Early on in our relationship, my boyfriend admitted that he occasionally checks out other women. He’s in grad school, which means that he’s surrounded by approximately 10 billion cute undergrads at any given moment — so it seems almost inevitable. Almost.
“I know it’s not okay, and I’m working on controlling the impulse,” he told me.
“Cool,” I replied. “Can you maybe not have the impulse at all?”
I understand that that’s not exactly how impulses work. But I still didn’t want it to continue. I’m his girlfriend, for one. But I’ve also been in situations where I’ve had to cover my butt with my yoga mat in an attempt to discourage creepy dudes from staring. (If I had a dollar for every time a leering guy has made me squirm en route to yoga class, I could afford a female bodyguard.)
My boyfriend, to be fair, is not one of those creepy dudes. But factoring in my own uncomfortable experiences of being ogled, and now my significant other doing some casual ogling himself, it still felt like a violation. Love you, but hey, can you try not to admire the butt on some random girl who might not want you admiring her butt in the first place?
We’ve now been together long enough that I don’t really think about it on a day-to-day basis; I just don’t have the headspace. But every once in a while, when some pretty, legs-for-days earth angel comes striding by us, that now-viral meme in which a girl looks shocked and betrayed at her presumed boyfriend — who’s looking back at another woman — pops into my mind.
Call me paranoid. (There are worse things.) But it’s not all in my head: A recent paper in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology identified several predictors for infidelity, one of which — unsurprisingly — is checking out people besides your own partner.
The researchers began by following 113 newlywed, heterosexual couples over three and a half years, testing for two psychological responses: disengagement, or the instinct to look away from an attractive person; and devaluation, which is the impulse to downgrade the perceived attractiveness of romantic alternatives. They found that the faster the participant looked away and the more negatively they viewed any romantic alternatives, the more likely they were to avoid infidelity and have a successful marriage. Not letting yourself want what you can’t have, it turns out, is a pretty effective strategy.
While disengagement and devaluation seem like intrinsic, knee-jerk reactions, that’s not exactly the case — and claiming that it’s out of your control is exactly the cop-out it sounds like. “Whether we’re talking about infidelity or other areas of conflict, people don’t realize that instead of reacting, they can take a moment to choose the response,” says Tara Fields, psychotherapist and author of The Love Fix. “People do have control over their reactions and their reactivity.”
In fact, it’s just like any other bad habit, according to Fields: To control it, you have to consider why, exactly, you’re prone to it in the first place. Oftentimes these impulses are environmental; for instance, the participant picked it up from a family member, or saw friends doing it. “Once you look at the behavior and deem it negative, you can then look at the payoff,” explains Fields. “How does it serve you? How does it make you feel?” Even just identifying it helps. After all, the perennial first step to anything is awareness.
Next, the researchers tracked 120 different newlywed couples over the course of three and a half years, and found additional — and equally important — factors that predict infidelity within a relationship. These include being younger, a history of short-term sexual partners, and, weirdly, a satisfying sex life. This last point seems counterintuitive, but the researchers surmised that if a person has a more positive attitude about sex in general, they may be more likely to seek it out with people besides their own partner.
In this case, it does seem like there’s only so much you can do about these predictors — and that’s very little. After all, it’s not possible to go back and change the number of sexual partners you’ve had. And even if a good sex life is a predictor of infidelity, how (and, really, why) would you try to change that?
But according to Fields, avoiding infidelity is primarily a matter of both being aware and keeping your partner in the loop. For example, “if you’re younger, you may be more ambivalent about making a commitment in a monogamous relationship,” she says. “It’s fine as long as you tell your partner.” (This doesn’t fly as an excuse after the fact, she warns. You can’t confess that you’ve cheated and then explain that you felt vulnerable.)
In other words, the predictors identified in this study are far from set-in-stone prophecies, and a policy of total transparency is a sound way to sidestep them. It’s also an indication that I should probably take my boyfriend’s confession as a good sign, especially when the alternative feels a lot like gaslighting: “You’re convincing your partner who’s catching onto things that they’re crazy,” explains Fields. Once that unravels — which it likely will — it’s difficult to recover that trust. Consider it this way: It’s much easier to preserve trust in a relationship than re-create it from scratch.