A study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships explored the relationship trajectories of unmarried couples across a period of four years. Respondents who reported spending more time thinking about alternative relationship partners were more likely to subsequently cheat on their partners or to experience a break-up with that partner.
Relationship researchers posit that a committed romantic relationship is defined by a lack of interest in other partners. In line with this understanding, the practice of contemplating alternative partners — a phenomenon called romantic alternative monitoring — has been linked to poor relationship quality. Along similar lines, infidelity profoundly affects a relationship, often resulting in its demise.
Study authors Lane L. Ritchie and her colleagues note the lack of research concerning the interplay between infidelity and alternative monitoring. They suggest that these two variables likely mutually influence each other over time. Infidelity likely opens the door to considering other partner options, while contemplating other options brings to mind potential opportunities to cheat. Ritchie and her team, therefore, opted to explore these relationship variables over time using a longitudinal design.
The researchers analyzed data from a previous relationship study, focusing only on participants who were unmarried, in a heterosexual relationship, and between the ages of 18 and 34 (507 were women, and 272 were men). The study included 8 waves of data collected across four years. At time points of about 4–6 months apart, the participants reported the extent that they were currently considering alternative partners, (e.g., “I think a lot about what it would be like to be married to (or dating) someone other than my partner.”).
At the end of the study, the researchers separated participants into three groups: those who stayed with their partners for the duration of the study and did not commit infidelity, those who committed infidelity, and those who experienced a break-up with their partner but did not commit infidelity.
It was found that those who split up with their partner at some point (without infidelity) thought more about other partner options than those who stayed with their partner (without infidelity). Those who committed infidelity at some point also thought more about other partner options compared to those who stayed with their partner and did not report infidelity.
Moreover, among those who reported cheating on their partner, alternative monitoring increased more sharply leading up to infidelity, compared to those who stayed in their relationship and did not report infidelity. The latter group, who showed a more stable relationship trajectory, actually showed a small decline in their thinking about other partner options.
Ritchie and her team note that these findings are insightful because they reveal that both changes in alternative monitoring as well as the overall level of alternative monitoring are tied to poor relationship outcomes — specifically, infidelity and break-ups.
The researchers note that their study lacked a measure of commitment uncertainty, while there is reason to believe that commitment uncertainty may have played a role in the interplay between alternative monitoring and relationship outcomes. Furthermore, their study only included couples who were unmarried, so the findings may not generalize to couples in longer-term, married relationships.
Nevertheless, the findings inform potential prevention strategies for struggling couples. It may be helpful for therapy workshops to include strategies for dealing with potential attraction to other partners.
The study, “Romantic alternative monitoring increases ahead of infidelity and break-up”, was authored by Lane L. Ritchie, Scott M. Stanley, Galena K. Rhoades, and Howard J. Markman.