When Women Use Jealousy
Surprising benefits of rousing the green-eyed monster.
Posted Apr 16, 2015
Cait wrote to me after she’d lost her beloved’s heart:
“After three happy years with my first love, I ruined things by turning clingy, depressed and negative when we moved apart for grad school. The nag who waits by the phone, plans her life around a guy, cries piteously? Was me. Not surprisingly, he eventually broke it off, and I actually begged him to return. How alluring, right?
“Fast forward three more years. I still love Dan. We now live in the same city, know the same people, and often see one another at art galleries, the theater, etc. And I’ve returned to being the independent, well-adjusted, optimistic woman I really am. But I’m not sure Dan sees that yet ... or if he ever will. How do I ease the awkwardness between us, let him see I’m the woman he fell in love with, and win him back?”
Oh, the I-cringe-at-my-own-past-desperate-behavior feeling! I’ve been there many times. But precisely because Cait tried so hard to hang onto Dan back then, it’s imperative that she do nothing to ease the tension now. In fact, I suggested increasing the awkwardness.
It’s not enlightened. But per the science, jealousy works.
I used to think women created jealousy from immaturity or mean-spiritedness. But I was wrong.
In studies, when women intentionally rouse the green-eyed monster, revenge is rarely the motivator. Instead, they cultivate jealousy to discern the strength of their lover’s feelings and enhance his commitment.
If you think about it, if you’re a heterosexual woman, there aren’t too many effective ways to figure out whether you’re more interested than your guy is. In his studies on jealousy, David Buss notes that men tend not to stay attracted to women who ask straight out, “Do you really love me?” That comes off as clingy, dependent, and off-putting. In dating, sometimes total honesty backfires, so women have found a way to ask without asking.
And it works for women. Consider Kip, who wrote, “Lanie and I had been out a few times when I saw her out with another guy. I was angry but also more interested in her than ever, so I went out with some of my girlfriends where Lanie would see. That backfired. Now she’s pissed off at me, says I’m a player, and sends me angry text messages ... I have never felt this way about anyone before. I don’t want to see anyone else.”
Using jealousy didn’t work for Kip, just as science predicts. Numerous studies show that globally, women seek signs that a partner wants to provide and protect over the long haul; they’re put off by behavior that says she’s just one of his many options. But men, who are focused on youth, beauty, and status cues such as how much a partner is desired by others, tend to respond to jealousy by tipping their hand as to how emotionally involved they really are.
So when Kip got jealous of Lanie, it drove him wild to have her, even though it annoyed him. If a man loves a woman and he knows or even thinks she’s got other active options—he’d better do something pronto, or watch someone else whisk her away. Right?
As it happens, yes. Although popular opinion says men reject women who create jealousy, in studies, men who care about a woman usually increase their involvement. Jealous men admit to stepping up the amount of attention they pay, spending more energy tracking her whereabouts, and showing signs of her value to him. When Dr. Buss and others studied hundreds of dating and married couples, they found that men’s most common response to thinking another man was their rival was to lavish time, attention, jewelry, dinners, etc. on the woman they didn’t want to lose.
Jealousy can have a tragic downside. Jealous men are sometimes murderous men; around the world, male jealousy is the top cause of death for women of reproductive age. So don’t use this strategy if you even dream your guy could be violent.
But Dan had never shown an inclination towards aggression, which is why I advised Cait on how to use jealousy:
Date others, make sure Dan knows it, act less interested in Dan, and smile at, talk with, and flirt with other men in front of him. If Dan lets Cait go after that, he isn’t into her, and she’s saved time by finding out. If he loves her more? She’ll soon know.
Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., is the author of Love Factually: 10 Proven Steps from I Wish to I Do; this is a partial excerpt, copyrighted by the author. Find more information and a free chapter here.