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Why Do We Try To Make Our Partners Jealous?

What's behind the desire to watch them squirm.

At one time or another, jealousy likely becomes a contentious issue in most relationships, leading to anything from a simple conversation to a heated argument. Social scientists have spent years studying jealousy, yet it remains a complicated process. While various definitions exist, a common perspective emphasizes the idea of loss:

“Jealousy is considered an emotional state that involves the threat of loss to a potential rival." (Teismann & Mosher, 1978; taken from Goodboy, Horan, & Booth-Butterfield, 2012).

Though the study of jealousy has long been robust, there has been a recent focus on understanding jealousy evocation, or times when one works to make his or her partner jealous. Recent studies have attempted to understand this complex behavior. Dainton and Gross (2008), for example, asked participants how they work to maintain their relationships—and, surprisingly, jealousy evocation was one method participants cited. (Read more here.)

Why might this be? Researchers speculated that evoking jealousy might function as a secret test. In other words, individuals might think that they can gauge a partner’s commitment based on his or her response to jealousy manipulation attempts. Though this is one common speculation, it is not a recommended behavior. A more recent study helps us understand part of this reasoning through its examination of relationship factors. In the latest issue of Communication Quarterly, Marissa Pytlak and Laura Zerega (my former students), under the direction of their co-author and advisor, Dr. Marian Houser, examined three relationship factors that may explain jealousy evocation—commitment, satisfaction, and uncertainty.

Commitment is ‘‘an intent to persist in a relationship, including long-term orientation toward the involvement, as well as feelings of psychological attachment," while satisfaction is ‘‘positive versus negative affect experienced in a relationship’’ (Rusbult et al., 1998, p. 359). These two factors can predict whether couples stay together for the long haul. (Read more here.) Uncertainty, or the study of our reactions to not knowing something, is a motivator of communication. "Relational uncertainty," Pytlak et al. explain, "is defined by an inability to predict and explain one’s own behavior and the behavior of others (Afifi & Reichert, 1996).” They argue that these three factors might help explain the frequency with which one attempts to make his or her partner feel jealous.

The research team found that individuals who reported more frequent attempts at making partners jealous also reported lower levels of satisfaction, higher levels of uncertainty, and lower levels of perceived partner commitment. That said, when examining the unique predictive abilities of each variable, perceived level of partner commitment emerged as the only predictor of jealousy evocation.

Michal Kowalski/Shutterstock
Source: Michal Kowalski/Shutterstock

Collectively, then, perceptions of commitment appear to be important in understanding jealousy evocation behaviors. Thus, one way to temper jealousy evocation might be through increased assurances.

Regardless, this remains a complex behavior to understand, and one that may lead to conflict.

Pytlak, M. A., Zerega, L. M., & Houser, M. L. (2015). Jealousy evocation: Understanding commitment, satisfaction, and uncertainty as predictors of jealousy evoking behavior. Communication Quarterly, 63, 310-328. doi: 10.1080/01463373.2015.1039716

Goodboy, A. K., Horan, S. M., & Booth-Butterfield, M. (2012). Intentional jealousy evoking behavior in romantic relationships as a function of received partner affection and love styles. Communication Quarterly, 60, 370-385. doi: 10.1080/01463373.2012.688792