Psychologists Uncover What Really Stops People Cheating On Their Partners

If you’ve ever been tempted to cheat on your partner, you might have employed what psychologists term “monogamy maintenance strategies.”

In brief, a monogamy maintenance strategy is any technique you use in a conscious bid to stop yourself straying.

This is an area of interest for psychologists, because lots of us have affairs at some point.

Although it is impossible to be certain of the figures, it’s thought that 20-25% of married men have been unfaithful to their wives.

Among women, 10-15% confess to cheating on their spouses.

The majority of people, whether or not they have cheated, maintain that infidelity is wrong.

However, it seems that a significant minority of the population have affairs anyway.

Popular monogamy maintenance strategies include making your relationship more enjoyable, for example by taking your partner out on more dates, removing yourself from sources of temptation, and guilting yourself into feeling bad whenever you so much as look at someone else.

Devaluing potential threats is another tactic.

Perhaps you’ve tried to convince yourself that an attractive person isn’t really as handsome or beautiful as you first thought.

You might even have caught yourself trying to identify flaws in their personality or appearance in a bid to lessen temptation.

The trouble with these strategies is that they don’t work very well.

There is no evidence that people who use them are any less likely to commit romantic or sexual infidelity, and there is no evidence that they strengthen relationships. 

So if these techniques don’t work, how do people stay faithful to their partners?

Researchers at Florida State University suggest that those who manage to stay faithful don’t have to rely on conscious strategies – their automatic processes do the hard work for them.

To study this phenomenon, they recruited 233 newlywed couples to take part in two studies over the course of three years.

In both studies, the participants were presented with photos showing attractive people of the opposite sex.

The researchers measured the time it took for the participants to tear their attention away from each image – in other words, they were interested in whether participants could easily stop looking at men and women who could, in theory, be attractive alternative partners.

In the second study, the participants were also asked to rate the attractiveness of the individuals in the photos.

The researchers then compared the participants’ ratings with ratings given by single people who had no reason to worry about staying faithful to a partner.

The researchers monitored the participants’ relationships for three years.

During this time, they kept track of how many individuals committed infidelity and how satisfied they were in their relationships.

What were the results?

  • People who were at least 100ms quicker than average to disengage from the attractive photos were 50% less likely to cheat on their spouses. This process is automatic, suggesting that faithful spouses don’t have to force themselves to look away from attractive people.
  • Participants who gave the people in the photos ratings that were at least two points lower than those awarded by single people were also 50% less likely to cheat on their partners.

  • This link between devaluation of attractive people and lower risk of infidelity was more pronounced in people who reported greater declines in marital satisfaction. This suggests that devaluation might be particularly important in maintaining fidelity in troubled relationships.

  • People who were unfaithful to their spouses either before or during the study rated attractive photographs in the same way as single people, suggesting that they still perceived other people as potential partners.

What does this mean for your relationship?

Traditional monogamy maintenance strategies may not work, but this doesn’t mean we can’t train ourselves to stay faithful.

The most encouraging finding from this study was that automatic monogamy maintenance strategies are highly effective.

Psychologists haven’t yet come up with a way to make sure we divert our attention away from attractive men and women who might pose a threat to our relationships, but further research may inspire a new wave of relationship therapies for those who want to make sure they remain true to their partners.

This has exciting implications – in the future, you and a potential partner could take a test that will gauge how likely you are to cheat, which could prevent later heartbreak.

Pre-marital counseling might include brain training exercises designed to lower the risk of infidelity.

In the meantime, self-awareness is key; whether or not you find it easy to ignore gorgeous strangers, it’s up to you to make the right choice.

Stay mindful of your boundaries, work on making your relationship the best it can be, and don’t beat yourself up if you check someone out.

After all, you’re only human.