Jealousy Hurts Love, or Does It?

Romantic jealousy feels bad, but it's not always bad for relationship.

Posted Apr 01, 2015

By propio (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By propio (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Jealousy, Shakespeare’s “green-eyed monster,” is a universal human experience. Like love itself, jealousy is multi-dimensional, involving emotions (anxiety, anger), thoughts (“She’s going to leave me for him;” “He loves her more than he loves me”) and behaviors (nagging; spying on your partner).

In part, jealousy resides within—a property of the individual as shaped by his or her personality and unique history. When and how people feel and express jealousy has to do with who they are.

However, just as importantly, jealousy is also a property of the relationship, emerging out the dynamics of the couple, a product of their particular dance of intimacy. When and how you feel and express jealousy has to do with you, the person you’re with, and how you relate as a couple.

Finally, jealousy also takes shape, as do all things human, in a socio-cultural milieu; when and how you become jealous has to do with the dictates of your culture, the social mores, traditions, and expectations in which your life is embedded.

The term “jealousy” summons mostly negative connotations. Jealous people are often perceived as unreasonable, controlling, troubled, possessive, and dangerous. When jealousy enters romantic relationships, it often brings pain, as suspicion and conflict are likely to follow.

It is no surprise that research has often linked romantic jealousy with strife and dissatisfaction in a relationship. Jealousy-prone individuals have been found to suffer from low self-esteem and self-confidence, to experience depression, and have insecure attachment styles.

At the extreme end of the continuum are those obsessively and morbidly jealous individuals—mostly men—who end up committing what is known, inelegantly, as “crimes of passion.” (In fact, those are first and foremost crimes of violence.) 

However, to view romantic jealousy as 100% bad—the product of a weak personality and the harbinger of strife—is incorrect. Research has shown that jealousy can be a sign of feeling deeply in love with a partner. It may contribute to relationship satisfaction by signaling emotional commitment and investment. It may contribute to relationship stability by prompting partners to further nurture their bond and actively protect their union. 

In the early '90s, the evolutionary psychologist David Buss and colleagues famously proposed that jealousy is in fact an adaptive response, as necessary as love and sex, alerting partners to potential threats from outside “mate poachers.” As a tool of mate protection and retention, they argued, jealousy is not a bug in our software but rather a feature of our evolved hardware.  

If jealousy is a biologically wired adaptive mechanism, then we could expect it to show up in children. And it does

We would also expect to see it in other social animals, and we do. For example, a recent study by Christine Harris and Caroline Prouvost of the University of California San Diego showed that dogs show it as well. The authors found that dogs “exhibited significantly more jealous behaviors (e.g., snapping, getting between the owner and object, pushing/touching the object/owner) when their owners displayed affectionate behaviors towards what appeared to be another dog as compared to nonsocial objects.” 

Moreover, evolutionary psychology makes two specific predictions based on this view of jealousy as adaptive. First, it proposes that in any intimate relations, the more attractive partner will elicit more jealousy. And indeed, Buss & Shackelford (1997) found that men were more jealous of female partners at the peak of youth and attractiveness while women were more jealous of male partners of high status and wealth. Research also found that in romantic pairs, the higher the social value (attractiveness to others) of their partner, the more likely an individual is to experience jealousy. 

Second, evolutionary psychology predicts that males and females will differ in the type of transgressions that elicit their jealousy. Males’ ability to propagate their genes depends heavily on their access to an unoccupied uterus. Therefore, they are likely to be particularly jealous of sexual infidelity. Females, on the other hand, have little difficulty accessing sperm, but they need the male’s presence and continual commitment to increase the odds that their offspring will survive and thrive. Thus, females will be jealous of their male mates’ emotional infidelity.

Research has tended to support this hypothesis. For example, Brad Sagarin of Northern Illinois University and his colleagues have recently published meta-analyses of 40 studies that measured sex differences in jealousy. They found a significant sex difference in responses to sexual and emotional infidelities in both actual and hypothetical infidelities studied. 

Moreover, a new study just published by Dr. David Frederick of Chapman University and Melissa Fales, a Ph.D. candidate of UCLA examined responses to sexual versus emotional jealousy among 63,894 U.S. gay, lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual participants.

The researchers asked the participants to imagine which scenario would upset them more: their partners having sex with someone else (but not falling in love with them) or their partners falling in love with someone else (but not having sex with them). Results were consistent with the evolutionary perspective. Specifically, heterosexual men were more likely than heterosexual women to be upset by sexual infidelity (54 vs. 35%) and less likely than heterosexual women to be upset by emotional infidelity (46 vs. 65%). This gender difference emerged across age groups, income levels, history of being cheated on, history of being unfaithful, relationship type, and length, but only in heterosexual participants. 

The propensity to become jealous of one’s romantic partner appears to be wired biologically, echoing our distant past; but biological and distant explanations are never sufficient in accounting for proximal psychological experiences. “Biologically adaptive” does not necessarily mean “psychologically healthy” or, for that matter, “socially acceptable.”

Evolution is in the business of getting genes to move forward, not in the business of getting people and relationships to flourish. And so the inconsistent research findings regarding whether jealousy helps or hurts relationships still require explanation.

In the early '90s, Robert Bringle of Purdue University at Indianapolis pointed to one possible explanation by proposing the existence of two distinct types of jealousy.

The first type is suspicious jealousy, which tends to be chronic in nature, involving primarily mistrust, suspicious ruminations, and snooping behaviors that arise in the absence of any real or significant outside threat. This type of jealousy is neurotic in essence because it is mainly a reflection of inner turmoil and relates to individual characteristics of the jealous person such as anxiety and low self-esteem.

In contrast, reactive jealousy tends to be episodic in nature; it arises when a concrete outside threat to intimacy is introduced (someone is hitting on your guy). Reactive jealousy is mostly an emotional response to real, current outside threats and overt partner behaviors; the reactively jealous person is more conscious of their behavior, takes responsibility for it, and takes their partner’s intent into account when evaluating the situation.

The two types of jealousy may overlap, and one may morph into the other. If you catch your partner with someone else, your reactive jealousy may morph into suspicious jealousy as you begin to worry about your partner’s overall trustworthiness.

On the other hand, suspicious jealousy could morph into a reactive one. If you constantly harass and nag your partner with unwarranted jealous accusations and suspicions, that very behavior may make you a less attractive partner and hence more likely to actually be abandoned for a more worthy rival. Petty jealousy may become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as your partner may decide that if they’re already doing the time, they might as well do the crime.

This framework predicts that suspicious jealousy will be linked to negative attributes and outcomes, while reactive jealousy will be linked to positive personal and relationship attributes. Research evidence appears to support this prediction.

For example, a recent study by the social psychologist Mark Attridge has found that suspicious jealousy, marked by anxious ruminative thoughts and surveillance behaviors, was associated with lower life satisfaction, and more obsessive and game-playing love styles. Reactive jealousy, marked by a strong emotional response, was linked to a stronger relationship commitment, higher satisfaction, and greater closeness. 

The take-home message emerging from the research is that jealousy, in the context of romantic relationships, should neither be greeted with surprise nor, necessarily, alarm. Your response should depend on the type and source of the jealousy. If you are the receiver of suspicious jealousy, it should alert you to examine your partner’s character. If you receive reactive jealousy, examine your own actions.

Conversely, if you experience suspicious jealousy, involving chronic ruminations and obsessive nagging or surveillance behavior in the absence of evidence of a true relationship threat, then self-examination is in order, as you are likely being haunted by "ghosts"—unresolved issues in your personal history that may be distorting your perception in the here and now, causing you to see the world as you are, not as it is. If your jealousy is of the emotional, reactive kind, examine your partner and his or her actions.

If both of you decide, upon reflection, that your relationship is worth protecting, nurturing, and saving, then it appears that open constructive communication is a key to managing jealousy. 

Honest communication about jealousy, however, is not easy. Since jealousy carries a social stigma, and since disclosing it to a lover may complicate the relationship, people often feel reluctant to discuss it openly.

Still, secrecy, suspiciousness, and insecurity are not sturdy foundations on which to build a relationship. When it comes to jealousy, misguided worries and ruminations may lead to counterproductive types of coping such as threats and manipulations.  

At the end of the day, when trying to solve the problem of jealousy, we would do well to remember that—as with other human affairs—while good communication does not guarantee success, the absence of it practically guarantees failure.