It’s not uncommon for strangers to incite impetuous conversations at any given moment. After all, there are many inscrutable bullet points that warrant discussion from someone who may know more and the desire for conversation becomes ever the most apparent when you begin to unfurl your Sunday newspaper. Like, does anyone have the crossword puzzle answer for number 15 down? This is perhaps what a stranger could provide me at this very moment.
This past weekend, I sat with two friends, sipping a Bloomberg-approved iced coffee, when a man on the adjoining bench proceeded to ask my friend holding a book on finance if she was enjoying the book and if she indeed worked in finance. Turns out she is and she is.
The conversation spilled over into further self-disclosure when the stranger asked my friend how long she’s lived in the city, what restaurants she likes and about the fragmented stone bracelet on her wrist. Things seemed to be going swimmingly when almost on cue, a tall, svelte glass of woman traipsed forth and kindly asserted herself as the girlfriend of the garrulous gentleman.
As I collected the lower half of my jaw off the ground, the couple departed arm-in-arm amid the other couples red-rovering along the sidewalk. Finance friend collected herself as cool as a cucumber and insouciantly played the interaction off like it was no big thing. But the question reverberates loudly: Was this man truly a financophile or was he dissatisfied with his current squeeze? Carefully executed research would suggest the latter.
Research conducted by Dr. Rowland Miller has found that commitment to one’s current relationship determines whether people are likely to pay attention to alternative suitors. In a well-designed study, psychologists evaluated whether dating, cohabitating and married couples were more inclined to pay attention to alternative suitors based on their satisfaction with their significant others. First, all participants completed comprehensive dating history questionnaires to assess relationship status and evaluate their commitment to and satisfaction with one another. Couples also privately revealed how attracted they were to each other and whether they believed they could realistically date someone better.
Following this, all couples were presented with pictures of attractive females and males, as well as products from advertisements to conceal the true motivation for the study. Participants were asked to familiarize themselves with the images and were given as much time to spend perusing the slides as desired. Next, couples were asked to look at the photos of the opposite-sex targets and were probed on whether they had any interest in meeting them. After two months, the couples were contacted to re-examine their satisfaction with each other and to determine whether they were still together.
As it turns out, attentiveness to alternatives might be an indicator of relationship failure. Remarkably, those who spent more time looking at the photos of the opposite-sex targets and were more interested in meeting them were less likely to be dating the same partner at the follow-up. Those who had indicated that they were less committed at the start of the study also spent more time inspecting the opposite-sex images than the happier couples.
The couples who were more committed and satisfied in their relationships wore protective blinders and showed less of an appetite for seeking attractive alternatives, evidenced by the equal time they spent gazing at the male and female pictures. These couples who spent less time examining the opposite-sex targets were also the couples who were still in exclusive, committed relationships at the follow-up two months later. Couples who believed that their current partner was better than those they could seek elsewhere were also happier and more likely to remain committed to one another.
What are these magical blinders and how can attached men who talk to pretty girls on benches snag a pair? Turns out, the blinders aren’t built in a day. It’s no secret that relationships take work; sometimes couples have to use protective tactics to maximize the good and minimize the bad. Inattentiveness to alternatives is one of those tactics, where couples in committed relationships choose to block out alternative partners in order to focus on the partner they’ve got.
It’s okay to look someone up and down once in a while, maybe even engage in a “what if” scenario, but if you’re almost subway meat because you were staring so hard at the woman across the platform, envisioning her as the mother of your children, it might be time to examine the state of your relationship. And if it’s really that crossword puzzle answer you’re after and the only available stranger around is Kate Upton’s body double, do your honey a favor and call your grandma.
Kristine Keller received her master’s in psychology from New York University. She currently works at Vanity Fair.
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