'The Grass is Greener Where You Water It'

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Can we predict which relationships are likely to experience "infidelity?"

“Comparison Level for Alternatives,” aka: CL-alt, is a concept from Social Exchange Theory that refers to the lowest level of “relational rewards” a person will accept before they opt to be alone or accept rewards from other relationship sources. 

If you’re familiar with research from The Gottman Institute, you may already—knowingly or not!—be familiar with the beyond brilliant work of the late Caryl Rusbult. Honestly bless the Gottmans and Gottman Institute for honing in on her studies and measures related to trust and commitment. This lady was seriously one of the only people to ever get to serious statistical significance in predicting ‘betrayal,’ or to use Rusbult’s language, "relational norm violations."

Caryl Rusbult is probably best known for her “Investment Model” of relationships, which suggests our relationship stability is a function of three things: 1) degree of satisfaction, 2) quality of alternatives, and 3) magnitude of investments (e.g., time, energy, mutual friends). She also argued: “Dependence is greater to the extent that the most important needs in the relationship are better satisfied in that relationship than elsewhere."

You know that saying, “the grass is greener on the other side?” That speaks to comparisons for alternatives. Here, ‘alternative’ refers to someone/relationship other than your primary partner. 

Relational norm violations like “affairs” don’t usually just happen spontaneously. It starts with an openness and curiosity—a gradual turning away from the grass on your side of the fence, which is perfectly lush by the way when you’re watering it enough. 

Neil Barringham: "The grass is greener where you water it." 


Gottman observes that resentment is a relationship killer. If you begin to shift from “my partner did this thing and it kind of sucked but we worked through it” to “my partner always/never does this thing—I don’t deserve this shit and I shouldn’t have to put up with it,” the chances of a relational norm violation increase.

Sue Johnson would probably add that the degree to which partners feel that the other/s (well, she might actually say "other" and potentially sass me for adding the "/s") are 1) accessible, 2) respond when called, and 3) emotionally engaged, impacts the security of the bond, and so trust.

I would argue that the 'degree of satisfaction' in Rustbult's thinking likely associates with what Dr. Sue calls, the "A.R.E. you there for me?" question: are you Accessible, Responsive, and Emotionally Engaged when I need you? It definitely plays into how people consider 'quality of alternatives.' 

Lots of clients use language to describe their affair partner/s like: "He really listens to me and cares how I feel." "She always texts me back immediately when I'm feeling upset and knows just what to say." "We have this emotional connection that I just don't feel at home." 

It makes sense that if you (un)consciously estimate that another partner/s would be more accessible/responsive/engaged, we could predict that playing into a higher likelihood of relational norm violation/s occurring. 

I invite you to explore carylrusbult.com if you want to check out some of her instruments and papers! If you'd like to know more about the science around the relational processes that we tend to see unfurl when trust gets smashed, check out Gottman's Betrayal Cascade.

Some folks giggle when I talk about prevention in the domain of 'betrayal/infidelity' but there's actually a lot we can do when armed with wisdom and solid science!