Understand Jealousy & How to Deal With it in Your Couple

A different kind of negative emotional experience results from the potential loss of a valued relationship to a real or imagined rival.  Jealousy can involve a variety of feelings, ranging all the way from sad dejection to actual pride that one’s partner is desirable to others, but the three feelings that define jealousy best are hurt, anger, and fear. 

Hurt comes from the perception that our partners do not value us enough to honor their commitments to our relationships, and fear and anxiety come from the dreadful prospect of loss and abandonment. But the unique element in jealousy is the romantic rival who threatens to lure a partner away: “To be jealous, one must have a relationship to lose and a rival to whom to lose it” (DeSteno & Salovey, 1994, p. 220). It’s being cast aside for someone else that gets people angry, and that anger is usually directed both at the meddlesome rival and at the partner who is beginning to stray. Sometimes that anger turns violent; 13 percent of all the murders in the United States result from one spouse killing another, and when that occurs, jealousy is the most common motive. 

Obviously, jealousy is an unhappy experience. But here’s an interesting question: How would you feel if you couldn’t make your lover jealous? Would you be disappointed if nothing you did gave your partner a jealous twinge? Most people probably would be, but whether or not that’s a sensible point of view may depend on what type of jealousy we’re talking about, why your partner is jealous, and what your partner does in response to his or her jealousy. Let’s explore those issues. 

Two Types of Jealousy  
1. Reactive jealousy

occurs when someone becomes aware of an actual threat to a valued relationship. The troubling threat may not be a current event; it may have occurred in the past, or it may be anticipated in the near future (if, for instance, your partner expresses the intention to date someone else), but reactive jealousy always occurs in response to a realistic danger. A variety of behaviors from one’s partner can cause concern; just fantasizing about or flirting with someone else is considered “cheating” by most young adults in the United States. Unfortunately, there may be a lot to be jealous about. In two surveys of over 800 American college students, lots of young adults reported having dated, kissed, fondled, or slept with someone while they were in a serious dating relationship with someone else. Half of the women and two-fifths of the men said they had kissed or fondled someone else, and a fifth of both men and women said they had had intercourse with a rival (most of them more than once).

2. Suspicious jealousy

In contrast, suspicious jealousy occurs when one’s partner hasn’t is behaved and one’s suspicions do not fit the facts at hand. Suspicious jealousy results in worried and mistrustful vigilance and snooping as the jealous partner seeks to confirm his or her suspicions, and it can range from a mildly overactive imagination to outright paranoia. In all cases, however, suspicious jealousy can be said to be unfounded; it results from situations that would not trouble a more secure and more trusting partner. 

The distinction between the two types of jealousy is meaningful because almost everybody feels reactive jealousy when they realize that their partners have been unfaithful, but people vary a lot in their tendencies to feel suspicious jealousy in the absence of any provocation. Nevertheless, the distinction between the two isn’t quite as sharp as it may seem. A jealous reaction to a partner’s affair may linger on as suspicious jealousy years later when trust, once lost, is never fully regained. And people may differ in their judgments of what constitutes a real threat to their relationship. Knowledge that a partner is merely fantasizing about someone else may not trouble a secure partner who is not much prone to jealousy, but it may cause reactive jealousy in a partner who is insecure. So, the boundary between them can be vague, and as we explore individual differences in susceptibility to jealousy in our next section, I’ll ask a generic question that refers to both types of jealousy.

Who’s Prone to Jealousy? 

On the whole, men and women do not differ in their jealous tendencies, but there are individual differences in susceptibility to jealousy that lead some people to feel jealous more readily and more intensely than other people do. When people feel that they need a particular partner because their alternatives are poor—that is, when people have a low CL alt— any threat to their relationship is especially menacing. In contrast, people who have desirable alternatives tend to be less jealous because they have less to lose if the relationship ends.

People who worry that they can’t measure up to their partners’ expectations or who fret that they’re not what their lovers are looking for are less certain that their relationships will last, and they are more prone to jealousy than are people who feel certain they can keep their partners satisfied. Self-confidence in a relationship is undoubtedly affected by a person’s global sense of self-worth, and people with high self-esteem do tend to be less prone to jealousy than those with low self-esteem. However, a person’s perceptions of his or her adequacy as a partner in a specific relationship are especially important, and even people with generally high self-esteem can be prone to jealousy if they doubt their ability to fulfill a particular partner. 

One of the ingredients in such doubt is a discrepancy in the mate value each person brings to the relationship. If one partner is more desirable than the other, possessing (for example) more physical attractiveness, wealth, or talent, the less desirable partner is a less valuable mate, and that’s a potential problem. The less desirable partner is likely to be aware that others could be a better match for his or her lover, and that may cause a sense of inadequacy that does not exist in other areas of his or her life (or with other partners). Here is another reason, then, why matching occurs with people pairing off with others of similar mate value. Most of us want the most desirable partners we can get, but it can be threatening to realize that our partners could do better if they really wanted to. 

In any case, consider the perilous situation that faces people who feel both dependent on and inadequate in their current relationships: They need their partners but worry that they’re not good enough to keep them. It’s no wonder that they react strongly to real or imagined signs that a romantic rival has entered the scene.

Of course, attachment styles influence jealousy, too. To some extent, people with a preoccupied style routinely find themselves in a similar fix: They greedily seek closeness with others, but they remain chronically worried that their partners don’t love them enough in return. That’s a recipe for jealousy, and sure enough, preoccupied people experience more jealousy than do those with the other three styles. The folks who are least affected when a relationship is threatened are typically those with a dismissing style of attachment. Feeling self-sufficient and trying not to depend on others is apparently one way to stay relatively immune to jealousy.  

Finally, personality traits are also involved. People who are high in neuroticism, who tend to worry about a lot of things, are particularly prone to jealousy. On the other hand, agreeable people, who tend to be cooperative and trusting, are less likely than others to become jealous.

Who Gets Us Jealous?

We become jealous when our partners are interested in someone else, but not all rivals are created equal. It’s particularly obnoxious when our friends start horning in on our romantic relationships; rivalry from a friend is more upsetting than is similar behavior from a stranger. It’s also especially painful when our partners start expressing renewed interest in their former lovers. But no matter who they are, romantic rivals who have high mate value and who make us look bad by comparison are worrisome threats to our relationships, and they arouse more jealousy than do rivals who are milder competition.

And what kind of rivals are those? It depends on what our partners like. As you’ll recall from chapter 3, women care more than men do about a mate’s resources, so men are more jealous of other men who are self-confident, dominant, assertive, and rich than they are of rivals who are simply very handsome. On the other hand, a handsome rival is bad enough: Everybody likes lovely lovers, so attractive competitors evoke more jealousy in both men and women than homely rivals do. The good news is that our rivals are usually not as attractive to our partners as we think they are, so our fears are usually overblown-but the bad news is that we do make such mistakes, overestimating the desirability of our competition and thereby suffering more distress than is warranted (Hill, 2007). 

What Gets Us Jealous?

Evolutionary psychology has popped up here and there in this book, and here’s another place it’s pertinent. In this case, an evolutionary perspective suggests that jealousy evolved to motivate behavior designed to protect our close relationships from the interference of others. Presumably, early humans who reacted strongly to interlopers-being vigilant to outside interference, fending off rivals, and working hard to satisfy and fulfill their current partners-maintained their relationships and reproduced more successfully than did those who were blasé about meddlesome rivals. This perspective thus suggests that because it offered reproductive advantages in the past, jealousy is now a natural, ingrained reaction that is hard to avoid. More provocatively, it also suggests that men and women should be especially sensitive to different sorts of infidelity in their romantic partners. 

Remember (from chapter 1) that men face a reproductive problem that women do not have: paternity uncertainty. A woman always knows whether or not a particular child is hers, but unless he is completely confident that his mate hasn’t had sex with other men, a man can’t be certain (without using some advanced technology) that he is a child’s father. And being cuckolded and raising another man’s offspring is an evolutionary dead end; the human race did not descend from ancestors who raised other people’s children and had none of their own. Unwarranted doubt about a partner’s fidelity is divisive and painful, but it may not be as costly and dangerous to men in an evolutionary sense as being too trusting and failing to detect infidelity when it occurs. Thus, today, men have more extramarital affairs than women do, but it’s men, not women, who are more accurate at detecting sexual infidelity in a cheating partner (Andrews et al., 2008). And vigilance is sometimes sensible; as we saw in chapter 9, about 2 percent of the world’s children are being raised by men who do not know that the children were fathered by another man. 

For their part, women presumably enjoyed more success raising their children when they were sensitive to any signs that a man might withdraw the resources that were protecting and sheltering them and their children. Assuming that men were committed to them when the men in fact were not would have been risky for women, so sexual selection may have favored those who were usually skeptical of men’s declarations of true love. Unfairly doubting a man’s commitment may be obnoxious and self-defeating, but believing that a mate was devoted and committed when he was not may have been more costly still. In our ancestral past, women who frequently and naïvely mated with men who then abandoned them probably did not reproduce as successfully as did women who insisted on more proof that a man was there to stay. Thus, modern women are probably the “descendants of ancestral mothers who erred in the direction of being cautious,” who tended to prudently underestimate the commitment of their men (Haselton & Buss, 2000, p. 83).  

Which one would you pick? Most of the men—60 percent—said the sex would upset them more, but only 17 percent of the women chose that option; instead, a sizable majority of the women—83 percent—reported that they would be more distressed by a partner’s emotional attachment to a rival. Moreover, a follow-up study demonstrated that men and women differed in their physiological reactions to these choices. Men displayed more autonomic changes indicative of emotional arousal when they imagined a partner’s sexual, rather than emotional, infidelity, but the reverse was true for women.

So, consider this: You’ve discovered that your partner has fallen in love with someone else and is having great sex with him or her. Both emotional and sexual infidelity have occurred. Which aspect of your partner’s faithlessness, the sex or the love, bothers you more? This scenario answers the criticism that, individually, they mean different things to the different sexes, and in the United States, Korea, and Japan, more men than women chose sexual infidelity as the more hurtful insult. (In the United States, 61 percent of the men chose sexual infidelity as the more alarming threat, but only 13  percent of the women did. In addition, the same sex difference is usually-but not always-obtained when people rate their distress in response to the two infidelities instead of just picking the one that bothers them most, so the pattern doesn’t depend much on how you ask the question.

Various other research results are also consistent with the evolutionary perspective. Men and women show different patterns of neural activity when they think about jealousy-evoking situations; regions of the brain controlling sex and aggression are more active in men when they think about sexual infidelity than when they imagine emotional infidelity, but no such difference appears in women. And sex differences disappear when parents are asked to envision the infidelity of a daughter-in-law or son-in-law. Grandmothers face the same challenges to their reproductive success as grandfathers do, so an evolutionary perspective suggests that they should not differ in their reactions to infidelity from a child’s partner. And indeed, when they imagine their sons or daughters having a cheating spouse, both mothers and fathers regard sexual infidelity to be more worrisome when it is committed by a daughter-in-law, and emotional infidelity to be more distressing when it is committed by a son-in-law. Siblings feel the same way about their sisters- and brothers-in-law.

At bottom, men and women appear to be differentially sensitive to the two types of threat. When the possibility exists, men are quicker to assume that sexual infidelity is occurring than women are, whereas women decide that emotional in fidelity is occurring faster than men do. After suspicions arise, men are more preoccupied by the threat of their mate’s sexual infidelity whereas women fret more about their partner’s emotional infidelity. For instance, if they interrogate their partners, men are more likely than women to inquire about the sexual nature of the illicit relationship, whereas women are more likely than men to ask about its emotional nature. This pattern is evident on the TV show Cheaters, which allows viewers to eavesdrop as unfaithful partners are confronted with evidence of their infidelity by their jealous partners; careful coding of 55 episodes of the show revealed that jealous men were usually more keen to find out if sex had happened, whereas women more often wanted to know if their men had fallen in love with their rivals. And if their suspicions turn out to be unfounded, men are more relieved to learn that sexual infidelity has not occurred, whereas women are more relieved to find that their partners do not love someone else.

What do jealous victims of infidelity want to know?

When they confronted their cheating partners, men were more likely than women to ask if their partners had had sex with an interloper. Women were more interested in whether their partners had fallen in love with someone else.

Finally, the sex difference disappears, and men dread sexual infidelity only as much as women do when the cheating carries no risk of conceiving a child— that is, when their partners cheat with someone of the same sex in a gay or lesbian affair. Paternity uncertainty is irrelevant when a romantic rival is of the same sex as one’s partner, and sure enough, men and women are equally threatened by the two types of infidelity in such situations. (And which kind of rival is worse? By a large margin, men consider a lover’s affair with another man to be worse than one with a woman, but women think it would be equally awful for their men to cheat with either a woman or a man.

Our responses to the dreadful prospect of a partner’s infidelity are complex, and men and women don’t differ much: All of us tend to get angry at the thought of a lover’s sexual infidelity, and we’re hurt by the prospect of an emotional affair. Clearly, the most reasonable conclusion from all of these studies is that everybody hates both types of infidelity, and here, as in so many other cases, the sexes are more similar to each other than different. Still, to the extent that they differ at all, women are likely to perceive a partner’s emotional attachment to a rival as more perilous than men do, whereas men are more threatened by extradyadic sex— and evolutionary psychology offers a fascinating, if arguable, explanation of these reactions. 

Responses to Jealousy 

People may react to the hurt, anger, and fear of jealousy in ways that have either beneficial or destructive effects on their relationships (Dindia & Timmerman, 2003). On occasion, jealous people lash out in ways that are unequivocally harmful, retaliating against their partners with violent behavior or verbal antagonism, or with efforts to make them jealous in return. On other occasions, people respond in ways that may be intended to protect the relationship but that often undermine it further: spying on their partners, restricting their partners’ freedom, or derogating or threatening their rivals.  

Attachment styles help determine what people will do. When they become jealous, people who are relatively comfortable with closeness—those with secure or preoccupied attachment styles—are more likely to express their concerns and to try to repair their relationships than are those with more avoidant styles By comparison, people who are dismissing or fearful are more likely to avoid the issue or deny their distress by pretending nothing is wrong or by acting like they don’t care. 

Men and women often differ in their responses to jealousy, too, with consequences that can complicate heterosexual relationships. Imagine yourself in this situation: At a party, you leave your romantic partner sitting on a couch when you go to refill your drinks. While you’re gone, your partner’s old boyfriend or girlfriend happens by and sits for a moment, and they share a light kiss of greeting just as you return with the drinks. What would you do? When researchers showed people videotapes of a scenario like this and measured their intentions, men and women responded differently.

Sex differences such as these have also been obtained in other studies, and one thing that makes them worrisome is that women are much more likely than men to try to get their partners jealous. When they induce jealousy—usually by discussing or exaggerating their attraction to other men, sometimes by flirting with or dating them—they typically seek to test the relationship (to see how much he cares) or try to elicit more attention and commitment from their partners. They evidently want their men to respond the way women do when they get jealous, with greater effort to protect and maintain the relationship. The problem, of course, is that that’s not the way men typically react. Women who seek to improve their relationships by inducing jealousy in their men may succeed only in driving their partners away.

Coping Constructively with Jealousy

An unhappy mixture of hurt, anger, and fear occurs when your partner wants you but isn’t sure he or she can keep you. It may be a natural thing for humans to feel, but it’s often an ugly, awful feeling that results in terribly destructive behavior. Someday you may find yourself wishing that you could feel it less intensely and limit its effects. What can be done?

When jealousy is justified and a rival is real, the experts suggest that we work on reducing the connection between the exclusivity of a relationship and our sense of self-worth (Salovey & Rodin, 1988). Finding that someone we love is attracted to a rival can be painful—but it doesn’t mean that your partner is a horrible, worthless person, or that you are. We react irrationally when we act as though our self-worth totally depended on a particular relationship.

In fact, when they succeed in reducing unwanted jealousy, people tend to use two techniques that help them to maintain a sense of independence and self-worth. The first is self-reliance, which involves efforts to “stay cool” and to avoid feeling angry or embarrassed by refusing to dwell on the unfairness of the situation. Endless rumination about the injustice that’s been done is painful, and it undermines successful adjustment. The second is self-bolstering, boosting one’s self-esteem by doing something nice for oneself and thinking about one’s good qualities. Maintaining a sense of self-confidence about one’s ability to act and to survive independently apparently helps keep jealousy at manageable levels.

When people are unable to do that on their own, formal therapy can help. Clinical approaches to the treatment of jealousy usually try to (a) reduce irrational, catastrophic thinking that exaggerates either the threat to the relationship or the harm that its loss would entail; (b) enhance the self-esteem of the  jealous partner; (c) improve communication skills so the partners can clarify their expectations and agree on limits that prevent jealous misunderstandings; and (d) increase satisfaction and fairness in the relationship (Pines, 1998). Most of us don’t need therapy to cope with jealousy. But it might help some of us if romantic relationships came with a warning label.

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