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Walk the Line: How Successful Are Efforts to Maintain Monogamy in Intimate Relationships?

The main purpose of the current study was threefold: to provide an initial investigation into how relationship commitment influences how individuals manage their attraction to others when in a monogamous relationship, to identify whether these attempts were effective in maintaining monogamy, and to examine attraction contexts that incur monogamy maintenance efforts. Monogamy maintenance efforts are deliberate attempts by individuals to maintain monogamy in their relationships when facing temptations away from their primary relationship via extradyadic attraction. Insights into how individuals respond to common relationship threats posed by attractive others and their effectiveness ultimately may help individuals to focus on more effective means of maintaining monogamous relationships and reducing vulnerability to infidelity, which is viewed as a serious violation of trust and is a common precursor to relationship distress and breakup (Amato & Previti, 2003; DeMaris, 2013). Better understanding of monogamy maintenance and its limitations may contribute significantly to interventions aimed at developing behavioral efforts to strengthen monogamous relationships.

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Relationship Characteristics Associated with Monogamy Maintenance

Adults in monogamous relationships vary in their use of monogamy maintenance depending on their levels of relationship commitment. The multidimensional nature of monogamy maintenance was supported by the finding of differential patterns of use across relationship commitment levels. However, contrary to our hypothesis, Self-Monitoring and Derogation was the only factor that was positively associated with relationship commitment. Our findings indicate that individuals who were more committed to their relationships were more likely to perceive their extradyadic attraction as a threat and respond with self-directed behaviors, such as attempts to manipulate one’s emotions and derogating the attractive other. This finding is consistent with prior research establishing the derogation effect (Lydon et al., 1999, 2003) and suggests that the derogation effect can extend beyond automatic, implicit processes. Although the identities of the attractive alternative were not identified by participants in the current study, monogamy maintenance encompasses intentional behavioral efforts that may target non-fleeting extradyadic attraction. In comparison with the other two types of monogamy maintenance, Self-Monitoring and Derogation appears to be more reactive and less proactive in nature, aimed at cajoling one’s attention back to the primary relationship when it has already been drawn toward the attractive alternative (e.g., “reminded myself the importance of being faithful,” “told myself that that this other person was bad for me”). The reactive nature of Self-Monitoring and Derogation efforts may indicate that individuals who are highly committed to their relationships do not expect to experience extradyadic attraction and may not respond to the attraction until it is well developed and more obviously a threat.

In comparison with Self-Monitoring and Derogation, Relationship Enhancement was negatively associated with relationship commitment, which was contrary to our hypothesis, suggesting that individuals who were more committed to their relationships were less likely to report working on improving the quality of the relationship as a method of avoiding extradyadic involvement. Individuals may perceive their efforts to enhance their relationship as an end to itself, as compared to a means by which to protect their relationships. It also may be that the more committed an individual is to a relationship, the less effort is made to work on one’s relationship even in the face of a potential threat—taking it for granted in a sense. In addition, the items on the Relationship Enhancement subscale may reflect the processes in which individuals engage to enhance or deepen a new relationship, reflecting the process of courtship (e.g., “Had a physical relationship with my partner to deepen our bond”). These behaviors may ultimately reflect a constellation of common courtship behaviors used to establish a monogamous relationship. This explanation also is supported by the findings that increased age and relationship length were weakly correlated with lower levels of Relationship Enhancement. Lastly, Proactive Avoidance was not associated with relationship commitment, indicating that these efforts are commonly used regardless of how committed an individual is to their relationship. The aim of Proactive Avoidance strategies is to restrict opportunities to interact with attractive alternative partners as a way to inhibit the development of intimacy with attractive others. Individuals may find themselves constrained by social norms and overlapping social circles in their attempts to avoid interacting with attractive others who may be encountered at work, social, or leisure activities.

Our findings support the use of the Investment Model as a theoretical framework in predicting monogamy maintenance. Prior research has used this framework to predict infidelity (Drigotas et al., 1999; Martins et al., 2016), conflict resolution (Guerrero & Bachman, 2008), and willingness to sacrifice in intimate relationships (Van Lange et al., 1997). The four components of the Investment Model (commitment, satisfaction, investments, and perceived quality of alternatives) predicted one another as expected, replicating previous research (Guerrero & Bachman, 2008; Le & Agnew, 2003; Martins et al., 2016), which then was associated with a novel relationship maintenance outcome, in this case, monogamy maintenance.

Of note, no differences in use of monogamy maintenance emerged for gender, relationship status, or whether a couple had an explicit monogamy agreement in place. Thus, monogamy maintenance appears to be a widely adopted set of behaviors that the majority of individuals in relationships employ in response to extradyadic attraction. The lack of association between relationship status and monogamy maintenance suggests that “structural” commitment, represented by relationship status (married/cohabiting or dating), did not influence monogamy maintenance use as much as “attitudinal” commitment, represented by self-rated levels of commitment (Lydon et al., 1999) and by relationship length. The finding that having an explicit monogamy agreement in place was unrelated to monogamy maintenance use suggests that individuals have internalized norms about maintaining exclusivity.

Monogamy Maintenance and Monogamy Success

Use of some form of monogamy maintenance did not predict later success in resisting romantic or sexual infidelity, contrary to hypotheses. Monogamy maintenance efforts were identified by respondents as their attempts to realign interest in a primary partner and avoid an attractive other, but these efforts did not appear to be effective in thwarting interest in an attractive other. Monogamy maintenance previously was found to be predictive of extradyadic flirtation (Lee & O'Sullivan, 2018). Self-Monitoring and Derogation efforts were found to be positively associated with flirtation, whereas Relationship Enhancement efforts were negatively associated with flirtation (Lee & O'Sullivan, 2018), in patterns consistent with the current findings. Monogamy maintenance appears to be more effective in redirecting individuals from engaging in flirtation, a subtler and more socially tolerated extradyadic behavior which may lead to infidelity, but other motivations and risk factors likely override monogamy maintenance when sexual or romantic infidelity is being considered. It may be that that efforts to maintain monogamy were impeded by other characteristics, such as sociosexuality (Feldman & Cauffman, 1999), attachment style (Beaulieu-Pelletier, Philippe, Lecours, & Couture, 2011), or impulsivity (McAlister, Pachana, & Jackson, 2005), that place individuals at higher risk of extradyadic involvement. In addition, we did not assess the behavior of the attractive other. Those individuals may have been especially persistent upon realizing that attraction was reciprocated and difficult to avoid ultimately, given that most extradyadic partners are individuals well integrated into one’s life prior to involvement.

Moreover, the number of different monogamy maintenance efforts used and infidelity outcomes were unrelated. Although used as a measure of increased effort, more varied monogamy maintenance use might not actually translate into greater effectiveness, as the number of strategies used likely includes both successful and unsuccessful efforts. We did not assess the intensity and frequency of MM use. For example, it may be that one strategy, used consistently, is more effective in maintaining monogamy than using a number of different strategies inconsistently. Overall, even when the intent is there, the number of monogamy maintenance efforts used did not effectively protect monogamy, at least in our sample.

While holding constant initial levels of relationship commitment, individuals who engaged in an extradyadic sexual relationship over the course of two months reported lower relationship commitment at follow-up, consistent with prior findings that infidelity is associated with relationship disruption and breakup (Allen & Atkins, 2012; DeMaris, 2013; Drigotas et al., 1999). Surprisingly, extradyadic romantic involvement was not associated with lower relationship commitment in the current study, contrary to our hypotheses based upon prior research linking emotional infidelity to relationship and personal distress (Carpenter, 2012; Drigotas et al., 1999; Leeker & Carlozzi, 2014). Individuals may find themselves seeking emotional intimacy and support from alternative partners, friendships, and other relationships, while remaining committed to continuing their primary relationships. Qualitative research has uncovered the multifaceted nature of monogamy, and also how one dimension of monogamy, such as sexual exclusivity, may be valued over another, such as emotional exclusivity, in a committed relationship (Anderson, 2010). Our counterintuitive findings highlight the need to examine romantic infidelity as a phenomenon independent of its co-occurrence with sexual infidelity, and to explore its correlates, outcomes, and motivations.

Monogamy Maintenance as a Response to Relationship Threat

Although most individuals in our sample reported some use of monogamy maintenance efforts, individuals who experienced an episode of reciprocated attraction with an attractive other used the highest variety of efforts, consistent with our hypothesis about greater perceived threat to monogamy posed by reciprocated attraction. Those attracted to individuals within their social circles may experience a tension between efforts to maintain monogamy and social propriety. For example, total avoidance of a work colleague to whom one may be attracted is often not feasible or tolerated, and derogating the attractiveness of a family friend may be socially inappropriate.

Those experiencing reciprocated attraction reported twice as many Proactive Avoidance and Self-Monitoring and Derogation efforts than did those experiencing unreciprocated attraction. These types of strategies represent efforts aimed at building physical and emotional distance from a potential alternative partner and redirecting one’s own attention back to the primary relationship. Overall, those experiencing episodes of extradyadic attraction perceived to confer greater threat to monogamy appeared to engage in greater levels of proactive and reactive efforts, aimed at both the attractive other and oneself.


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