Statistics on how common infidelity is can vary wildly from study to study, which makes sense. Not everyone feels comfortable talking candidly about their sex lives or relationship missteps, and honesty isn’t really a cheater’s forte.
One recent YouGov poll found that one-third of Americans said they’d cheated, either physically, emotionally or both. When asked about their experiences being cheated on, 54% of those who have ever been in a monogamous relationship say they’d had a partner who strayed.
A new study published in the Journal of Sex Research isn’t looking at how common cheating is, but rather, how to prevent it: To avoid cheating, the researchers found your best bet is to try a little perspective-taking ― aka, try putting yourself in your partner’s shoes.
“Our findings offer a way people can withstand short-term temptations: Stop and consider how romantic partners may be affected by your desire to pursue an alternative partner,” said Gurit E. Birnbaum, a professor of psychology at Reichman University in Israel and the co-author of the paper.
Perspective-taking simultaneously decreases sexual and romantic interest in alternative mates. (Consider it the opposite of beer goggles.)
“In these situations, perspective-taking may foster empathy for the partner’s potential suffering,” Birnbaum told HuffPost.
“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,” the professor explained.
So how did the researchers discover this little cheating-evading life hack?
Across three studies, 408 participants (213 Israeli women and 195 Israeli men, ages 20 to 47) were randomly assigned to either adopt the point of view of their partner or to not adopt it. (The participants were all in monogamous, mixed-sex relationships of at least four months.)
As part of the experiments, the participants evaluated, encountered or thought about attractive strangers while the psychologists recorded both their expressions of interest in these strangers and their commitment to and desire for their current partners.
The researchers found that adopting a partner’s perspective boosted commitment and desire for the partner.
Past studies have shown that when people are depleted and their self-regulatory ability is temporarily impaired due to stress or being intoxicated, they’re less likely to resist the temptation to seize an opportunity and cheat.
But the researchers of this new study think perspective-taking could help stave off more premeditated affairs, too. (A long-simmering office romance, for instance, rather than a drunken hookup with a stranger.)
“I think the benefits of perspective-taking holds true as long as people can stop and consider how romantic partners may be affected by these situations,” said study coauthor Harry Reis, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester and the author of “Relationships, Well-Being and Behaviour.”
Because we had infidelity experts on the line, we figured we’d ask some big, broad questions: Why do they think people cheat, especially when they’re largely satisfied with their relationships?
“People may be satisfied with their relationship and still cheat on their partners either because they are more prone to do so; for example, avoidant people, who feel uncomfortable with intimacy, may maintain distance and control in their relationship by cheating, or because of contextual factors,” Birnbaum said.
Another recent study conducted by Birnbaum showed that exposure to adultery norms may justify abandoning long-term priorities of relationship maintenance in favor of pursuing tempting alternatives. In other words, cheating can be contagious.
“Then people may cheat not because they planned to do so, but rather because the opportunity presented itself and they were too depleted ― too tired, drunk, too distracted ― to fight the temptation,” the professor said.
“We tend to underestimate the power of situations,” Birnbaum said, but perspective-taking ― especially when we’re inebriated or stressed out ― could help us stay faithful.