Jealousy in romance is like salt in food. A little can enhance the savor, but too much can spoil the pleasure and, under certain circumstances, can be life-threatening. ~Maya Angelou
Imagine that one day you are innocently checking Facebook when your News Feed alerts you that someone you don’t know has tagged your partner in a photo. What the --? Who is that? In the photo your partner has his or her arm around this way too attractive person. How would you feel? It is possible that you might feel jealous – jealousy is broadly defined as the response to a real or imagined threat to a relationship, whereas envy is the desire for another’s possessions - after all, seeing your partner with an attractive rival is one of the main triggers of jealousy (see previous post about Facebook and jealousy here). But is this jealousy good or bad for your relationship? Is Maya Angelou right? Is jealousy like salt in food?
Evolutionary psychologists would say that jealousy exists because it is a good mate retention strategy (it helps us keep our partners because we become more attuned to potential threats to our relationship).1 A partner’s jealousy can be seen as a sign of love or affirmation of commitment. In one study, about 75% of people said they tried to make their partner jealous at one time or another.2 Although a little jealousy might remind our partner that they don’t want to lose us, in general jealousy seems to be bad for relationships. Jealousy is more often associated with arguments, breakups, and aggressive behavior,3 and when we feel jealous we may question the level of commitment in our relationship.2
One of the most important factors in determining whether jealous feelings are good or bad for your relationship is how you (and your partner) express or respond to jealousy. Partners who communicate about their feelings of jealousy are typically more satisfied in their relationships than those who act distant or avoidant.3 If feelings of jealousy make you pay more attention to or show more affection for your partner (in a caring and not possessive way, of course) this is more positive for your relationship than if you start a fight with your partner or accuse him or her of betrayal.
So it turns out that Maya Angelou may be right: a little jealousy can remind us that our partner is important to us and that we value our relationship with them. But, more often, jealousy seems to be associated with relationship dissatisfaction, feelings of insecurity and conflict. Most important, it seems that the degree of impact that jealousy has on our relationships is strongly influenced by how we respond to feelings of jealousy (and whether or not we have a Facebook account).
For more on how to deal with jealousy in a relationship, see here.
1Buss, D. M. (2000). The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy is as Necessary as Love and Sex. The Free Press: New York.
2Sheets, V. L., Fredendall, L. L., & Claypool, M. (1997). Jealousy evocation, partner reassurance, and relationship stability: An exploration of the potential benefits of jealousy. Evolution and Human Behavior, 18, 387-402.
3Andersen, P. A., Eloy, S. V., Guerrero, L. K., & Spitzberg, B. H. (1995). Romantic jealousy and relational satisfaction: A look at the impact of jealousy experience and expression. Communication Reports, 8, 77-85.
Dr. Amy Muise - Sex Musings | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Muise’s research focuses on sexuality, including the role of sexual motives in maintaining sexual desire in long-term relationships, and sexual well-being. She also studies the relational effects of new media, such as how technology influences dating scripts and the experience of jealousy.