Is it okay for people to be attracted to others while in a committed relationship? Is it normal? Someone told me "if you're in a relationship and attracted to someone else, then there is something missing in your relationship and you shouldn't be committed in the first place." Is that true? I've always thought that attraction is normal and unavoidable, and crushes are harmless if not acted on. So, is it normal to have a crush on someone who isn't your significant other?
A: Your question raises several different issues worth considering, so let’s take them one at a time:
1) Is being “attracted to others while in a committed relationship… normal and unavoidable?”
Actually, yes, there is reason to think that being attracted to others is unavoidable. When we look at another person our brain very quickly processes the visual information our eyes see, and we nearly instantaneously make a judgment concerning the other person’s attractiveness.1 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.2 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.
2) Are “crushes 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. In fact, over 50% of people consider “forming deep emotional bonds” as cheating, and women are more likely than men to consider this type of behavior cheating.3 (For more on this study, check out this post by Dr. Justin Lehmiller on The Psychology of Human Sexuality.)
3) "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.4 Research shows that those with greater relationship satisfaction and commitment pay less attention to alternative partners. Similarly, in a previous post, we discussed how people in relationships that offer insufficient opportunities to grow as a person (i.e., they have low self-expansion) were more likely to tempt themselves by choosing to interact with more attractive single others.5 In short, when people feel like they are missing out on self-expansion in their own relationships, they seek out other partners and want to learn more about those partners. That may all sound relatively innocent, but other research shows that when people feel like their relationship lacks self-expansion, they report more desire to cheat.6
Take Home Message
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. There is a saying that “just because you’re on a diet, it doesn’t mean you can’t look at the menu.” While it is true that you may not be able to prevent yourself from “looking at the menu” entirely, and some research suggests you shouldn’t avoid it entirely, it’s probably safe to keep it to a minimum before you end up getting dessert from a different “restaurant” than you get dinner.
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1Rellecke J., Bakirtas, A. M., Sommer, W., & Schacht A. (2011). Automaticity in attractive face processing: brain potentials from a dual task. Neuroreport, 22, 706-10.
2Lydon, J., E., Fitzsimmons, G. M., & Naidoo, L. (2003). Devaluation vs. enhancement of attractive alternatives: A critical test using the calibration paradigm. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 349-359.
3Kruger, D. J., Fisher, M. L., Edelstein, R. S., Chopik, W. J., Fitzgerald, C. J., & Strout, S. L. (2013). Was that cheating? Perceptions vary by sex, attachment anxiety, and behavior. Evolutionary Psychology, 11, 159-171.
4Miller, R. (1997). Inattentive and contented: Relationship commitment and attention to alternatives. Journal of Personal and Social Psychology, 73, 758-766.
5VanderDrift, L. E., Lewandowski, G. W., Jr., & Agnew, C. R. (2011). Reduced self-expansion in current romance and interest in relationship alternatives. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 28, 356-373.
6Lewandowski, G. W., Jr., & Ackerman, R. A. (2006). Something's missing: Need fulfillment and self-expansion as predictors of susceptibility to infidelity. Journal of Social Psychology, 146, 389-403.
Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the role of the self in romantic relationships with a specific focus on self-expansion. He has authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences and is a member of the Editorial Board for the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.