Attempting to see a situation from a partner’s perspective, striving to feel and think as the partner would, enables people to understand their partners and feel compassion for them. As such, perspective-taking may help people respond constructively when their partner engages in destructive acts. For example, adopting partners’ perspective (rather than one’s 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 at them back.
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 them to enact relationship-protective strategies that reduce interest in alternative partners and strengthen the bond with the current partner.
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.
What did we find?
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 the 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 enact relationship-protective responses while encountering appealing others, such as ignoring them or perceiving them as less attractive than they are. Still, they often lack the motivation to do so, as indicated by the high rates of infidelity. Our findings underscore how people can withstand short-term temptations. Specifically, we reveal that active consideration of how romantic partners may be affected by these situations serves as a strategy that encourages people to control their responses to attractive alternatives and derogate their attractiveness.
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, strategically using perspective-taking may foster empathy for 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 with them. 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, helping people resolve this conflict in ways that uphold the relationship.
The study, “Put Me in Your Shoes: Does Perspective-Taking Inoculate Against the Appeal of Alternative Partners?“, was authored by Gurit E. Birnbaum, Tammy Bachar, Gal F. Levy, Kobi Zholtack, and Harry T. Reis.