When Do Attractive Alternatives Become A Threat To Your Relationship?

Psychologist Giulia Zoppolat discusses her new research on ambivalence in romantic relationships.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | January 13, 2022

A new paper published in the academic journal Emotion explores an under-researched area of relationships science: ambivalence in romantic relationships. According to the researchers, most people in romantic relationships can identify attractive alternatives in their life — that is, someone they find attractive or that they would date if they were not with their partner. However, it only becomes a source of stress and ambivalence when they have strong feelings of desire for the attractive alternative.

I recently spoke with Giulia Zoppolat, a researcher at Vrije University in Amsterdam and lead author of the paper, to discuss her findings in more detail. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of romantic ambivalence, how did you study it, and what did you find?

Traditionally, we tend to think of people's experiences in their relationship along one continuum, from negative to positive. But this does not accurately reflect the reality of most relationships, which is that people can, and often do, feel both positive and negative feelings towards their partner at the same time, and not only positive or negative feelings.

This is because relationships are both a source of joy and connection but also a source of conflict and disappointment, among other mixed emotions. It was important to me and my colleagues to capture these mixed experiences so that we can better understand people's true experiences in their relationships.

We studied this through what is known as a daily-diary procedure, where people respond to questions about themselves and their relationships every day over the course of several days. We also followed up with participants after one year to see how things were going.

Specifically, we recruited hundreds of couples in the Netherlands that were in a relationship for at least four months (although most were in a relationship for much longer than that) and asked them about their feelings towards their partner, whether or not they had an attractive alternative in their life (someone they found attractive other than their partner or that they would like to date if they weren't with their partner), and if so, how attracted to them they were.

We also asked them about their personal and relational well-being, such as how much stress and anxiety they felt and if they had thoughts about breaking up with their partner.

Our main question was: What happens when people feel desire towards someone other than their romantic partner?

It turns out this is quite a distressing experience, and people tend to feel lots of mixed and conflicting feelings about their relationship (and greater stress!) as they struggle with two competing desires: on the one hand, wanting to maintain their current relationship, on the other, feeling the pull towards another person. In a monogamous context, one cannot have both without serious consequences.

What was particularly interesting in our studies was that while most people had an attractive alternative in their life (i.e., someone they found to be attractive or that they would date if they were not with their partner) it was primarily the feelings of desire towards this person — not just that they existed — that increased the ambivalence. In other words, having attractive alternatives in one's life should not necessarily sound alarm bells, but feelings of desire towards them might.

What percentage of people in romantic relationships would you estimate have some degree of romantic ambivalence?

People may not experience ambivalence all the time, but it's likely that most people do or will experience ambivalence at some point in their relationship. Our studies show that people are more likely to experience ambivalence when relationship-relevant events happen, such as when people feel pulled towards someone other than their partner. In this situation, people are forced to weigh the pros and cons of each option (stay with their partner? engage with the attractive alternative?), which increases their ambivalence as they assess the positive and negative aspects of their relationships.

A similar process might occur in other situations, such as when they have a big fight with their partner or are making a big decision such as relocating.

What are the practical takeaways from your research for someone struggling to decide between romantic alternatives?

The first takeaway is that it is normal to have attractive alternatives in one's life, but that this is not necessarily a threat to your relationship. What does make people pause and re-evaluate things is when there are strong feelings of desire towards someone else. The second takeaway is that, when this happens, this is a stressful situation. I would argue that it is important to recognize this stress and acknowledge that mixed and conflicting feelings are normal in this situation. This does not mean that the relationship is necessarily doomed, just that it might require a bit more attention to sort out one's feelings and decide what the best course of action is, whatever that may be. It is possible that the ambivalence is a signal that one should do something about the current situation, whether that is to invest more in the relationship to increase the positive experiences and decrease the ambivalence, or to leave the relationship if that is best, or something else.

Is it possible for someone with romantic ambivalence to overcome these feelings? Or is it more of a stable personality characteristic?

There is some evidence that ambivalence can be a bit stable as a trait — that is, there are people that are just more ambivalent than others, and can be so about a variety of things, from political issues, to big decisions, to their relationships with friends and family or coworkers. Our research shows that ambivalence can also fluctuate over time or day to day based on relationship-relevant events. It is possible to reduce ambivalence, and generally people are motivated to do so because feeling mixed and conflicted about something can be an uncomfortable feeling.

A way to overcome them is to make a decision about the situation and do something about it; for example, people might invest more in their relationship in order to improve it, thereby increasing the positive feelings they may have and reducing ambivalence.

Did you find any gender differences or other demographic differences?

No consistent gender differences were found, and our findings were consistent with both younger and older adults.

What other personality traits are related to romantic ambivalence?

There is not much research on this, but some evidence shows that there is a link between attachment anxiety and romantic ambivalence. This is because people who are anxiously attached tend to both desire closeness but are afraid of rejection.

How might your research inform clinical efforts to improve relationship health and satisfaction?

While more research is needed to test these findings in a clinical setting, it might be beneficial to remember that it is not necessarily the presence of attractive alternatives that should be a cause for concern, but rather the desire towards them. This could inform where the focus of potential interventions should lie. It is also important that these feelings be addressed, as doing so may offer an opportunity to prevent cheating before any occurs.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on romantic ambivalence go in the future?

Yes, we are continuing to look into the causes and consequences of ambivalence in romantic relationships. This is an emerging area in relationship science, so I am excited to see where things head.