By Dr. Benjamin Le
Close your eyes and imagine your partner is working late with an attractive coworker that you suspect they have a crush on. Or, think about your partner hanging out at a high school reunion with an old flame. Such thoughts probably don’t make you feel good, and you may be anxious or upset knowing that your partner was tempted by the fruit of another (or what researchers refer to as “attending to an attractive alternative partner”). It may seem like common sense that such suspicions of a partner’s potential betrayal could hurt your relationship. Well, relationship science says "mate guarding" behaviors could actually increase commitment in relationships.
"Mate guarding" can include keeping an eye out for people who show romantic or sexual interest in your partner; it can also include trying to monopolize his or her time. Basically, "mate guarding" means trying to limit your mate's opportunities to interact with others who might steal that mate away from you.
One study looked at nearly 100 dating and married heterosexual couples. Every day for a week, partners answered questions about their interest in people outside their relationship, as well as their own levels of relationship commitment and satisfaction. They also indicated whether they thought their partners were interested in others. Finally, they answered daily questions about how much "mate guarding" they engaged in that day.
When people suspected their partners were tempted by or attracted to others, they "mate guarded" more. This isn’t much of a surprise — if you believe your relationship is threatened, you’re motivated to do something about it. More importantly, "mate guarding" was associated with greater commitment to the relationship the next day. However, commitment was not, in turn, related to more "mate guarding" the next day. In other words, it’s not necessarily that more committed people "mate guard" more; instead, those who experience this behavior become more committed as a result.
Additionally, the researchers found that the effects of perceived temptation and "mate guarding" on commitment were heightened for “jealous people” (read more about the jealous type here). We’re not saying that extreme, creepy, or dangerous forms of "mate guarding" — like spying on your partner or keeping them from leaving the house — are good for anyone. What we are saying is that after you try to protect your relationship, your partner may feel more attached to that relationship. Read more about the benefits of commitment here.