Being attracted to someone other than your current romantic partner is a common occurrence. New research indicates that attractive alternatives that elicit strong feelings of desire are associated with having mixed and conflicting feelings towards one’s partner. But the study, published in Emotion, also suggests that the simple presence of attractive alternatives in one’s life does not appear to be a cause for concern.
“Romantic relationships can be wonderful, but they can also be hard, and at times tumultuous,” said study author Giulia Zoppolat, a PhD candidate at Vrije University Amsterdam. “It is no wonder then that people can, and often do, experience mixed and conflicting feelings towards their partner, or what we call ambivalence.”
“Although this is a common phenomenon, it is quite understudied, and the causes and consequences of these mixed emotions are not yet well understood. It was therefore important to me, and my colleagues, to capture these mixed emotions and to understand what makes these emotions more or less strong. By doing so, we can better comprehend the emotional complexity that most people experience in their relationships.”
The researchers used the online platform Prolific and an online platform for students at a Dutch university to recruit 1,021 participants. Of this initial sample, 658 heterosexual individuals indicated that they had an attractive alternative in their life and were included in the study. The participants were randomly assigned to either think about the attractive alternative or think about a same-sex friend. They then wrote a brief summary of what they liked about the target person.
Participants who wrote about their attractive alternative tended to report a greater desire for the attractive alternative compared to those who wrote about their friend. In addition, those who experienced greater desire towards the attractive alternative tended to report more mixed feelings towards their current partner. The findings provided some preliminary evidence for the link between attractive alternatives and ambivalence.
Zoppolat and her colleagues sought more ecologically valid tests of their hypothesis by conducting a 10-day daily diary with 172 partnered young adults, and second 14-day daily diary study with 174 heterosexual couples. Both studies uncovered a similar pattern of results. People who experienced greater desire for attractive alternatives on any particular day were more likely to also experienced greater ambivalence towards their current partner during that same day. Participants who reported feeling more ambivalence toward their partner, in turn, tended to report more stress as well as lower relationship and life satisfaction.
Interestingly, the desire for an attractive alternative was more strongly associated with mixed feelings towards one’s partner than the mere presence of alternatives. The quantity of alternatives was unrelated to ambivalence.
“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,” Zoppolat told PsyPost.
“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.”
But it is unclear how well the results generalize to people in open or consensual non-monogamous relationships.
“A huge caveat is that our participants were part of monogamous relationships and so our results are based in a monogamous framework where expectations of emotional and sexual fidelity are generally very strong. In this way, becoming romantically interested in someone other than one’s current partner poses a threat to the status quo,” Zoppolat explained.
However, for people in other types of relationships, such as consensually non-monogamous relationships, an attractive alternative is not necessarily a threat to the stability of the current relationship, or it is not in the same way, and therefore ambivalence may not be triggered. It would be interesting to study these processes in other types of relationships other than monogamous ones.”
The study, “Mixed and Conflicted: The Role of Ambivalence in Romantic Relationships in Light of Attractive Alternatives“, was authored by Giulia Zoppolat, Ruddy Faure, María Alonso-Ferres, and Francesca Righetti.