A small but growing body of research finds that people who are good at maintaining monogamy have very deliberate strategies to keep it that way. These are partners who can manage their attraction to others and not get caught off guard. “Monogamy is fighting against our nature. The people who are best at it are the ones who have rules for themselves,” says Lucia O’Sullivan, a psychology professor at the University of New Brunswick who studies infidelity. Here, she offers some advice for those who want to keep monogamy alive.
Learn from the polygamists
Few partners or spouses actually discuss their expectations of exclusivity. In this arena, polyamorous couples have monogamous ones beat: Rules are established and everything is on the table. O’Sullivan recommends laying out your deal-breakers with an explicit monogamy agreement. “It’s acknowledging that there are things that you won’t budge on and being clear with your partner about that.” O’Sullivan had such a literal conversation with her husband; her dealbreakers include extended, affectionate contact with someone else, sexy e-mail exchanges and telling female friends secrets or intimate details he hasn’t shared or okayed with her. Also, hand-holding. One might ask, aren’t marriage vows the original monogamy agreement? O’Sullivan says vows don’t necessarily cover non-traditional unfaithfulness, such as checking out a dating site or flirting with a co-worker via e-mail.
The power of negative thinking
A number of researchers are exploring a humorously deliberate technique known as the “derogation of the attractive.” Basically, this involves talking yourself out of it. Romantically involved partners will often avoid eye contact with hotties to shield themselves from temptation. They won’t go to bars where their exes hang out, and they won’t volunteer for that long-term project their work crush is helming. They’re also privately downgrading these people in their head: Find someone at the office really hot? Focus on her cankles, or that nasty habit she has of interrupting everyone at a meeting. Brain researchers found that they could teach men and women this strategy and help them apply it consciously out in the big, bad, tempting world.
Forget romantic strolls on the boardwalk
For people in long-term committed relationships, the importance of novelty cannot be stressed enough: We’re hardwired for it. As we habituate to our spouses, we get bored. We need a surprise here and there. “If you want to keep your marriage alive, you don’t go for sweet little walks on the beach and stare into each other’s eyes over dinner,” O’Sullivan says. “You do challenging things that make you see your partner in a new way, things that are intense, involving, emotional and challenging. Make things uncomfortable a bit.”