When most people enter a committed relationship, they never expect that they would be unfaithful to the person they love. Yet research indicates that infidelity occurs in anywhere from 25-38% of relationships (Luo, Cartun, & Snider, 2010; Blow & Hartnett 2005).
The reasons why people cheat are complicated and varied. Personality characteristics, situational factors, and relationship issues can all contribute to infidelity. However, I think part of the problem is that people are generally pretty passive about remaining faithful. We make a commitment, but then hardly consider the type of effort needed to uphold that commitment. I don’t think people usually wake up one morning and decide they are going to cheat on their significant other. More likely, they simply don’t define boundaries for themselves. So they gradually approach the line of inappropriate with small, seemingly innocent steps that subtly chip away at the integrity of their relationship. Before they know it, cheating is just a matter of taking one more, small step.
I think it’s a shame that more people don’t actively work on honoring their commitment to their partner. I would guess few people even think about how they might do that. So here are some tips on how to take responsibility for remaining faithful in a relationship, based off of what research tells us about people who cheat vs. people who don’t.
#1 Idealize Your Partner
One theory about relationships suggests that we are as committed to our current partner as we are convinced they are the best option for us. Basically, we all want the highest quality mate we can get, so if we think we can do better we won’t be that committed to our current partner. Our perception is important here though. Even if you can’t actually do any better, as long as you’re convinced you can you’re not going to be very committed. On the flip side, you might be with a blubbering idiot but if see them as the best thing since sliced bread, you’re going to be very committed.
So it makes sense that research has found people highly committed to their relationships tend to idealize their partners (Murray, 1999).
The take home point here is that if you want to protect your commitment, remind yourself often of all the qualities you admire about your partner and all the things they offer that would be hard to find elsewhere. Be conscious of your self-talk regarding your partner. Are your thoughts critical, focusing on their shortcomings, or unfairly comparing them to others? When you notice yourself thinking this way try to redirect yourself back to a place of admiration and appreciation for your partner. Do your best to put them up on a pedestal. It’s not always easy but it will have positive effects beyond protecting the fidelity of your relationship.
#2 Degrade Alternatives
Not only do people highly committed to their relationships idealize their partners, but they are also more likely to derogate their alternatives (Johnson & Rusbult, 1989). In other words, they are more critical in their judgements of other potential mates who might threaten their relationship. To protect our belief that we are with the best possible person for us (and thus maintain our commitment)– we need to tell our selves how wonderful that person is, as well as how icky everyone else is by comparison. I think self-awareness is crucial here, because it can be so much easier to idealize an alternative than our current mate.
You know all the weird things about your significant other. You’ve seen how they look first thing in the morning, you’ve heard them fart, and discovered all their quirks that drive you crazy. On the other hand, it’s easy to let our minds get carried away with fantasies about how perfect that cute guy in office seems. He’s probably the type of guy to get you flowers for no reason, hide love notes for you to discover, and call you just to see how your day’s going….
Sure these fantasies seem harmless enough, but we need to be careful. Our thoughts build the reality we live in, and ultimately determine our behavior. The take home point here is that if you want to protect your commitment to your partner, you will look for reasons why other potential mates don’t measure up.
#3 Avoid Temptation
One of the top reasons for cheating (particularly among men) is opportunity (Brand, Markey, Mills, & Hodges, 2007). So if you’ve made a commitment to stay monogamous, you have a responsibility to be on the look out for situations that might lead to the opportunity/temptation to cheat, and avoid those situations. Again, these situations are usually the result of several more innocent occurrences. It’s not like you’re likely to walk into a room and find a beautiful woman asking if you would like to commit adultery with her (unless maybe you’re Tiger Woods). Rather, a coworker you’ve exchanged innocent flirtations with might invite you to happy hour… which turns into late night drinks… which turns into less innocent flirtations… and so on. Therefore to protect your relationship, you need to have foresight into what can lead down a dangerous path.
If you’re trying to stay sober, it requires more than turning down a drink that’s offered. It might mean staying away from bars altogether, being careful about how you spend your time with friends who like to drink, and avoiding certain activities that you associate with drinking. If you need to save money, you might have to avoid your favorite stores, or throw out any catalogs you get in the mail. If you’re committed to losing weight, you don’t go into a Dunkin Donuts, and you don’t even look at those delicious looking brownies in bakery window.
Staying faithful to your partner requires similar preventative measures, as well as insight into your own capacity for self-control. If don’t want to cheat, nip temptation in the bud!
#4 Keep It Interesting
Another common reason for cheating is boredom (Brand, Markey, Mills, & Hodges, 2007). In previous posts about relationships, I’ve discussed self-expansion theory, which suggests that we are innately motivated towards growth and expanding of our sense of self, and relationships with others is one of our main methods of achieving this (Aron, & Aron, 1997). Research suggests that our satisfaction with our current relationship is related to how much it contributes to our self-expansion. Research also suggests that when we don’t feel like our partner is helping us grow, we pay more attention to alternatives, i.e. other dating partners who represent an opportunity for growth (VanderDrift, Lewandowski, & Agnew, 2011). This is a risky place to be in terms of commitment, because almost anyone new provides the potential for self-expansion just by being someone new and different.
The way to prevent falling into this trap is to put a conscious effort into making your current relationship continuously self-expanding. This can be accomplished by doing new and exciting activities with your partner that help you both grow as individuals together. Travel some place new together, sit in on a lecture, or take a dance class!
All of the aforementioned advice is to help you take responsibility for being a faithful partner, but the benefits don’t stop there. Each of these tips are likely to also improve your satisfaction with your relationship, and the over-all quality of your relationship – which makes it even less likely that you’ll want to stray from your partner. Not to mention, improving the quality of your relationship will also make it less likely that your partner will be tempted to stray. So stop being passive about your commitment to your relationship – and life in general for that matter! Take responsibility, take action, and reap the benefits!!!