Does Jealousy Help or Hurt Your Relationship?
It depends on where the feelings are coming from, and what they're really about.
Posted Jul 13, 2016
Everybody says Jack and Jill are a lovely couple. He is handsome, ambitious, and quickly moving forward in his career. She is attractive and intelligent, and flourishing at her own job. Someday, everyone says, they’ll have beautiful children.
It’s the Saturday of Jack’s company picnic. He and Jill arrive at the park in the late morning and chat for a while with another couple, but then Jack’s boss pulls him aside. Jill makes small talk with a few other spouses, but begins to wonder what’s keeping Jack away for so long. She hopes his boss had good news.
Then she sees Jack. He’s talking with that woman Jane! Jill had caught her flirting with Jack at the office Christmas party, and has detested her from afar ever since. Jane laughs at one of Jack's jokes and rests her hand on his arm—for what seems far too long to be just a friendly touch.
Jill feels the green-eyed monster rising up deep within her, and finds an excuse to pull Jack away. Soon it’s time for lunch and they have a nice conversation with two other couples. Jill forgets all about Jane.
After lunch, it’s the staff volleyball game. Jack’s athletic type and is one of the first to join in the game. Jill prefers to sit on the sidelines and watch. Somehow, Jane gets herself onto Jack’s team and positions herself right next to him. When Jack scores a point, Jane is the first to high five him. And when their team wins, mainly thanks to Jack’s aggressive play, Jane gives him a big hug.
All the while, Jill is seething, but there’s no way to extract her husband. When the game is over, Jack struts over and puts his arm around her, but she pushes him away, saying he’s too sweaty. They quietly gather their things, make their polite goodbyes, and ride home in silence.
Later, Jack demands to know why he’s getting the cold shoulder. In a torrent of tears and anger, Jill calls him out for his unacceptable behavior. Jack gets (predictably) defensive, insisting he did nothing wrong. Jane’s just the touchy-feely type—she’s like that with everyone. Jill doesn’t buy it but Jack pleads with her: He’s not interested in Jane, he tells her. There’s nothing going on.
He reassures Jill that he loves her, that she’s the only woman for him. Eventually, Jill calms down and lets him hold her.
Do expressions of jealousy help or hurt a relationship? It depends on which psychologist you ask, says Paul Eastwick of the University of Texas at Austin. There are two primary approaches to studying romantic relationships, and the results of their work are often in conflict.
Psychologists who engage in what's known as close relationships research study how long-term relationships change over time. They’ll tell you that people are less satisfied with relationships when partners express jealousy. If you want a happy marriage, they advise you to keep jealous feelings in check. According to this approach, Jill has just poisoned her marriage. If this trend continues, the outlook for the couple isn’t good.
Psychologists who study sexual relationships from an evolutionary perspective disagree. These researchers study the dynamics of attracting and keeping mates. Eastwick cites research showing an increase in relationship satisfaction when a partner has expressed jealous feelings during the previous day. According to this research, Jill did what she had to do to bring her husband back in the fold.
Despite the apparent contradiction, Eastwick maintains that both approaches are valid: On one hand, assuming Jack did have some interest in Jane, his momentary satisfaction with Jill was probably low. But after Jill’s outburst of jealousy, Jack sincerely reaffirmed his commitment to her. At that point he was no doubt much more satisfied with his relationship. On the other hand, if Jill’s jealous outbursts become a regular feature of the marriage, Jack’s relationship satisfaction will surely plummet.
Like the “check engine” light on your dashboard, negative emotions let you know that there’s something wrong, but they’re not necessarily specific about the root of the problem. If Jill is genuinely secure in her relationship, feeling jealous in this particular situation is probably a valid sign that it’s time to reel her husband in. But if Jill has security issues in her other relationships as well, her jealous feelings probably reveal more about her psychological health than they do about the relationship.
Before acting on jealousy, then, it’s best to carefully consider where that green-eyed monster is coming from.
Eastwick, P. W. (2016). The emerging integration of close relationships research and evolutionary psychology. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25, 183-190.
David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).