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Our Fragile Relationships: Relationship Threat and Its Effect on the Allure of Alternative Mates

Abstract

Long-term romantic commitments may offer many benefits. It is thus unsurprising that people employ strategies that help protect their relationships against the allure of alternative partners. The present research focused on the circumstances under which these strategies are less effective. Specifically, four studies examined the effect of internal relationship threat on expressions of desire for alternative mates. In Study 1, participants reported perceptions of relationship threat, their desire for their partner, and expressions of attraction to alternative mates. In Studies 2–4, participants underwent a threat manipulation and then encountered attractive strangers. Their reactions during these encounters (expressed interest, provision of help, and overt flirtation in Studies 2, 3, and 4, respectively) were recorded. Results showed that experiencing threat led to increased expressions of desire for alternatives. As indicated in Studies 1 and 2, decreased desire for current partners partially explained this effect, suggesting that desire functions as a gauge of romantic compatibility, ensuring that only valued relationships are maintained.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Bat Primo, May Barbi, Taqwa Jaljolie, and Maya Davidovich for their assistance in the collection of the data and Kobi Zholtack, Romi Orr, Danelle Izakov, Gil Tsessler, Shiran Arinus, Oz Klein, and Ron Lerner for their assistance in conducting the research. This research was supported by the Israel Science Foundation (Grants 86/10 and 1210/16 awarded to Gurit E. Birnbaum) and by the Binational Science Foundation (Grants #2011381 and #2016405 awarded to Gurit E. Birnbaum and Harry T. Reis).

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Correspondence to Gurit E. Birnbaum.

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All study procedures were approved by the Ethics Committee of the Faculty of Psychology, Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, prior to data collection.

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Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in this study.

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Birnbaum, G.E., Mizrahi, M., Kovler, L. et al. Our Fragile Relationships: Relationship Threat and Its Effect on the Allure of Alternative Mates. Arch Sex Behav 48, 703–713 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-018-1321-5

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-018-1321-5

Keywords

  • Attractive alternatives
  • Infidelity
  • Sexual desire
  • Relationship threat
  • Romantic relationships