We’ve all heard of guys asking their friends for help when it comes to romantic relationships, like when faced with the daunting task of picking out a birthday gift. But a recent study in Personal Relationships shows that recruiting your friends to help keep someone interested in you can take a dark turn in people who tend to be dishonest.
Mate retention refers to what we do to prevent our partners from cheating. These behaviors are hard-wired in us and extremely common because from an evolutionary perspective, having a partner leave you for someone else comes at a high cost. When that happens, we lose not only our emotional and financial investments in the relationship, but also our chances at passing on our genes. Of course, short of locking someone in a windowless room, there are zero surefire ways of guaranteeing your bae won’t leave you. But thankfully, we all have options to minimize it.
Behavior known as benefit-provisioning mate retention is, I would argue, a healthy way of keeping your partner interested. It involves you doing nice things for your girlfriend or wife such as giving her compliments or dressing well on your nights out. For her, acts like these make being with you more attractive than being with someone else. Cost-inflicting mate retention, on the other hand, involves using duplicity and control to keep your partner from straying. One example of this is calling your partner at unexpected times to find out where she is and whom she’s with.
Monitoring and controlling a partner comes at a cost; for one, doing so is time-consuming and tricky. Most of us have 9-to-5s (or 9-to-9s) in addition to social lives and hobbies, so when you think about it, it takes some serious dedication to micromanage a partner’s life while living your own. Enter your bros.
A person who constantly checks up on his or her partner tends to come across as possessive, jealous and insecure. Speaking from experience, such behavior has earned some men I’ve dated the adorable pet name “Psycho”. But if a guy enlists his friends to help as wingmen, he’s able to convincingly appear—at least on the surface—like a well-adjusted person who trusts his partner.
Now for the science part of this. The Personal Relationships study included 177 men and 150 women (the average age was roughly 32 years old). Everyone was in a committed, heterosexual relationship for at least one year. Participants completed two questionnaires: one that measured six personality traits (Extraversion, Emotionality, Openness, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness and Honesty–Humility) and one that inquired about how often in the last year the respondent had asked friends to help with mate retention.
Examples of such help included asking your friends to say positive things about you to your partner so that she thinks highly of you, spending time with her so she isn’t able to do other things with other people and using physical violence to ward off other men who may be interested in her.
Participants who scored higher in Extraversion and lower in Conscientiousness and Honesty–Humility asked their friends for help in manipulating and deceiving their romantic partners more frequently. This makes sense because such sneaky, ill-willed approaches come from a place of antisociality and looking out for yourself. Those who scored higher in Honesty–Humility tend to be more sincere and modest, and less likely to behave in controlling ways because they don’t want to hurt someone they care about.
If your wingman happens to be friends with your girlfriend, this changes the dynamic of how the two relate to each other, and the authors suggest that future research should look into how this influences mate retention. If your wingman and ladyfriend aren’t close, you’ll probably rely on his help more often, since his loyalty would be to only you, as opposed to both of you.
We also need more research to fully understand how being on the receiving end of infidelity might influence whether someone uses these tactics. For example, if you’ve stolen a friend’s girlfriend in the past, or an ex has cheated on you with a friend, you’d be reluctant to ask your friends for help in your current relationship.
At the end of the day, though, here’s some brutal honesty from your friendly, neighborhood sexologist: Trusting the person you’re with more often has more to do with you than your partner. And for the wingmen out there, you’d be doing your friend a favor by pointing this out, because playing games in the name of preventing cheating not only eats away at the quality of a relationship, but brings about a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Debra W. Soh is a sex writer and sexual neuroscientist at York University in Toronto. She has written for Harper’s, The Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, The Los Angeles Times, The Globe and Mail and many others. Follow her on Twitter: @debra_soh.