Having one partner, also called
monogamous mating, can be beneficial to both men and women from an
evolutionary perspective: Men who are in monogamous relationships need not
worry about raising another man’s child, and women need not worry about their
partner being invested in other women and their children.
But what happens if one partner
cheats or suddenly leaves the relationship? This can be highly costly, which is
why both members of a monogamous relationship engage in mate
Mate retention strategiesrefer
to behaviors, such as buying gifts, intended to reduce the likelihood of infidelity or a
breakup. A recent study, published in the September issue of the Journal of
Social and Personal Relationships, has identified three clusters of mate retention behaviors.
Negative and positive mate-retention strategies
Before discussing the results of the
study, we need to understand the difference between the two types of tactics
aimed at reducing the risk of one’s partner cheating or leaving the
One group of tactics called benefit-provisioning
are low-risk approaches that emphasize the positive aspects of the
Examples of these tactics include
showing affection (e.g., giving gifts, complementing the person’s appearance)
and providing various types of support (e.g., financial support; love and care
The logic behind the
benefit-provisioning strategy is this: The other person in the
relationship would be less likely to think about cheating or breaking
up unless they are willing to lose a lot of benefits.
The second group of tactics,
are high-risk behaviors that make it costly for a partner to leave the
relationship. These behaviors include the use of deception,
intimidation, threats, and other negative behaviors.
For instance, a woman who fears
that her boyfriend might cheat on her may mock and ridicule him in front
of others so he appears less desirable to potential mates. Or a man
who fears his wife will leave him might tell her that he will kill
himself if she ever leaves him.
So, are couples more likely to use
the first, second, or both mate-retention tactics? The study reviewed below
tries to answer this question.
Three clusters of mate-retention strategies
The sample included 697 participants
(56% men) who had been in relationships with the opposite sex for three
months or longer. Participants were on average 29 years old (with a range of
18-70 years). The average relationship length was about six and a half years.
Using a statistical method called
cluster analysis, the study’s authors, Lopes and Shackelford, identified three
clusters of mate retention strategies in the sample: disengaged, benevolent,
Participants in the disengaged cluster
rarely performed either benefit-provisioning or cost-inflicting behaviors. Why?
One reason might be that they believed their romantic partners were unlikely to
Such beliefs may be more common in
committed relationships like marriages. Previous research has shown that mate
retention behaviors gradually decrease post-marriage, perhaps because couples
feel they can trust each other enough by then.
People who feel emotionally
detached may also utilize this strategy. This is consistent with this study’s
finding that those in this cluster (compared to other clusters) were less likely
to be physically intimate with their partner.
Participants in the second group,
cluster, regularly used only benefit-provisioning approaches; they
rarely used any cost-inflicting ones.
Benevolent mate-retention is more
often used by those who have high levels of self-esteem and relationship
satisfaction. Those who value the relationship—but do not fear infidelity—also
employ this strategy frequently.
The third cluster, labeled exhaustive,
was populated by participants who used both benefit-provisioning and cost-inflicting
These individuals might have added
the cost-inflicting behaviors later—only when the risk of infidelity seemed
high (or infidelity seemed very costly) to them.
Individuals who employ this approach appear to be less intimate with their partners. Another group inclined to use exhausting approaches are people with children. Why? Perhaps because the “diversion of a partner’s investment is reproductively costly for a woman and her offspring…and a partner’s defection may be especially costly for a man who has invested resources in the offspring