You’ve just arrived home from a conference in Las Vegas, and your partner is waiting on the couch, fuming: “Why didn’t you return my calls? Why didn’t you reply to my text messages?”
You check your cell phone and find six missed calls and eight text messages from your partner since your flight took off. You’re about to apologize for not calling when you landed, but your significant other has already started a tirade about your presumed debauchery in Sin City. But assuming there was actually nothing untoward about your behavior during your trip, how do you respond to his or her unfounded accusations? Here are your options:
1. You list your activities in as much detail as possible to demonstrate that you couldn’t possibly have done any of the things you’re accused of. After all, if you remain calm and rational, your partner will eventually see reason.
2. You go on the defensive and tell your partner in no uncertain terms that they’re being unreasonable. After all, you did nothing wrong and don’t deserve this kind of treatment.
3. You simply walk away and wait for your partner to calm down. After all, you don’t want to reinforce this kind of bad behavior.
4. You sit next to your partner, put your arm around them, and hold them tight, if they’ll let you. After all, a jealous fit is just your partner’s way of saying they missed you.
New research from Carnegie Mellon University provides us with insight into how to most effectively deal with a partner’s jealousy. But first let’s look at how these psychologists managed to induce jealous feelings in the laboratory.
Romantic couples were invited to take part in what was supposedly an hour-long test of sensory acuity. First, the partners were put in separate rooms to fill out extensive background questionnaires, in which a number of items about relational attachment style were embedded. In particular, the researchers were looking for partners who scored high on anxious attachment, because jealousy is a key trait of this relationship style.
Next, the partners were brought back together and given a task that supposedly assessed their acuity in the sense of smell. Sitting together but working independently, each partner filled out an evaluation sheet for five different scented soaps, and then they filled out yet another questionnaire assessing their sensory experiences. (This is what experimental psychologists call a distractor task, in that it has nothing to do with testing the hypothesis, but rather serves to distract the participants from the true purpose of the study.)
After this, the partners were sent to separate rooms to fill out yet another questionnaire. Meanwhile, the experimenters selected one of the two partners at random to recruit as a confederate. (In social psychology, a confederate is a person in the experimental setting who colludes with the researcher to elicit a particular response from a participant. Of course, the participant thinks the confederate is just another participant.)
The would-be confederate’s task, if they chose to accept it, was to induce jealousy in their partner. They were also reassured that their partner would be debriefed about the deception afterward. (Only two persons refused to deceive their partner; make of that what you will.)
In the next portion of the experiment, the confederate leafed through photos of people, rating their attractiveness and whether they’d like to have a relationship with them. Following instructions, they rated all the pictures as either 9 or 10 and indicated a few they’d like to get to know better. And the pictures were of attractive people, at least based on the ratings on hotornot.com, from which they were taken. Some of the confederates were also instructed to maintain physical contact with their partner, while others were told to keep their distance.
As expected, participants generally reported higher levels of jealousy after their partner’s picture-rating task, and this was especially so for the anxiously attached. So the manipulation worked.
Now for the test of the key hypothesis in this experiment: Does physical contact with your partner reduce feelings of jealousy when relationship security is in doubt? Here’s where the results get interesting: If the person scored high on anxious attachment, then being in physical contact with their partner lowered their feelings of jealousy. This was what the researchers had predicted.
But there was also a surprise in the results: People who scored low on anxious attachment generally reported low levels of jealousy after the manipulation, as expected. However, they reported more negative feelings if their partner touched them.
It’s not clear why this would be the case, but the researchers speculated that these people interpreted the attempt at physical contact as a signal that there really was something to be concerned about. Ordinarily, these people took their partners' high ratings of other people with a grain of salt. However, the contradictory situation of expressing interest in other potential mates while maintaining physical contact with their current mate set off alarm bells for these otherwise securely attached individuals.
So let’s go back to our initial scenario of having to deal with a jealous spouse:
In the first scenario, you stay calm and stick to reason. This will likely be the best course of action if your partner has a secure attachment style.
In the second scenario, you’re defensive. This approach will only make things worse. If your partner is securely attached, your defensiveness will arouse suspicion. And if your partner is anxiously attached, it will only reinforce their insecurities. (As a general rule, once you become defensive, you’ve lost any chance of a resolution to a conflict.)
In the third approach, you walk away and wait for your partner to calm down. This is the typical strategy of a person with avoidant attachment. And you may justify this by telling yourself that you don’t want to reinforce bad behavior. Although you may calm down if you walk away, your partner definitely will not, regardless of their attachment style. Your partner has raised an issue you need to deal with, so walking away accomplishes nothing.
Further, it's important to understand that the principles of conditioning simply do not apply to human relationships. Our partners aren’t rats in cages whose behaviors we can shape according to our whims. Rather, relationships are mutual arrangements for meeting each other’s needs. If you meet your partner’s needs, they’re more likely to meet yours.
In the fourth approach, you give your partner physical contact. If you know your partner is anxiously attached, this is the best approach to take. It will give them the reassurance they need in the moment. In other words, you put out the fire.
However, if your partner is anxiously attached, then you need to understand that you can never quench the flames of jealousy altogether. No matter how many times you put them out, they’ll flare up again later, often when you least expect it. The best you can do is learn how to deal with jealousy as it arises. But it's unlikely you can extinguish the flames all together.
In the end, one key to a successful relationship lies in understanding your own as well as your partner’s attachment style. Knowing your own gives you the mindfulness to approach conflicts in an effective manner as opposed to letting yourself be a slave to your passions. And knowing your partner’s guides you to the appropriate strategy for resolving conflicts before they destroy your relationship. This is the power that comes from self-knowledge, even when those around you are blithely unaware of the motives for their behaviors or the effects they have on other people.
Smith, J. R. & Brown, A. B. (2017). Touch reduces romantic jealousy in the anxiously attached. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Pre-published April 3, 2017. DOI: 10.1177/0123456789123456