Have you ever purposely tried to elicit a jealous reaction in someone you are dating? You might have done this in many different ways. For example, maybe you flirted with someone, hoping that your significant other might notice. Or maybe you purposely did not text your partner when you went out for a night dancing with friends.
Perhaps instead you might have been really ambiguous about your plans for the weekend and simply made yourself unavailable. You could have taken this one step further and left photographs from ex-partners around your home or fake phone numbers saying, "Call me for a hot night." Or, maybe you called an ex-partner just to stir up the pot and hope that your current mate notices and becomes upset.
Let's assume you love your partner—yet you know that these actions will be displeasing and may actually hurt their feelings. Maybe they'll even break up with you. Why are you purposely hurting someone you love?
Welcome to one of the most intriguing aspects of romantic relationships.
Study after study shows that we are concerned with looking good for a potential romantic partner and that once we start dating someone, we want them to think highly of us and love us. Once we have a mate whom we truly love, we want them to remain ours. Some of us become extremely possessive and engage in all sorts of interesting behaviors to stop "mate poachers" from stealing our mates, or we try to retain our mate's interest. Others of us might more directly manipulate our mates to get the love or attention we want.
This dichotomy of loving a partner and yet using potentially hurtful manipulations to shape their behavior has been captured in several studies. One in particular that provides a good overview is by Amy Fleischmann and colleagues (2005). They start by reviewing how jealousy "is a common source of relational dissatisfaction, relational conflict, break-up, aggression and violence" (p. 50). They go on to define romantic jealousy as: "a set of thoughts, emotions, and responses following a perceived threat to a romantic relationship by a rival" (p. 50). According to them, jealousy happens when someone tries to protect an existing relationship.
According to many scholars, jealousy is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can cause relational upset and violence, yet on the other hand, it can reflect love. Yes, that's right—jealousy can have a very positive side. That is, if we feel jealous about someone, then we must love them; if we are indifferent about a mate's activities, then we are expressing that we really don't care all that much about them.
It's not surprising, then, that intentionally causing a partner to experience jealousy is a risky strategy for getting attention. It can hurt a partner to the point that they break up with you—or it can cause them to pull up their socks and start being a better mate. As Fleischmann et al. propose, some people do it to cause their mates to "engage in compensatory behavior to enhance the relationship" (p. 52).
Previously, Sheets and colleagues (1997) reported that for those who have intentionally tried to make a partner jealous, 87 percent had done so to get attention, while 24 percent sought an increase in their commitment, and 18 percent were trying to use it to keep them as a mate. Furthermore, Fleischmann et al. review that there are many reasons for why someone tries to induce jealousy, including someone just wanting to be taken out more by a mate, testing the relationship, doing it just for fun, to get rewards (like gifts), and wanting to gain self-confidence or a feeling of power.
One final aspect of the Fleischmann et al. paper that I think deserves comment is the fact that they found three major types of behaviors. First, they found people engage in "relational distancing," which is when they try to keep their friends separate from their mate, exclude their mate from social plans, say that they are too busy to see their mate, and be purposely vague about plans or with whom they are spending time. Second, people engage in a "flirting façade," where they leave fake numbers or photographs lying around, send themselves flowers, or take another person to the spot that was a special place for them and their mate. Third, they found people use "relational alternatives," which is when they talk about other people, including ex-partners or rivals, or tell their mate that someone tried to get their phone number. I should note that they found that all of these behaviors were higher in the self-reports of those in causal rather than exclusive relationships.
Very recently, Weinstein and Wade (2011) found that people are more likely to use emotional cheating than sexual cheating to make a mate feel jealous, which to me indicates that jealousy induction is all about trying to manipulate a partner's emotional state. What's also interesting about this study is that they found men were more likely to end a relationship over lack of sex, while women were more likely to end a relationship due to lack of emotional support. If this is truly the case, then I would expect that women would be more likely to try to manipulate sexuality—for example, they might touch another man with their partner around in the hopes of being physically suggestive and, consequently, making a mate feel jealous. Likewise, men might start being more supportive, friendly, or available to another woman to make a mate feel jealous.
When faced with the desire to get a mate's attention, jealousy induction might be quite effective, but it is risky. It can hurt the one you love and even cause the end of the relationship.
The main issue is that when faced with a mate who is trying to manipulate us (or when we realize we're trying to manipulate someone we love), really these actions reflect the need for love and attention. It's a signal to a mate (and ourselves) that we're not getting something that we may need. The key, then, is to acknowledge that we are in a position where we might end up hurting the very person we love.
Fleischmann, A. A., Spitzberg, B. H., Anderson, P. A., & Roesch, S. C. (2005). Tickling the monster: Jealousy induction in relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 22, 49-73
Sheets, V. L., Fredendall L. L., & Claypool, H. M. (1997). Jealousy evocation, partner reassurance, and relationship stability: an exploration of the potential benefits of jealousy. Evolution & Human Behavior, 18, 387-402.
Weinstein, J. L., & Wade, T. J. (2011). Jealousy induction methods, sex, and the Big-5 personality dimensions. Psychology, 2, 517-521.