When do attractive alternatives threaten your relationship?

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A new article published in the journal Emotion explores an under-explored area of ​​relationship science: ambivalence in romantic relationships. According to the researchers, most people in romantic relationships can identify attractive alternatives in their lives, or someone they find attractive or who they would date if they weren’t with their partner. However, it only becomes a source of stress and ambivalence when they have a strong sense of desire for the attractive alternative.

“Most people feel or will feel ambivalence at some point in their relationship,” says Giulia Zoppolat, a psychologist at Vrije University in Amsterdam and lead author of the research. “Our studies show that people are more likely to experience ambivalence when relationship-related events occur, such as when people feel attracted to someone other than their partner. people are forced to weigh the pros and cons of each option, which increases their ambivalence when weighing the positives and negatives of their relationships.

To better understand this phenomenon, researchers recruited hundreds of couples in the Netherlands who were in long-term relationships and asked them about their feelings towards their partner, whether or not they had an attractive alternative in their life and , if so, how they were attracted to them.

The researchers also asked participants to rate their personal and relationship well-being, such as the level of stress they felt in their relationship and whether they had often thought about breaking up with their partner.

“Our main question was what happens when people feel desire for someone other than their romantic partner,” Zappolat explains.

They found that while most people could identify an attractive alternative in their lives, it was primarily feelings of desire toward the attractive alternative, not just that this person existed, that increased ambivalence.

“Having attractive alternatives in your life shouldn’t necessarily raise alarm bells, but feelings of desire toward them might,” Zappolat says.

The authors note that there are other factors that could cause relationship ambivalence, such as a major life change like moving or simply having been through a big fight. But the presence of an attractive and desired alternative is perhaps the most common source of relationship ambivalence.

The authors offer some words of wisdom for people struggling with relationship ambivalence.

“The first thing to remember is that it’s okay to have attractive alternatives in your life, but it’s not necessarily a threat to your relationship,” Zappolat explains. “What makes people stop and reevaluate things is when there are strong feelings of desire for someone else. The second takeaway is that when that happens, it’s “It’s a stressful situation. I would say it’s important to recognize that stress and recognize that mixed and conflicting feelings are normal in this situation. It doesn’t mean the relationship is necessarily doomed, just that she might need a little more attention to sort out her feelings and decide what the best course of action is, whatever that is.

The authors found no evidence of gender differences in the amount or type of ambivalence experienced by a partner, nor of age differences.

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