Managing Conflict in Relationships​

How Jealousy Can Change You (and Why That Might Be OK)

Jealousy can change you. Imagine that you and your romantic partner are hanging out together on a Friday night and your partner receives a text from someone you don’t know. You ask who it is and your partner responds that it is a guy (or girl) from work (a person who your partner might be attracted to), and that this person has been texting some funny jokes lately. While this interaction seems fairly harmless, you still find yourself wondering if your partner is attracted to this person. If the person is funny, maybe he or she is also physically attractive, or thoughtful, or has been paying more attention to your partner than you have  lately. Is your partner’s eye wandering? Contemplating these possibilities, you begin to feel jealous.

Jealousy is a fundamentally social human emotion existing across history and cultures (DeSteno, Valdesolo, Bartlett, 2006). We experience jealousy in a variety of relationship-relevant situations, including sibling rivalry, jealousy in friendships, and, of course, romantic jealousy. In each case, jealousy results from competition for a relationship, stemming from the perception that another person’s presence threatens an important relational bond (Buss & Haselton, 2005).

From an evolutionary standpoint, romantic jealousy is a functional reaction to certain situations. It motivates us to try to protect our relationship from a perceived threat and maintain our partner’s interest (Buss, 1988). There are several ways to protect a relationship from a jealousy-inducing threat. Our tactics typically include options ranging from picking a fight with the threatening outsider to trying to improve our relationship with our partner. Generally speaking, our mate-retention strategies fall into two categories: intra-sexual tactics and inter-sexual tactics (Buss, 1998).

  1. Intra-sexual mate-retention tactics. Typically, this involves attempts to drive way the rival who threatens the relationship. The animal equivalent would be bighorn rams butting heads in a battle for access to females. The human equivalent would be telling the person texting your partner that they are being inappropriate and need to stop (although things may escalate from there).
  2. Inter-sexual mate-retention tactics. These strategies aim to keep your partner’s attention and affection. The animal equivalent would be the male peacock flashing his feathers to try to become the most attractive option to the females. In humans, this could include being more romantic with your partner, improving your communication, or even giving him or her gifts.

Recently, my lab published research examining a different form of inter-sexual mate retention (Slotter, Lucas, Jakubiak, & Laslett, 2013)—changing yourself to be more similar to the person posing a threat to your relationship. Identity research has demonstrated that we often assume the characteristics of others when motivated to do so. When we want to enhance closeness in our romantic relationships, we claim our partners’characteristics as our own (Slotter & Gardner, 2009). We see ourselves as more athletic, or musical, or outgoing—because they are.

In our work on jealousy, we found that individuals will alter the way they see themselves to become more similar to an interloper threatening their relationship. Across five studies, we established that, when individuals perceived their partner to be interested in another person, they experience elevated feelings of jealousy. This jealousy predicts their endorsing traits of the interloper that they previously did not possess as true of them. We believe that the reason behind these changing self-views is that individuals are trying to defend their relationship by being more like the person threatening it. If their partner is interested in this person, the thinking goes, then that person must possess traits the partner likes. Thus, it might help us to also possess these traits.

Additional work is needed to assess what the consequences of these effects might be.

We don’t know if the self-change that individuals exhibited in our studies actually benefits relationships by serving its presumed purpose of mate retention. We also don’t know if the self-change that individuals exhibit in our studies has any impact on individuals’ personal well-being.

Overall, there are many more questions to answer, but our data suggest that when the green-eyed monster emerges, jealousy can not only alter our behavior, but also who we are.

Buss, D. M. (1988). From vigilance to violence: Tactics of mate retention in American undergraduates. Ethology and Sociobiology, 9, 291-317

Buss, D. M., & Haselton, M. (2005).The evolution of jealousy. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(11), 506-507.

DeSteno, D., Valdesolo, P., & Bartlett, M. Y. (2006). Jealousy and the threatened self: Getting to the heart of the green-eyed monster. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(4), 626-641.

Slotter, E.B., & Gardner, W.L. (2009). Where do you end and I begin? Evidence for anticipatory, motivated self-other integration between relationship partners.   Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 1137-1151.

Slotter, E. B., Lucas, G. M., Jakubiak, B., & Laslett, H. (2013). Changing me to keep you: State jealousy promotes perceiving similarity between the self and a romantic rival. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1280-1292.

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Marinda Reynecke

Marinda Reynecke

Counselling Psychologist

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