Are Extra-Relationship Crushes Harmless?

June 11, 2013

crushIn a recent discussion the subject of crushes came up – does having a crush on someone other than your partner constitute cheating? AuthorDr. Gary Lewandowski, author of the blog The Science of Relationships, has addressed this question in the post Is It Okay To Have A Crush On Someone Who Isn’t Your Significant Other?  Excerpts follow:

Is beingattracted to others while in a committed relationship… normal and unavoidable?

“There is reason to think that being attracted to others is unavoidable…We can’t really help making these judgments; it’s automatic. However, once we think about the other’s attractiveness more purposefully, we can revise our original reaction.

For people in committed relationships, those revisions are skewed towards making potential partners seem less attractive. This process, known as derogating alternatives, helps us maintain our commitment to our original relationship. Put another way, my single friends may think Anne Hathaway is hot, but since I’m married, I tend to think her big teeth make her unattractive.”

Arecrushes harmless if not acted on?

“I’m not sure that you can consider a crush completely harmless. After all, you are expending emotional energy towards someone other than your current partner. Wouldn’t it be better to spend that energy on your current partner rather than on someone else? You also need to consider how your partner feels about this. You may think an emotional bond like a crush is harmless, but your partner may consider it cheating.”

If you’re in a relationship and attracted to someone else, then…is something missing in your relationship…?

“There is some good evidence suggesting that this is true. Being attracted to someone other than your partner, or even being more inclined to notice attractive others is what psychologists call attention to alternatives. Research shows that those with greater relationship satisfaction and commitment pay less attention to alternative partners.

So is it normal to have a crush on someone other than your partner? It certainly happens. If it does happen, you probably shouldn’t ignore it. Rather, the important thing may be to take it as a possible indication that your primary relationship may not as healthy as it could be.”


Obviously, all people in committed relationships observe attractive people in the environment. What varies is one’s personal response to that stimulus. This will depend on a person’s character, personality traits, and satisfaction in the current relationship. Your partner’s satisfaction is at least partly your responsibility, but character and personality traits were set long before you came on the scene. How can you filter out potential cheaters? Experts weigh in:

1. A key predictor of cheating is the attractiveness of potential alternatives.

If attractive people envy you, your mate has options, and having options makes cheating more likely. In Predictors of young dating adults’ inclination to engage in extradyadic sexual activities: A multi-perspective study, researchers also identified three other important factors:

  • Satisfaction with current relationship: 

    “Respondents who reported that their relationships were “pretty happy” and “not too happy” were two and four times more likely, respectively, to have reported extramarital sex than respondents who reported that they were “very happy” with their relationships (Atkins et al., 2001).”

  • Number of sexual partners: high N indicates a “learned advantage” at recruiting sex partners
  • Level of dysfunctional impulsivity: the tendency to “leap without looking”

2. Individual attitudes towards cheating largely reflect attachment style.

People with an avoidant attachment style are less likely to name a particular behavior cheating, while those with an anxious attachment style are more likely to consider it off limits. The more dissimilar a couple’s attitudes towards what constitutes cheating, the more likely there will be relationship strife.

3. Sexual performance anxiety drives many men to cheat. 

For men, significant predictors of infidelity are personality variables, including propensity for sexual excitation (becoming easily aroused by many triggers and situations) and concern about sexual performance failure.

The latter finding might seem counterintuitive, Milhausen said, but other studies have also found this connection. “People might seek out high-risk situations to help them become aroused, or they might choose to have sex with a partner outside of their regular relationship because they feel they have an ‘out’ if the encounter doesn’t go well — they don’t have to see them again.

4. The emotional health of a relationship is the key predictor for female cheating.

For women, relationship happiness is paramount. Women who are dissatisfied with their relationship are more than twice as likely to cheat; those who feel they are sexually incompatible with their partners are nearly three times as likely.

for men, personality characteristics are so strong they bounce everything else out of the model. For women, in the face of all other variables, it’s still the relationship that is the most important predictor.

5. Hormonal factors play a huge role.

Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist and expert on morality at Claremont Graduate University, has developed a test for scoring men on their propensity to cheat

Dysregulated oxytocin release can be caused by either a genetic disorder or an insufficient amount of nurturing in the first ten years of life.

… A variant of the arginine vasopressin receptor gene was recently found to be associated with having an unhappy marriage.

… My lab has shown that high levels of testosterone change the brain’s cost-benefit calculation toward the current and self, rather than taking a long-term view that includes others’ needs.

a. Resting heart rate below 70: +1 point

Men who seek excitement like him tend to engage in all kinds of arousing events, including illicit affairs. These men have low resting heart rates. Bomb disposal professionals and parachutists also have low resting heart rates. These under-aroused individuals also commit more crimes–violating social norms gets them the excitement they crave. If your partner has a heart rate less than 70 beats per minute while resting, give him one point.

b. One point each for a longer fourth to second finger, more than average hairiness, and a long jaw.

c. Oxytocin malfunction:

How does your man respond to chick-flicks? If you spot a misty eye when the guy gets the girl at the end of the movie, or the little boy succumbs to cancer, he’s got an intact oxytocin system. If not, give him one point. If you have kids, does he dote on them? If not, give him one point. If you have a dog, how is he with it? Poor interaction with the dog earns him one point.

d. Failure to experience jealousy or mate guard: +1 point.

e. Interpersonal relationships:

If your mate’s dad cheated on his mom, he gets one point.

How often does he talk to his mother? Are they close? If not, he gets a point.

More generally, does he interact well with his siblings, cousins and friends? And your friends, too? Poor family relationships and few friendships suggest he may not be good at bonding to people, including romantic attachments.

6. Female hypergamy plays a role.

Women who wear the pants in the relationship are more likely to cheat:

The imbalance of power in the primary relationship has been associated with infidelity. Edwards and Booth (1976) found that wives who reported that they “get their way” more often during disagreements were also more likely to have extramarital sexual involvements.

An imbalance in education increases the chance of cheating:

…in a large U.S. national study of dating, cohabiting, and married women, Forste and Tanfer (1996) found that women who were more educated than their husbands were more likely to engage in sexual infidelity; but if the husband was more educated than the wife, she was less likely to philander.

7. Higher male IQ predicts higher value attached to sexual exclusivity.

Data from a large, representative American sample shows that more intelligent boys are more likely to grow up to value sexual exclusivity in early adulthood than less intelligent boys.  In contrast, childhood IQ does not affect girls’ value on sexual exclusivity in early adulthood.  The effect of intelligence on the value of sexual exclusivity is more than four times as strong among men than among women.

Satoshi Kanazawa believes this is a result of evolution:

Sexual exclusivity is an “evolutionary novel” quality that would have been of little benefit to early man, who was programmed to be promiscuous, he argues.

The modern world no longer confers such an evolutionary advantage to men who have several sexual partners – but it is only intelligent men are able to shed the psychological baggage of their species and adopt new modes of behaviour

Other “evolutionary novel” qualities that are more common among people of higher intelligence include liberalism and atheism, his study indicated.

8. Women are more likely to cheat on genetically similar men.

Since the Pill interferes with the female ability to suss out DNA dissimilarity, a man should never commit for life to a woman who has not been off the Pill for at least six months, according to Helen Fisher. 

I can think of no worse mating outcome than partnering with a cheater. Infidelity destroys lives. It’s worth dedicating 80% of your energy early on to evaluating the potential for it, and disqualifying anyone who appears to be a poor fit for monogamy.