Is Jealousy a Sign That Your Partner Will Be Unfaithful?
Research shows we project our desire to cheat onto our partners.
Posted February 1, 2018
Jealousy is a serious problem. Not only can it lead to suspicion, arguments, and breakups, but violence perpetrated against women by their male partners is most often motivated by sexual jealousy. Researchers should be making every effort to understand more about jealousy, because we can only combat the negative consequences of jealousy if we know how and why it emerges.
Angela Neal of the University of South Carolina and Edward Lemay of the University of Maryland are striving to discover more about why we are suspicious of our partners. They recently published the results of their research in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
They had around 100 male-female couples complete daily surveys for one week. Each survey included questions about respondents’ anger and negative behaviors directed toward their partner, about how attracted they felt to people other than their partner, and about how attracted they suspected their partner felt to other people.
Neal and Lemay found that volunteers suspected their partner’s attraction to others was low when it really was low, and high when it really was high. Their estimates weren’t 100 percent correct, but they were quite accurate. However — and here’s where it gets interesting — volunteers’ own attraction to others was much more closely linked to their estimates of their partner’s attraction to others. Put another way, people who hankered after a fling themselves suspected that their partner wanted one, too; people who thought of no one but their partner believed that their partner was similarly innocent.
A person’s suspicion of their partner was much more strongly predicted by their own attraction to others than by the partner’s actual attraction to others.
This process is akin to the psychological phenomenon of "projection," first formulated by Freud. It’s the idea that we deal with undesirable emotions and attitudes by assuming that those emotions and attitudes are held by other people. We think others are guilty, because we feel guilty ourselves; we think our parents are angry at us, because we are angry at them.
So why do those with a wandering eye project their desire for illicit sex onto their partner? The researchers speculate that it could be because when we are asked to theorize about our partner’s desires, our own desires come more readily to mind. We feel similar to our partner in other ways, and it may simply be easy to assume that their wishes are the same as ours. Another possibility is that we project because of what psychologists call “motivated cognition” — that is, we are inclined to reach certain conclusions because they make us feel better. This means that if we feel guilty about being attracted to someone else, a belief that our partner is also guilty may reduce our own feelings of guilt.
This is really important, because, as Neal and Lemay found, people are angrier with their partner when they suspect the partner of harboring desire for sex with another person, and their suspicions are stronger when they themselves are fantasizing most about illicit sex.
So when you next find yourself obsessing about your partner’s interest in other people, you might benefit from taking a look in the mirror and asking yourself if your own fantasies are to blame. Conversely, if you discover your partner really is a cheater and you can’t believe you didn’t spot the signs, console yourself that it was probably your innocence, rather than your naivety, that put a check on your jealousy.
Neal, A. M., & Lemay, E. P. (in press). The wandering eye perceives more threats: Projection of attraction to alternative partners predicts anger and negative behavior in romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.