Taking Your Partner's Perspective Can Keep Infidelity At Bay, A Researcher Explains

New research explores a novel technique to evade alternative partner attraction.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | March 4, 2023

A new study published in the Journal of Sex Research discusses a technique that can prevent people who are vulnerable to the possibility of considering alternative partners from cheating on their partners.

I recently spoke to Gurit E. Birnbaum of Reichman University and Professor Harry Reis of the University of Rochester, to understand the measures people can take to prevent infidelity and relationship dissolution. Here's a summary of our conversation.

Could you elaborate on the 'perspective-taking' approach as a means to preventing infidelity?

Attempting to see a situation from a partner's perspective, and striving to feel and think as the partner would — in other words, engaging in perspective-taking — enables people to understand their partners and feel compassion for them. Perhaps, therefore, perspective-taking helps people respond constructively when their partner engages in destructive acts.

For example, adopting a partner's perspective (rather than your own) while they are upset and snap at you may motivate you to interpret their behavior more positively. You may tell yourself that they had a rough day, and react accordingly by expressing affection and care instead of snapping back at them.

In our latest research, we wished to explore whether the beneficial effects of perspective-taking extend to regulating reactions to one's own potentially destructive behavior.

Specifically, in three studies, we examined whether adopting a current partner's point of view would help romantically involved individuals resist the temptation of alternative partners, encouraging relationship-protective strategies that reduce interest in alternative partners and strengthen the bond with the current partner.

What are some of the 'relationship-protective strategies' that may help people in regulating their responses to attractive alternative partners?

Partnered people tend to deal with the conflict that alternative partners elicit by engaging in behaviors that enhance the current relationship (e.g., complimenting their partner and investing in the relationship, such as through date nights) and inhibiting their responses toward attractive alternatives.

For example, they are less likely than singles to attend to potential alternative partners, to recall positive behaviors they enacted, and to think about them overall.

When committed people do come into contact with alternative partners, they may perceive them as less appealing, inform them about their relationship status, or display less interest in interacting with them.

What are the individual and relationship characteristics that render relationships more vulnerable to infidelity?

People cheat for a variety of reasons. People may cheat because their relationships have lost novelty and passion or when they feel their emotional or sexual needs are not being met.

However, people may be satisfied with their relationship and still cheat on their partners either because they are more prone to do so (for example, avoidant people, who feel uncomfortable with intimacy, may maintain distance and control in their relationship by cheating) or because of contextual factors.

For example, in one of my recent studies, we showed that exposure to adultery norms may justify abandoning long-term priorities of relationship maintenance in favor of pursuing tempting alternatives.

People tend to underestimate the power of situations. People may cheat not because they planned to do so. Rather, the opportunity presented itself and they were too depleted (too tired, drunk, distracted, etc.) to fight the temptation.

What would be your top three pieces of advice for partners in a committed relationship trying to evade the threat of attractive alternatives?

People who wish to avoid infidelity should focus on their current partner and find ways to sustain some sense of growth and passion in their sexuality and in their emotional connection.

They may, for example, learn new things about their partner, let their partner know that they care for him or her in a new way, make their partner feel special and desired, share new experiences that increase the intimacy within the couple, instill a sense of novelty, and engage together in exciting non-sexual activities.

They should also think of the long-term consequences of having connections with alternative partners; the losses they and their loved ones will incur.

Could you tell us how 'partner perspective-taking' contributes to stable and satisfying relationships, irrespective of the presence of any threat of attractive alternatives?

Consideration of a partner's viewpoint may encourage moving away from a focus on immediate, self-centered preferences toward taking into account broader relationship concerns and long-term consequences. Perspective-taking may thus lead to engagement in behaviors that are likely to render both partners happy in the long run.

For example, individuals who consider their partners' viewpoints are likely to experience feelings of closeness and caring toward those partners as well as wanting to spend more time with them.

The feelings of concern for others induced by perspective-taking may promote de-escalation of conflict, thereby helping sustain relationship well-being when threats to the relationship arise either within or outside the relationship.

Specifically, adopting a current partner's perspective (rather than one's own) during situations in which the partner engages in potentially destructive acts (e.g., being upset with the other partner and snapping at this partner) has been found to motivate benign interpretations of a partner's acts, reducing destructive responding (e.g., negative emotional reactions, partner-blaming attributions) and fostering constructive responding (e.g., positive emotional reactions, relationship-enhancing attributions).

Partner perspective-taking may even temper reactions to potentially fiery conflict situations, such as partner infidelity, leading people to judge their partner's behaviors as less indicative of infidelity than their own, at least when it comes to relatively ambiguous infidelity-related behaviors (e.g., online versus explicit sexual behavior).

What was the methodology of your study?

In all studies, participants were randomly assigned to either adopt the perspective of their partner or not. Then, they evaluated, encountered, or thought about attractive strangers. We recorded participants' expressions of interest in these strangers as well as their commitment to and desire for the current partner.

In the first study, participants in the perspective-taking condition were asked to describe what they might be thinking, feeling, and experiencing if they were their partners, looking at the world through their partners' eyes and walking in their partners' shoes, as they go through the various activities they experience during a typical day in their lives. Participants in the control condition were asked to describe a day in their partner's life without any additional instructions.

Following the manipulation of perspective-taking, participants evaluated pictures of attractive strangers of the other gender, indicating under time pressure whether the pictured individual might be a prospective partner. We used the number of selected partners as an index of interest in alternative partners.

In the second study, we examined whether perspective-taking would not only help decrease interest in alternative partners but also enable to promote the current relationship. For this purpose, participants carried out the same perspective-taking manipulation as in the first study. Participants were then interviewed by an attractive interviewer and rated their sexual interest in the interviewer as well as their commitment to their current partner.

In the third study, we used a perspective-taking manipulation that is more directly relevant to encountering the threat of alternative partners. In particular, participants visualized a scene in which their partner discovered that they (the participants) were involved in a passionate affair with an attractive individual. Participants did so either while taking their partner's perspective or not. Following this manipulation, participants were instructed to describe a sexual fantasy about someone other than their current partner and to rate their sexual desire for their current partner. We focused on sexual fantasies as they often express desires and wishes as yet unfulfilled. To help participants generate such fantasies, we asked them to imagine themselves in the following scenario:

"While you are traveling alone, you meet a person you find very attractive at a pick-up bar. One thing leads to another, and the two of you wind up talking, laughing, and having a very good time. You feel a strong sense of physical attraction to this person who makes you feel alive, and attractive, after not experiencing such feelings for a long time. You know that under any other circumstance you could not have had a relationship with this person; and that you are not likely to see this person ever again. You have tonight only ..."

Two raters coded the fantasies for expressions of relationship-protective responses and sexual interest in alternative partners. Protective responses reflected, for example, thinking about the current partner while having sex with someone else or comparing the alternative partners to the current partner in a way that made the current partner preferable.

According to the findings, what are the effects of 'perspective-taking' on relationships?

All three studies supported the idea that seeing the situation through the partner's eyes could be protective. Taking a partner's viewpoint increased commitment and desire for this partner, while decreasing sexual and romantic interest in alternative partners.

Overall, our research deepens our understanding of how couples can maintain stable and satisfying relationships in the face of appealing alternative partners.

Past studies have shown that romantically involved individuals may also accomplish this by ignoring attractive others or perceiving them as less attractive than they are. Still, people often lack the motivation to do so, as indicated by the high rates of infidelity.

Our findings offer a different way people can withstand short-term temptations: stop and consider how romantic partners may be affected by these situations.

Because partner perspective-taking increases concern for the needs and desires of others, it can improve couple interaction, regardless of whether threats to the relationship are present or not. And yet, actively contemplating a partner's point of view may be particularly beneficial to relationship happiness while facing situations in which one's own behavior can upset partners. In these situations, perspective-taking may foster empathy for the partner's potential suffering.

As a result, people are likely to interpret their circumstances in a manner that makes it easier to avoid hurting their partners' feelings and jeopardizing the relationship. When such situations involve a conflict between the allure of alternative partners and the goal of maintaining the current relationship, perspective-taking may tip the scale in favor of long-term considerations over short-term pleasures.

Gurit E. Birnbaum, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology and the Director of the Interpersonal Relationships Program at Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology, Reichman University (IDC Herzliya)