- Romantic commitment includes a built-in defense system that lowers attention to attractive strangers.
- New research suggests that being the target of flirtation can change how we think about our partners.
- When strangers cannot be ignored, their flirting can bypass traditional commitment biases and affect us.
People in committed relationships are often in places where they might encounter attractive strangers. At work, on the subway, while grocery shopping, at the gym ... it's hard to imagine individuals in relationships not having at least an occasional conversation with interesting, attractive, available people who are not their current partner. These chats could be friendly, informative, or transactional — but what if the stranger flirts?
We cannot control how other people interact with us, so if they flirt, does it matter? Is it only the case that our own flirting makes our relationships vulnerable, or do strangers' actions shape our relationships as well?
Committed Partners Generally Ignore Attractive Strangers
For most committed partners, casual interactions with attractive strangers pose little threat to their relationship stability. This is in part because commitment includes a suite of unconscious behaviors designed to keep them oriented toward their partners. For example, when primed with thoughts about mating, research showed that single individuals let their attention linger on photographs of attractive potential partners, whereas people in relationships shifted their attention away faster (Maner et al., 2009). In other words, committed partners actively (if unconsciously) worked to ignore an attractive person who could threaten their relationship.
Think of it as a commitment-based relationship defense system that, in some circumstances, works beautifully to keep people oriented toward their own partner. Longitudinal work shows that the newlyweds (n = 233) who quickly disengaged from attractive photos were less likely to break up down the road on account of infidelity (Maner et al., 2018). If you don't notice attractive strangers, perhaps you're less likely to be tempted to pursue them.
Being a Target of Another Person's Flirting Is Harder to Ignore
Much of the research showing that commitment keeps people's attention on their partner (or at least, away from attractive strangers) uses passive examples of attractive strangers (like photographs). But what if the situation is less passive: What if the attractive stranger is actively flirting and you're their target?
Recent research (Birnbaum, 2022) examined the problem of active flirting for committed partners. After all, active flirting is a lot harder to ignore than photos or the mere presence of an attractive person. Given that many relationships end in infidelity or one partner being "stolen" by another, understanding the basic cognitive components of commitment, and their potential limits, may help us understand when social interactions are – and are not – threats to relationships.
Being Flirted With Makes People See Their Partners Less Favorably
In Birnbaum's (2022) first experiment, 130 participants in committed relationships interacted online with an attractive stranger (a confederate who followed a script). The attractive stranger either flirted or engaged them in neutral conversation, and then the participant completed implicit and explicit measures about their romantic partner. Results showed that the experience of being a target of an attractive someone's flirting altered how people thought about their own partner: They judged their partner more negatively and as less attractive than the participants who experienced the neutral conversation.
In Birnbaum's (2022) second study, 130 participants were again randomly assigned to engage in online chatting with either an attractive stranger (i.e., a confederate) who was flirting or not flirting, but this time, participants reported on their attraction to the stranger as well as to their partner, and were asked to think of a sexual fantasy that could include their partner or other people.
Once again, being the target of someone else's flirtations appeared to shape relationship thoughts. When people received the confederate's flirting, they were more likely to fantasize about someone other than their partner. They also perceived the stranger as more attractive, and reported less attraction to their own romantic partner compared to the neutral condition. These results suggest that simply being the target of another person's flirting has the potential to introduce vulnerabilities into the relationship.
Could Being a Target of Flirtation Jeopardize Relationships?
Rarely does love happen in isolation: Instead, our relationships operate within busy social worlds. How we navigate these social worlds may reflect our relationship commitment, but when others start flirting with us, this new research suggests our basic biases toward our partner (and away from others) appear to weaken (Birnbaum, 2022). In other words, it's not our own desires that alone can begin a dismantling of romantic commitment: Other people's active expression of their romantic interest in us can creep behind the wall of commitment that usually keeps our eyes on our partners.
Brinbaum's (2022) work sets the stage for more inquiry into how infidelity occurs and the limits of committed partners' automatic inattention to attractive others. Of note, this laboratory study documented its effects using only a one-time flirtation that occurred via computer. Perhaps real, in-person, repeated flirtation could be especially problematic for relationship stability. But are perceptions necessarily indicative of behaviors? People may feel attraction to a stranger or have a brief negative view of their partner, but this does not necessarily translate to relationship-threatening behaviors. More work is necessary to see when and how others' flirting might undermine commitment.
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Birnbaum, G. E. (2022). Temptation at your door: Receiving mate poaching attempts and perceived Partners' desirability. Personal Relationships, 29(3), 566-580.
Maner, J. K., Gailliot, M. T., & Miller, S. L. (2009). The implicit cognition of relationship maintenance: Inattention to attractive alternatives. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(1), 174-179.
McNulty, J. K., Meltzer, A. L., Makhanova, A., & Maner, J. K. (2018). Attentional and evaluative biases help people maintain relationships by avoiding infidelity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(1), 76-95.