Is Your Partner Attracted to Someone Else, Or Are You?
You might be projecting your illicit desires onto your partner.
Posted March 8, 2019
Staying faithful is generally considered a fundamental aspect of being in a long-term romantic relationship. To violate this norm can threaten the quality and stability of a relationship, and may very well lead to a breakup or divorce (Previti & Amato, 2004). Maybe because faithfulness is at the heart of healthy relationship functioning, when we're in a relationship, we're attuned to our partner's attention: Is my partner focused on me, or on someone else?
Have you ever suspected a partner of cheating—sexually, emotionally, or both? Have you been annoyed by a partner's seemingly special attention to an attractive someone who is not you? Whether it's your partner's new work colleague, old high school friend, or your shared trainer at the gym, beliefs about a partner's "wandering eye" can threaten your relationship. We might feel doubts about our partner's love, feel less trust, or question our partner's commitment, and rightfully so. People who are highly committed to their romantic partners are not only deliberately, but also automatically inattentive to desirable alternative partners (Maner, Gailliot, & Miller, 2009).
But are we really seeing what we think? Or are we projecting?
Is my partner cheating, or am I imagining it?
New research suggests that judgments of a partner's extra-dyadic interests may be more a function of our own interest in alternative partners rather than our partner's actual illicit desires (Neal & Lemay, 2019). In other words, we may take our fascination with the cute bartender from dinner last night and project it such that we think that our partner is flirting with the waiter or waitress at brunch. Your partner could be completely innocent, but you might perceive him or her as having a wandering eye if your own attention is straying. In other words, our own desires for alternative partners may shape our beliefs about a partner's faithfulness.
In the study, approximately 100 heterosexual couples visited the lab and then completed daily assessments about themselves and their partners for a period of a week. Each day, they independently reported their own relationship behaviors (i.e., anger, negative behavior), their own thoughts, flirtations, or desires towards a person who was not their partner, and the extent to which they thought their partner was romantically and/or sexually interested in people other than themselves.
Results showed that people are biased in their perceptions of their partner's extra-dyadic desires, using their own unfaithful attentions to inform their beliefs about their partner (Neal & Lemay, 2019). Daily fluctuations in individuals' judgments about their partner's sexual and romantic interests in people outside of their own relationship were fundamentally tainted by individuals' own desires. In other words, people were projecting their "wandering eye" onto their partner, and not without consequence. People's judgments of their partners' faithfulness predicted their anger and how critical, selfish, and cold they were in their interactions with their partners. Note that these negative behaviors were also predicted by individuals' own disloyal thoughts.
The evidence also suggested a degree of accuracy, in addition to bias. In other words, participant judgments were—to some extent—coordinated with their partner's self-reports of thoughts of infidelity, flirtations, or how much they "checked out" other people. In sum, people's judgments about their partners appear to reflect both a sensitivity to their partners' actual behaviors and projections of their own desires, with the latter serving as a stronger predictor.
Why do people assume that their partners are behaving like they are? Are there advantages to projecting one's own extra-dyadic romantic or sexual desires onto a partner? Does it relieve guilt? Help us rationalize our misdeeds? More importantly, how do we evaluate if we can trust our partners if our assessment of their loyalty is biased? Perhaps a takeaway from this research is a reminder that relationships are fundamentally dyadic and dynamic, with each person's thoughts and behaviors affecting the relationship—likely in ways they do not even realize.
Maner, J. K., Gailliot, M. T., & Miller, S. L. (2009). The implicit cognition of relationship maintenance: Inattention to attractive alternatives. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 174-179.
Neal, A. M., & Lemay, E. P. (2019). 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, 36(2), 450-468.
Previti, D., & Amato, P. R. (2004). Is infidelity a cause or a consequence of poor marital quality?. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 21(2), 217-230.