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Are You the Jealous Type?

Jealousy can be a very painful and destructive emotion. People typically feel jealous when they sense some threat to their relationship (perhaps some smooth operator is making moves on your significant other, and you worry this rival is more attractive/desirable than you are). These feelings of jealousy are sometimes justified; if you and your partner have made an agreement to be sexually exclusive (monogamous), but then s/he is sneaking off to have sexy time with someone else, this is normally a jealousy-provoking situation for most people (i.e., it freaking sucks!). Jealous emotions can be agonizing and often create intense conflicts/fights between partners, and furthermore, these jealousy-provoking situations may sometimes motivate you to exit the relationship.

However, some people are prone to be jealous more often and more consistently than others, even when there are no actual threats to the relationship. These feelings may not arise because of anything their partner is doing, but rather from those individuals’ own insecure personalities.

What Makes a “Jealous Type”?

Attachment theory provides one useful framework to help explain chronically jealous tendencies. If you’re a secure individual, you’ve probably had good experiences in close relationships, marked with trust, and you expect good things from your partners in the future (like love and support). If you’re an insecure individual, you’ve probably had some not-so-great times in your past relationships—perhaps you were betrayed or abandoned, and that has led you either to avoid closeness and intimacy with others or to pursue extreme and unhealthy amounts of closeness and intimacy (e.g., being overly “clingy”). People with an insecure attachment style are much more likely to feel jealous in their relationships.1,2,3 Anxious and avoidant people consistently score higher on measures of jealousy than their secure peers; insecure people tend to see threats that aren’t there and become upset over trivial or insignificant things, whereas secure individuals have higher levels of trust and feel more at ease in emotionally vulnerable situations.

But one limitation of this body of research is that it’s all correlational. That is, we know that attachment styles relate to jealousy but we don’t know that attachment styles cause people to experience more/less jealousy—perhaps some 3rd variable (like a cultural norm) causes both insecure attachment and jealousy at the same time. Relationship scientists frequently face this issue when studying personality traits—just because two variables are correlated does not necessarily mean that one of them causes the other (see an entertaining example here). To address this issue, many researchers try to experimentally induce higher levels of a personality trait (temporarily) in the laboratory to see what effects the trait has on other behavior. If scientists can manipulate a variable while keeping everything else constant, then they are in control of the experiment, and they can be more certain that variable caused the change in the outcome they’re interested in. 

My colleague Markus Maier and I conducted a controlled experiment4 using what researchers call “attachment priming,” where we made some people feel more securely attached and then looked to see if that experimentally-induced security affected their emotional reactions. We randomly assigned participants to be in either a control condition (they thought about buying groceries) or an experimental condition (they thought about being in a difficult situation and then having a friend or romantic partner come and help them, give them love and support, etc.)—this made these participants feel securely attached. Next, we attempted to evoke jealous feelings using the following scenario:

“You are at a party with your boyfriend and you are talking with some of your friends. You notice your boyfriend across the room is talking to someone very attractive, whom you recognize as one of his exes. They are listening closely to each other and casually brushing each other's arms. They lean in close to speak over the loud music. You see your boyfriend and his ex laughing and they seem completely absorbed in each other. Your boyfriend's ex takes his hand and they walk out of the room.”

We also had a version for the opposite gender (substitute “girlfriend” for “boyfriend”). 

We then asked people to indicate how jealous they would feel in that situation. Lo and behold, participants who had been primed to feel secure attachment reported significantly less jealousy than people in the control group (who were not primed to feel secure). We then replicated this finding in a second study—we asked people how “upset,” “hurt,” or “angry” they would feel in this scenario. Again, people primed with security scored significantly lower than the control group. Thus, secure attachment caused people to feel less romantic jealousy. Most people in the experiments still felt a moderate amount of jealousy, but the folks in the secure condition scored almost a full point lower (on the 1-7 scale we used); this is considered a “moderately” large effect size.

This is the logic behind the experimental method that allows us to conclude causality: the only thing that was different between the two conditions was the attachment vs. neutral prompt (and not some pre-existing individual differences). This gives us some evidence that secure attachment directly causes people to feel less jealousy while imagining these relationship scenarios.

Combined with other studies, we know that people high in attachment security experience less jealousy than insecure people do, and that this is a function of their personalities, not because of what their partners are doing. Secure people tend to trust their partners more and get less upset at the thought of a romantic rival. So, if you find yourself with a partner who’s chronically jealous, it’s not your fault! That person might have to work a little harder to overcome his or her insecurities.

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1Buunk, B. (1997). Personality, birth order, and attachment styles as related to various types of jealousy. Personality and Individual Differences, 23(6), 997–1006.

2Sharpsteen, D., & Kirkpatrick, L. (1997). Romantic jealousy and adult romantic attachment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72(3), 627–640.

3Guerrero, L. (1998). Attachment-style differences in the experience and expression of romantic jealousy. Personal Relationships, 5, 273–291.

4Selterman, D., & Maier, M. (in press). Secure attachment and material reward both attenuate romantic jealousy. Motivation and Emotion.

Dr. Dylan Selterman - Science of Relationships articles Website/CV
Dr. Selterman's research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their partners (and alternatives), and how dreams influence behavior. In addition, Dr. Selterman studies secure base support in couples, jealousy, morality, and autobiographical memory.

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