Bonus: What ACTUALLY works.
Should you check their email and their text messages?
Go through their car and pockets and purse, checking for unexplained receipts or underwear that's not yours?
Call them at odd times, to make sure they're where they said they would be and doing what they said they'd be doing?
Should you demand they share with you their Facebook password, so you can make sure they're not using social media to reconnect with old flames?
Research offers some tantalizing suggestions that these efforts to control your spouse and command sexual fidelity might actually increase their desire to pursue extramarital sex.
They found that when we try to prevent people from attending to, responding to or noticing "desirable relationship alternatives," it has the following effects:
1. It makes people feel more dissatisfied with their current relationship.
2. It decreases their commitment to fidelity within their current relationship.
3. It increases their interest in pursuing an extramarital relationship.
4. It increases people's memory of attractive people who are not their partner.
5. It increases the amount of time they attend to these "alternative" people.
DeWall and his fellow authors hypothesize that this effect is related to the concept of the "forbidden fruit."
By telling Adam and Eve not to eat that darn apple, God created a burning desire to have what they couldn't have and essentially destined them to break the commandment.
By trying to prevent your spouse or partner from cheating, you might be creating the same effect.
By setting and enforcing limits, you are almost certainly increasing your partner's unhappiness with you and your relationship — and making it more likely they will start shopping around for alternatives.
I remember a couple I treated years ago, where the wife was convinced her husband would one day cheat on her. Recognizing this effect even back then, I told her that her conviction that her husband would one day cheat put her in danger of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. By telling him repeatedly that she didn't trust him and believed he would cheat, she was removing the barriers to him cheating.
This could potentially lead him to say to himself one day, "Why shouldn't I cheat? She already believes I will. I've really got nothing to lose."
I often explain to parents that their efforts to catch and punish their children breaking rules are likely to backfire. We know that such efforts don't make children behave, but instead make children look for ways not to get caught. I tell parents to instead help their children understand the reasons for rules, the potential consequences of rule breaking, and respect and praise their children's ability to make good decisions.
Similarly, when you put your spouse or partner on notice that you are "watching them like a hawk," what you might really be doing is telling them they need to be prepared to better hide their actions and desires — and that you don't trust them.
I encouraged the wife in the story above to start spending a lot of time paying attention to the qualities in her husband she admires and respects. Doing this would increase his internal barriers to infidelity — things like his moral character, his commitment to her, his desire and love for her, and the joy they have in being together.
The same things apply here. Want your spouse to be faithful?
Here are a few tips that actually work:
- Be clear about what faithfulness means. Many problems happen due to lack of clear communication about expectations and agreements.
- Help your partner to want to be faithful by having a healthy relationship. That doesn't mean you should always keep them happy, but that you should do your part by communicating openly and dealing with problems as they arise.
- Pay attention to the things that are working. Often people in relationships only attend to the things that aren't working, which enhances awareness of dissatisfaction. Instead, we do best by highlighting things we like, even more than the things we don't. "That which we attend to, grows."
- Deal with your own fears and feelings over infidelity. What does it mean to you, and your beliefs about yourself and your relationship?
- Finally, talk about it. Guess what, talking about it with your partner doesn't make it happen. Instead, talking openly and honestly about the issue of extramarital sex and desire, with respect and personal ownership of feelings, helps you and your partner make better decisions about your relationship, commitment, and in reaction to those "attractive alternatives."
DeWall and his co-authors also suggest that it works better to work on "enhancing relationship processes that naturally lead to decreased attention, such as focusing on positive aspects of one's partner."
Rather than try to MAKE your partner not cheat, make them WANT to not cheat.
Creating a relationship in which they feel no need to do so will make that forbidden fruit less desirable, less mysterious, and less alluring than you are yourself.
This article was originally published at Psychology Today. Reprinted with permission from the author.