The short answer is yes, according to relationship experts
Image credit: deagreez (via Adobe Stock)
Here?s a common romantic myth: in a satisfying relationship with the right person, you should never feel attracted to anyone else.
But according to Relate, the UK?s largest provider of relationship support, it?s perfectly natural ? and inevitable ? to find people other than your partner attractive from time to time.
In fact, it?s much more common than you might expect.
In one study published in Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, almost 70% of participants said they?d experienced some kind of attraction toward someone other than their partner while in a long-term relationship.
The researchers noted that even in happy, committed, monogamous relationships, attraction to others was normal.
Is it wrong to feel attracted to others?
What matters is how you act in response to the attraction ? not the inevitable attraction itself.
?I get emails all the time from people in relationships who get blindsided by finding someone else attractive,? says Mark Manson, self-help author and personal development consultant. ?They feel horrible because of it.?
But it?s irrational to beat yourself up over involuntary thoughts and feelings. Entering a relationship doesn?t switch off your normal biological functioning.
As advice columnist Mariella Forstrup puts it: ?being in a long-term relationship doesn?t lobotomize the part of your brain that deals with attraction.?
Your brain makes automatic judgments about attractiveness
?When we look at another person, our brain very quickly processes the visual information our eyes see, and we nearly instantaneously make a judgment concerning the other person?s attractiveness,? writes Gary Lewandowski, psychology professor and author of The Science of Relationships. ?We can?t really help making these judgments; it?s automatic.?
Hence, even while in a relationship, you still recognize other people?s appealing features and characteristics (just as you did before you got with your partner).
In fact, ?anything can make us suddenly notice someone,? says Ammanda Major, a senior consultant on sex therapy at Relate. A draw could be as subtle as a co-worker saying something that makes you laugh.
You can?t control your thoughts and feelings ? only your actions
When it comes to doing right by your partner, what matters is how you act in response to the attraction ? not the inevitable attraction itself.
As Manson reminds us:
We can?t control our thoughts and feelings, but we can control our actions.
When we choose not to act on them, thoughts and feelings pass through us like waves and leave us with our partner very much the same way they found us.
Is there something wrong with your relationship?
Don?t assume your attraction to others indicates your partner is any less ?right? for you.
Just because there?s no off-switch for attraction to other people, that doesn?t mean there?s something wrong with you or your relationship.
Evolutionary scientists have developed some interesting theories about why we might feel drawn to others ? even if we?re happily taken ourselves.
Although we can?t change the biological basis of attraction, understanding it can help us respond more consciously to the impulses it creates.
After all, as psychiatrist Dr. Kenneth Rosenberg writes: ?You can?t fix what you don?t understand!?
We?re drawn to people who are genetically different from us
?Genetic diversity is good for the human species, making us taller, healthier, and smarter,? Rosenberg says.
To understand attraction, it?s important to know about a specific part of the immune system called the major histocompatibility complex (MHC).
When two people who are genetically different in the MHC mate, their offspring are more likely to have immunity to a wider range of diseases.
For this reason, ?our brains evolved to lust after those who are genetically different from us, in order to prevent sick children and diversify and improve our genetic codes.?
Therefore, what we call ?attraction? is often an involuntary physiological response to meeting someone with compatible (i.e. sufficiently different) genes. Meeting a person who is genetically dissimilar in the MHC alerts the pleasure centers in your brain.
?This explains why you can be in love with your current partner and still feel attraction to another person,? writes Patricia Love, therapist and author of The Truth About Love. ?If you meet enough people, you will find more than one suitable DNA match!?
What sweaty T-shirts can teach us about attraction
Scientists have demonstrated a relationship between attraction and genetics through multiple studies involving sweaty T-shirts.
Rosenberg summarizes the results as follows:
In many replicated studies, heterosexual women and men sniffed the T-shirts of several anonymous gender-opposite people, and chose which T-shirts they assumed to belong to the sexiest owners.
Overwhelmingly, the participants selected the T-shirts of the people who were genetically different from them.
This just goes to show how much of our lust and desire is driven by unconscious genetic factors.
Genetic compatibility is not the same as relationship compatibility
With all this in mind, it?s important to remember: finding someone attractive doesn?t mean they?re more suited to you than your current partner overall.
Based on genetic compatibility alone, you might feel a strong pull toward someone whose values completely clash with yours!
Obviously, a relationship with that person probably wouldn?t last.
So don?t assume your attraction to others indicates that your current partner is any less ?right? for you.
Rosenberg reminds us it?s common to feel attracted to others, even when you?re already paired with a perfectly good mate.
Prior to ovulation, women are more attracted to ?good genes?
Interestingly, several studies suggest that when women are at their most fertile (just before they ovulate), they?re more likely to be attracted to people outside their relationship.
This tendency could also have its roots in our evolutionary history.
According to evidence published in The Annual Review of Sex Research, some of our ancient female ancestors may have used a ?dual mating strategy? to ensure their offspring had the best chance of survival.
In the long-term, they sought security from reliable, committed men who were willing to invest time and resources to feed and protect children.
However, it?s also possible that while coupled with these reliable men, some women actually had their children by other (stronger, and healthier) males.
Since the resulting offspring benefited from both good genes and reliable parental support, this meant they would be especially likely to thrive.
Did promiscuous men have a reproductive advantage?
Similar theories about successful reproduction could also explain the basis of some men?s attraction to people outside their relationship.
For example, in his comprehensive textbook on intimate relationships, psychology professor Rowland Miller explains:
Men who promiscuously pursued every available sexual opportunity may have reproduced more successfully.
If the men flitted from partner to partner, their children may have been less likely to survive, but what the men didn?t offer in quality (of parenting) they could make up for in quantity (of children).
Use evolutionary psychology theories to become more self-aware
Of course, theories like these don?t give you a free pass to engage in infidelity.
However, they may help you understand some possible evolutionary mechanisms behind involuntary attraction to people other than your partner.
As Rosenberg says, self-awareness can help you avoid ?being taken over by unseen forces.?
Being aware of your attraction doesn?t mean you have to act on it!
Attractiveness is everywhere; real intimacy is not.
Sexual desire thrives on novelty
Finally, research shows that sexual desire thrives on novelty, and that?s another reason why we can feel attracted to people outside our relationship.
In one study published in Psychological Bulletin, a male rat was put into a cage with a female rat in heat. The pair mated repeatedly until they were sexually exhausted.
Afterwards, when a new female was introduced into the cage, the previously exhausted male rat perked up and resumed mating with the newcomer!
The novelty of the situation seemed to give the rat newfound energy ? even though it was no longer interested in additional sex with its previous mate.
The takeaway from this study is that sometimes, we may feel attracted to people not because they are any ?better? than our partner ? but simply because they are new.
In such moments, remember that feeling thrilled by someone new doesn?t mean your prior commitment was a mistake.
Manson puts it well when he says: ?Attractiveness is everywhere; real intimacy is not.?
How to deal with unwanted attraction to others
When we commit to a person, we are not committing our thoughts, feelings or perceptions to them.
We can?t control our thoughts, feelings and perceptions most of the time, so how could we ever make that commitment?
What we can control are our actions. And what we commit to that special person are those actions. Let everything else come and go, as it inevitably will.
? Mark Manson, 6 Healthy Relationship Habits Most People Think Are Toxic
It should be clear by now that it?s normal to be attracted to people outside our relationship, and we don?t have to punish ourselves for it.
However, we can recognize attraction to others ? and then let it go ? as a way of strengthening our commitment to our partner.
As Shirley P. Glass, one of the world?s leading experts on infidelity, explains: ?One of the measures of true commitment is that you don?t allow yourself to be pulled away from your priorities by distractions.?
On his blog, Manson exemplifies this sentiment with a personal story: ?When I meet a beautiful woman now, it reminds me why, out of all the beautiful women I?ve ever met and dated, I still choose to be with my wife.?
To help you respond to attraction with a similar, relationship-enhancing attitude, self-improvement writer Aletheia Luna advises using the following affirmations:
It is OK to feel attracted to others, but I choose [my partner].
Although I feel attracted to this man/woman, I choose [my partner] for a good reason.
?It can be a struggle to rewire the ?you-should-never-feel-attracted-to-others-in-relationships? belief,? says Luna.
But as we?ve seen, looking at things from an evolutionary perspective helps shed some light on why it?s normal to feel some attraction to others ? even in a happy relationship.
As long as you don?t act on it, you?re not doing anything wrong.
In short, as Luna says, the most important step is to ?feel what you feel, and move on.?