Factors that lead to infidelity have been uncovered by new research, which is the very first research on how psychological responses are related to infidelity and long-term marital satisfaction.
In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Researchers at Florida State University, Jim McNulty, Anastasia Makhanova, Joe Maner, and Andrea Meltzer, have discovered split-second reactions that indicate a tendency toward infidelity.
The FSU study was actually a pair of longitudinal studies of more than 200 newlywed couples. Both studies assessed the spouse’s tendency to automatically disengage their attention from photos of attractive, opposite-sex individuals. The FSU researchers tracked these newly married couples for over 3 years, and carefully recorded how they moved through time together. The researchers noted fluctuations in commitment to the relationship as well as specific incidents of infidelity.
This research tested two psychological processes common to all human beings; Attentional Disengagement and Evaluative Devaluation of potential romantic partners. Let’s define some terms. Attentional Disengagement is the capacity to voluntarily shift attention away from an attractive other. Evaluative Devaluation is a tendency to mentally discount the relative attractiveness of another person, despite the obvious fact that they are handsome or beautiful. The researchers report that the presence of both of these behavioral responses, Disengagement, and Devaluation significantly lowered the potential risk of infidelity and was predictive of relationship success.
Disengagement and Devaluation were measured by showing the newlyweds photographs of handsome men and beautiful women, as well as average-looking men and women.
Here’s what they learned. Spouses who were able to quickly shift their attention away from the photo of an attractive other were significantly less likely to engage in infidelity. Spouses who averted their gaze in as little as a few hundred milliseconds faster than the base-line study average were nearly 50 percent less likely to be unfaithful.
Of course, that means that the spouses who lingered longer over the photo of the attractive other were much more likely to cheat and experience a relational breakdown. In other words, the old song “I Only Have Eyes For You” has some real science behind it.
If your partner can easily dismiss, downgrade, or discount the attractiveness of others, it is a significant indication of relational stability. Trustworthy, faithful partners are less captivated by the beauty of others. We’re not necessarily discussing conscious behaviors, we’re talking about a split-second, gut reactivity. You spot a cheater by noticing the quality of attention they bestow on attractive others.
“People are not necessarily aware of what they’re doing or why they’re doing it…These processes are largely spontaneous and effortless, and they may be somewhat shaped by biology and/or early childhood experiences.” Jim McNulty.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. Exodus 20:17
To relationally covet is to yearn to possess without consideration for the prerogatives of pre-existing partners. And covetous yearning begins with a lingering gaze. While some may define this behavior as “sinful,” I prefer to see the tendency to covet as an all too familiar human frailty. Managing our desires is an ongoing human preoccupation. It’s an obvious building block of civilization.
As Esther Perel once quipped, infidelity is the only sin mentioned twice in the Ten Commandments. One for doing it, and one for even thinking about it. One commandment forbids the actual act of adultery. Another commandment forbids even the desire for an attractive other.
This research confirms an ancient truth about the human condition. The eyes truly are a window into the soul…or at least into the potentially cheating heart.
“With the advent of social media, and thus the increased availability of and access to alternative partners, understanding how people avoid the temptation posed by alternative partners may be more relevant than ever to understanding relationships.” Jim McNulty.
A happy marriage requires us to recognize the enduring value of a committed bond. Do you want your marriage to last? Don’t allow your erotic attention to habitually linger on attractive others.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. using EFT, Gottman Method, and the Developmental Model.