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Trying to Stop Infidelity Makes It Worse

Why efforts to prevent infidelity can backfire.

Key points

  • According to research, efforts to command sexual fidelity from one's partner might actually increase their desire to pursue extramarital sex.
  • Instead of trying to make a partner not cheat, it's more productive to deal with one's own fears about infidelity.
  • Having a healthy relationship is one of the best deterrents for infidelity.

How hard should you work to prevent your spouse from cheating? Should you check their email and their text messages? Go through their car and pockets and purse, checking for unexplained receipts, or underwear that's not yours? Call them at odd times, to make sure they are where they said they would be, doing what they said they were doing? Should you demand they share with you their Facebook password, so you can make sure they are not using the social site to reconnect with old flames?

Are these things worth it? Do they help, or do they actually make things worse?

What the research says about efforts to control fidelity

Recent research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology offers some tantalizing suggestions that these efforts to control your spouse and command sexual fidelity, might actually increase their desire to pursue extramarital sex.

Lead researcher Nathan DeWall published the results of three connected studies that examined the effects of these limits on peoples' desires. They found that when they created situations attempting to prevent people from attending to, responding to, or noticing "desirable relationship alternatives," it actually made people more dissatisfied with their current relationship, decreased the commitment to fidelity, and increased their interest in pursuing an extramarital relationship. This effect played out cognitively and behaviorally as well, showing an effect in increasing people's memory for attractive people other than their partner, and an increase in the amount of time they attended to these people.

DeWall and his fellow authors hypothesize that this effect is related to the concept of the "forbidden fruit." By telling Adam and Eve not to eat that darn apple, God created a burning desire to have what they couldn't have and essentially destined them to break His commandment. By trying to prevent your spouse or partner from cheating, are you creating the same effect? You might be. By setting and enforcing limits, you are almost certainly increasing your partner's unhappiness with you and your relationship, and making him more likely to start shopping around for alternatives.

I remember a couple I treated years ago, where the wife was convinced that her husband would one day cheat on her. Recognizing this effect, even back then, I told her that her conviction that her husband would one day cheat put her in danger of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. By telling him repeatedly that she already didn't trust him, and believed he would cheat, she was removing the barriers to him cheating, and leading to him potentially saying one day, "Why shouldn't I cheat? She already believes that I will, I've really got nothing to lose."

Working with parents, I often explain to them that their efforts to catch and punish their children for breaking rules are likely to backfire. What we know is that such efforts don't make children behave. Instead, they just make children look for ways not to get caught. When you put your spouse or partner on notice that you are "watching them like a hawk," what you might really be doing is telling them that they need to be prepared to better hide their actions and desires and that you don't trust them.

What's a better way to deal with this situation? With that couple I treated, I encouraged the wife to instead spend a lot of time paying attention to those qualities of her husband that she admired and respected, which would increase his internal barriers to infidelity, things like his moral character, his commitment to her, his desire and love for her, and the joy that they had in being together. Similarly, I tell parents to instead help their children understand the reasons for rules, the potential consequences of rulebreaking, and respect and praise their children's ability to make good decisions.

How to encourage your spouse to be faithful

The same things apply here. Want your spouse to be faithful? Here are a few tips that actually work:

  • Be clear about what faithfulness means. Many problems happen due to a lack of clear communication about expectations and agreements.
  • Help your partner to want to be faithful, by having a healthy relationship. That doesn't mean you should always keep them happy, but that you should do your part to communicate and deal with problems.
  • Pay attention to the things that are working. Often people in relationships only attend to the things that aren't working, which enhances awareness of dissatisfaction. Instead, we do best by highlighting things we like, even more than the things we don't. "That which we attend to, grows."
  • Deal with your own fears and feelings over infidelity. What does it mean to you, and your beliefs about yourself and your relationship?
  • Finally, talk about it. Guess what — talking about it with your partner doesn't make it happen. Instead, talking openly and honestly about the issue of extramarital sex and desire, with respect and personal ownership of feelings, helps you and your partner make better decisions about your relationship, commitment, and in reaction to those "attractive alternatives."

DeWall and his co-authors would agree with my suggestions. Instead of limiting your partner's ability to check out other people, they suggest that it works better to work on "enhancing relationship processes that naturally lead to decreased attention, such as focusing on positive aspects of one's partner." Rather than making them not cheat, make them want to not cheat, through having a relationship where they feel no need to do so. Make that forbidden fruit less desirable, less mysterious, and less alluring, than yourself.

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