The beneficial effects of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes are well known. But can doing so in romantic relationships reduce the temptation to cheat? A team of psychologist from Reichman University in Israel and the University of Rochester in upstate New York put that question to the test in a series of three double-blind, randomized experiments.
The answer? Yes, it can.
Perspective-taking—or putting yourself in our partner’s shoes—not only reduces the temptation to cheat but inoculates against other partnership-destroying behaviors, according to the study, published in the Journal of Sex Research.
Why do people cheat on their partners?
People are unfaithful for a variety of reasons, according to the study’s lead author, Gurit Birnbaum, a professor of psychology at Reichman University (IDC, Herzliya). Birnbaum notes that people may be satisfied with their relationships, yet still may betray their partners.
Context is key.
“People often cheat not because they planned to do so,” Birnbaum says. “Rather, the opportunity presented itself and they were too depleted—too tired, too drunk, too distracted—to fight the temptation.”
Coauthor Harry Reis, a psychology professor at the University of Rochester, agrees there are multiple reasons for cheating: men are more likely to cheat because they feel their sexual needs are not being met, he says. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to cheat because they feel that their emotional needs aren’t met.
Study findings: practicing empathy can reduce the temptation to cheat
One way to practice empathy is to try to adopt another person’s perspective. Across three studies, the 408 total participants (213 Israeli women and 195 Israeli men, ranging in age from 20-47) were randomly assigned to either adopt the perspective of their partner or not. All study participants had to be in a monogamous, mixed-sex (heterosexual) relationship of at least four months. As part of the experiments, the participants evaluated, encountered, or thought about attractive strangers while the psychologists recorded their expressions of interest in these strangers, as well as their commitment to and desire for their current partners.
The researchers concluded that adopting a partner’s perspective increased commitment and desire for the partner, while simultaneously decreasing sexual and romantic interest in alternative mates. The findings suggest that perspective taking discourages people from engaging in behaviors that may hurt their partners and damage their relationship.
“Perspective taking doesn’t prevent you from cheating, but it lessens the desire to do so,” says Reis. Ultimately, he says, cheating means “prioritizing one’s own goals over the good of the partner and the relationship, so seeing things from the other person’s perspective gives one a more balanced view of these situations.”
According to Birnbaum, the findings can help people understand how to resist short-term temptations: “Active consideration of how romantic partners may be affected by these situations serves as a strategy that encourages people to control their responses to attractive alternative partners and derogate their attractiveness.”
The team did not test if the benefits of perspective taking extended to the participants’ romantic partners who were not part of the experiment. But the researchers have a hunch, because perspective taking generally promotes empathy, understanding, closeness, and caring.
According to Birnbaum, both partners may feel more satisfied with the relationship and therefore be less likely to cheat, even if only one partner adopts the tested strategy. Besides reducing the likelihood of infidelity, perspective taking motivates people to have compassion for their partners’ emotions and to seek to strengthen the bond with that partner, thereby boosting the existing relationship.
“People invariably feel better understood, and that makes it easier to resolve disagreements, to be appropriately but not intrusively helpful, and to share joys and accomplishments,” says Reis. “It’s one of those skills that can help people see the ‘us’—rather than the ‘me and you’—in a relationship.”
Reichman University’s Tammy Bachar, Gal Levy, and Kobi Zholtack were also part of the team. Their research was supported by grants from the Israel Science Foundation and the Binational Science Foundation.