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Sexual Jealousy or Emotional Jealousy?

Which type of jealousy is the greatest threat to a relationship’s happy ending?

Most of us learn early about the finite nature of the resources available within our reach. Sibling rivalry springs from the desire to have the lock on parental attention. Some of us, as young children, are also jealous of the attention one parent gives another. You also might feel a bit of envy when your friends have cooler phones or computers than you have, which is a little different than pure jealousy, but the burn can feel the same.

Jealousy is about someone getting something that you feel you should have access and rights to receiving. When one friend chooses to spend time with someone else over you can create emotional jealousy. When your boyfriend spends too much time chatting with another potential partner that can stir up a combination of sexual and emotional jealousy.

The Emotional Side of Jealousy

When you see someone getting something you feel you deserved – especially within a relational context – you might undergo a backwards metamorphosis in which your brain lets go of its advanced functioning and you’re responding from your “reptilian brain.” This is the most basic brain structure as compared to the other two components of the human’s complex brain, the limbic brain and the neocortex. In “reptilian mode,” we are ready to engage in fight, flight, or freeze responses to danger and for some individuals, the threat of losing a partner to a rival can catapult them back thousands of years to the reptilian way of processing information.

When you are in the throes of intense jealousy, you have a hard time concentrating on anything but the object of your jealousy whether it’s scheming to get your partner out of the interloper’s clutches, or scheming to get even, or giving in to abject misery and loss of hope. Depending on our feelings about the situation dictates how we respond emotionally – but even if it’s by giving that once-special someone the metaphorical “cold shoulder,” your heart is still focused on the relationship, although it has now grown more complicated in that you are training yourself to be unkind to someone with whom you’d rather be kind, under different circumstances.

Some people grow obsessed with revenge – against the wayward partner or the rival who has usurped your place. Revenge, however, is a very poor investment of energy. Research has shown that the toll that revenge planning takes on your overall emotional well-being is much more detrimental than just moving forward in your life. In fact, if you allow thoughts of revenge to take over your life, you are doing the worst possible thing in terms of moving on – you are giving a great deal of power and control of your own emotional and psychological well-being to the person who has caused you emotional harm. Not exactly the best way to get your emotional life back on track.

The Physical Side of Jealousy

Adrenaline gets pumping when we are faced with a threat. When we are confronted with a threat, not only do our emotions grow more primitive, so, too, do our physiological responses. Enough country songs have been written about what damage can be done during a moment of jealous rage – whether it’s a trucker driving his rig into a motel room where his wife and her lover are trysting or a scorned woman taking a Louisville slugger to her ex-lover’s SUV – that most of comprehend just how powerful that “fight or flight” response can be for modern humans when “fight” overtakes “flight.”

Sexual Jealousy or Emotional Jealousy?

It’s been stated that males feel a strong response when exclusive sexual access to a partner is breached, whereas they don’t respond as fiercely when a partner is having emotional needs met by other potential romantic partners. Females, it’s purported, experience the reverse. They feel more anxiety when they see their partner engaged in emotional closeness with another.

T is for Males AND Females

Testosterone is the male hormone, commonly known as T, which is related to the development of male sexual characteristics, especially muscle production. Not only do males produce T, but healthy females do, too. The right amount of T can lead to balanced wellness both physically and emotionally. However, when jealousy enters the picture, the level of T being produced can ramp upwards, depending on the type of threat that is being perceived (Ritchie & van Anders, 2015).

According to Ritchie and van Anders’ study, females were found to produces higher levels of T when they imagined their partners engaging in flirtations with potential rivals, more so than when they were asked to imagine their partners locked in a kiss with a rival. Imagining a flirtation was proposed to be more threatening due to the emotional connection that flirtations can depict. When the females imagined the kiss, they respond with greater feelings of sadness and loss – as if the battle for a partner’s attention had already been lost. Males, on the other hand, showed no significant changes in T levels. However, the flirtation did leave males exhibiting lower levels of intimacy and the kiss led to higher levels of hostility.

In summation, it’s clear that socialization, nature, and culture shape our romantic liaisons and relationships. Though there are multiple television programs and other media outlets that promote the pleasures to be found in polyamory, it seems that most people still want to be sure that they hold primary and exclusive access to their romantic partners and respond to potential threats in a territorial way.


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Ritchie, L. L., & van Anders, S. M. (2015). There’s jealousy . . . and then there’s jealousy: Differential effects of jealousy on testosterone. Adaptive Human Behavior and Psychology, 1, 231-246.

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