Research finds a psychological phenomenon known as “various surveillance” that predicts infidelity and separation
A study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships examined the relationship trajectories of unmarried couples over a period of four years. Respondents who said they spend more time thinking about alternative relationships are more likely to cheat or break up with their partner.
Relationship researchers assume that a steady love relationship is defined by a lack of interest in other partners. Consistent with this understanding, the practice of looking at alternative partners – a phenomenon known as romantic alternative monitoring – has been linked to poor relationship quality. Similarly, infidelity profoundly affects a relationship and often leads to its downfall.
Study authors Lane L. Ritchie and colleagues point to the lack of research on the interplay between infidelity and alternative surveillance. They suggest that these two variables are likely to influence each other over time. Infidelity likely opens the door to considering other partner options, while pondering other options reminds you of potential cheating opportunities. Ritchie and her team therefore decided to study these relationship variables over time using a longitudinal design.
The researchers analyzed data from a previous relationship study and focused 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 comprised eight waves of data collected over four years. At times of around 4–6 months, the participants reported the extent to which they are currently thinking about alternative partners (e.g. partner. “).
At the end of the study, the researchers divided the 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 were separated from their partner but did committed no infidelity.
It showed that those who broke 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 have committed infidelity at some point also thought more about other partner options than those who stayed with their partner and did not report infidelity.
In addition, those who reported cheating on their partner increased more in alternative surveillance, leading to infidelity, compared to those who remained in their relationship and did not report infidelity. The latter group, which showed a more stable relationship history, actually showed a slight decrease in their thinking about other partner options.
Ritchie and her team find these results are instructive as they show that changes in alternate surveillance, as well as the overall level of alternate surveillance, are linked to poor relationship outcomes – especially infidelity and breakups.
The researchers note that their study lacked a measure of attachment uncertainty, while there is reason to believe that attachment uncertainty may have played a role in the interaction between alternative monitoring and relationship outcomes. In addition, their study only included unmarried couples, so the results may not generalize to couples in longer-term, married relationships.
Nevertheless, the results provide indications of possible prevention strategies for couples in difficulty. In therapy workshops, it can be helpful to include strategies for dealing with potential attraction to other partners.
The study “Romantic Alternative Surveillance Raises Infidelity and Separation” was written by Lane L. Ritchie, Scott M. Stanley, Galena K. Rhoades, and Howard J. Markman.