.


"It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” —Alfred Lord Tennyson

“I never promised you a rose garden.” —Joanne Greenberg

The romantic realm is not the business of an insurance company. When you let love lead your way, concerns other than security are more important. Although back-up plans are beneficial in many circumstances, their value is doubtful in the case of romantic love; the cost far exceeds the future benefits. Using this strategy is likely to prevent you from establishing profound love. It is not merely that no lover can ever promise you a rose garden, but that certain activities can destroy the garden. This seems to be the situation in most cases of cultivating back-up lovers. 


Buss, D. (2017) Why women stray, Aeon, 10/10/2017

Buss, D. M., Goetz, C., Duntley, J. D., Asao, K., & Conroy-Beam, D. (2017). The mate switching hypothesis. Personality and Individual Differences104, 143-149.