Popular Science: How do women react when confronted with the threat of infidelity, and does this correlate with the quality of their relationships?
One of the many problems that a lot of animals face in their daily struggle to pass on copies of their genes is trying to keep their partner from running away with someone else. Humans are no exception, of course, and to help them answer, evolution has come up with a set of smart behavioural patterns known as mate-retention tactics and relationship maintenance strategies.
Mate-retention tactics appear more often in the presence of sexual competition and include behaviours that tend to inhibit a mate’s ability or lessen their motivation to switch partners. They are typically put into one of two categories: either ‘benefit provisioning’ in which case one partner tries to make the relationship more valuable for the other, for example through material gifts, sexual favours and professions of love, or ‘cost-inflicting’ which aim to increase the perceived cost of leaving the relationship, either through degrading the rivals, lowering the partner’s self-esteem or closely monitoring them (also known as direct guarding).
Relationship maintenance strategies on the other hand include attitudes like openness, positivity and habits like assurance and keeping common social networks that are used to maintain a relationship and preserve its long-term wellbeing.
The aim of the study was to investigate if there could be an association between a relationship’s overall quality and the strategies and tactics women display when their partner and a potential sexual rival were present. Most past studies on this matter focused on long-term behavioural patterns and data were usually collected by the subjects’ self-reporting, which is why the researchers decided to study mate-retention behaviour on the non-verbal level while making use of both empirical observation and anecdotal reports. This is also the reason why they chose to focus on women, as compared to men they have been shown to be more expressive non-verbally.
The sample consisted of 47 long-term heterosexual couples. The partners were interviewed, first separately and then as a pair, on topics related to relationships and sexuality by an attractive female researcher whose presence could be perceived as a threat by the female subjects and was thus expected to elicit mate-retention behaviour.
The specific behaviours measured during the interview were appearance enhancement (such as self-touching on thighs and upper body, hair flipping and primping), displays of love and care, intimacy inducements (long glances at partner or touching of hands) and direct guarding (in the form of short glances).
Relationship maintenance strategies were also observed, namely positivity (measured by the frequency of positive head nods vs negative head shakes, laughter and looking around) and openness, which was thought by the researchers to be expressed through the female participants’ open upper body posture.
The study expected that ‘benefit provisioning’ mate retention tactics as well as positivity and openness displayed by women would be associated with higher levels of relationship adjustment and satisfaction (as measured by the Spanier’s Dyadic Adjustment Scale, for which the subjects completed questionnaires during their separate interviews).
Indeed, women who flipped their hair and adjusted their clothing more scored higher on both satisfaction and adjustment, while intimacy inducement had a positive effect on women’s adjustment and their partners’ satisfaction. The frequency of short looks they gave their men on the other hand had a significant negative effect on men’s satisfaction.
These results may shed some light on several interesting elements of the way humans communicate non-verbally in their relationships.
First, the looks that women give their partners in the presence of a potential threat of infidelity convey different messages depending on their length (one can easily imagine a long, sweet look in contrast with a short, “sharp” look). In addition, it was shown that women in more satisfied and better adjusted couples give their partners more looks that are sweet.
Second, women who attempted to increase their attractiveness more often by making minor adjustments to their appearance belonged to the better adjusted and more satisfied couples, highlighting how attraction continues to be important in maintaining established relationships.
Lindová, J., Klapilová, K., Johnson, D., Vobořilová, A., Chlápková, B., Havlíček, J., & Rutz, C. (2019). Non‐verbal mate retention behaviour in women and its relation to couple’s relationship adjustment and satisfaction. Ethology, 125(12), 925–939. https://doi.org/10.1111/eth.12949