Holding hands
Features & Articles

Attraction is key to keeping your relationship alive — but not how you think

  • Innovation and Research
  • Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences

A cute stranger is flirting with you at a party, but there’s one problem: You’re already in a relationship.

Assuming you’d like to stay in that partnership, Pitt psychologist Alexandra Black says downgrading the attractiveness of that potential mate is key to keeping your coupling alive.

“Devaluing a potential partner can look different across couples, but it’s how highly committed individuals can maintain a sense of confidence and security in their views of their partner and the future of the relationship,” said Black, a visiting teaching assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

In other words, tell yourself, “They’re not that cute, and they’d probably be boring anyway.”

Black’s latest study created a similar scenario to learn more about how couples rate their commitment to each other and dismiss risks posed by other prospective mates.

“One of our goals was to identify a previously unexamined barrier to maintaining relationship stability,” she said.

One week before Black’s experiment, her subjects — romantic pairings of men and women enrolled at a university — completed surveys about their level and their partner's level of commitment to the relationship.

[Another Pitt psychologist offers her best relationship advice.]

Part two of the study was held in a lab. The setup was simple: Her team had couples sit on separate sides of a room divider. On one side, a participant was shown photos of people of the same race and sex as they were and whom they were told would be attending the university in the future. They were then instructed to list what they found desirable about the people pictured and to rate the same images from their partner’s perspective. Those participants were led to believe their partners received the same instructions.

On the other side of the divider, however, the other half of the couples were asked to list 12 objects in their dorm rooms. This created a scenario where their partners heard them effortlessly typing for an extended period — and potentially assumed they were recording what they found alluring about people in photos.

“We were trying to induce an experience where one of the participants thought, ‘wow, they have a lot to say about this attractive person,’” Black said.

After the exercise, the participants were surveyed again regarding their perceptions of their partner’s commitment, their level of trust in their partner and their feelings about the relationship.

The people who initially reported stronger partner commitment were more likely to dismiss the worry that their partner would find someone else attractive.

“Even when presented with information that their partner might be highly rating a replacement, they remained grounded and viewed their partner as trustworthy. That’s definitely a characteristic of a secure person, and people with high levels of attachment anxiety have difficulties doing so.”

Looking ahead, one way Black said she’d like to build on the study is to learn how someone who struggles with high anxiety in relationships might learn to adopt the healthy relationship skills those trusting partners exhibited.

“If we can learn to induce momentary feelings of security as a first step, then in the long run, we can create more secure models of self to have longer lasting effects potentially,” she said.

“I’m invested in helping those that desire close relationships be able to have their needs met, to learn to be a part of a healthy dynamic,” added Black.


— Nichole Faina, photography from Getty Images