Truth About Jealousy In Relationships: How Men, Women Handle Envy

TRONDHEIM, Norway — Imagine this: you’re resting on the couch with your significant other, watching TV, and suddenly, your partner’s mood takes a nosedive. Could it be the innocent coffee chat you had with an old friend, or maybe it’s that new co-worker you can’t stop talking about? Why the sudden shift? Welcome to the complex world of jealousy, a place where men and women often visit for entirely different reasons. Researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) decided to dive deep into this emotional maze, asking the burning question: do we really know what makes each other tick with jealousy? Turns out, understanding the green-eyed monster isn’t as straightforward as we thought.

The team’s new study investigates age-old beliefs regarding how men and women differ in jealousy over various types of cheating. Professors Mons Bendixen and Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair, from NTNU’s Department of Psychology, have taken a novel approach by exploring not just the roots of jealousy but our perceptions of what drives jealousy in others. The researchers surveyed 1,213 Norwegian adults between 18 and 50 years-old about whether they think men versus women would be more upset over sexual infidelity versus emotional infidelity by their partner. The majority of participants (86%) were heterosexual.

“What do people think triggers women’s and men’s jealousy? How well do women understand men’s jealousy, and men women’s jealousy? We wanted to find out,” says Bendixen in a statement.

The results demonstrate that both male and female participants believe men tend to be more distressed if a partner sleeps with someone else, while women are presumed to be more upset if a partner falls in love with or develops an emotional attachment to another person. In other words, the common belief seems to be that men care more about the physical sexual aspect of cheating, while women are hurt most by losing emotional intimacy and connection.

couple cheating
Do we really know what makes each other tick with jealousy? Turns out, understanding the green-eyed monster isn’t as straightforward as we thought. (Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels)

Staying In Our Gender Lanes With Jealousy

Notably, people’s own self-reported feelings of jealousy closely matched what they thought someone of the same gender would typically feel. So men who claimed they personally would be most upset about physical infidelity also believed that most other men would react that way.

Similarly, women who stated they themselves are most bothered by emotional infidelity presumed that is the norm for other women too. This suggests people use their own feelings about infidelity as a reference point when guessing how all men or all women might generally think and feel about cheating scenarios. However, the study found people were much less accurate at judging how bothersome infidelity would be for the opposite sex.

“Men don’t fully appreciate how much this affects their partner,” adds Bendixen, referring to situations where men might not understand why their close friendships with women could make their partners feel threatened.

This implies that while we have a decent insight into the gender-typical mindset on jealousy within our own sex, the opposite sex remains more mysterious and puzzling in this domain.

“We understand our own sex best,” explains Kennair. “Generally speaking, men are good at understanding other men’s jealousy responses, and women are good at understanding other women’s jealousy responses. At the same time, we are surprisingly good at understanding the opposite sex at the group level.”

The researchers explored possible external factors that could shape beliefs about gendered jealousy responses, like media exposure, relationship history, and experiences with infidelity. However, researchers say none were meaningfully related. They concluded that beliefs people hold about male versus female reactions to cheating types do not seem to be shaped by social or cultural forces in impactful ways. Instead, the beliefs appear deeply rooted and ingrained.

couple cheating infidelity
The study found people were much less accurate at judging how bothersome infidelity would be for the opposite sex. (Credit: RODNAE Productions from Pexels)

The study also touched upon perceptions of jealousy among sexual minorities, finding little difference in how jealousy is understood across different sexual orientations.

“Homosexual, bisexual and heterosexual men reported that other men would be more jealous of sexual infidelity than they would admit,” says Bendixen.

This challenges the notion that sexual preference significantly impacts jealousy perceptions.

While the underlying reasons for the common sex-specific beliefs about jealousy still need investigating, evolutionary pressures related to reproductive strategies provide one plausible explanation. For example, men evolved to be vigilant about sexual infidelity, which poses the risk of unknowingly investing resources in raising another man’s offspring. Whereas for women, emotional involvement with an interloper jeopardizes a man’s long-term care for her and her children.

In exploring the roots of these perceptions, the researchers discovered that societal and cultural influences play a negligible role in shaping our understanding of jealousy. Instead, they suggest an evolutionary basis for this understanding.

“We believe that this is largely evolved, something innate that is programmed,” Kennair explains, pointing to the advantage our ancestors gained from being able to interpret and react to jealousy, a critical factor in maintaining relationships and ensuring offspring survival.

Be aware, however, that individual variability exists, so gender stereotypes won’t necessarily apply to given men and women or couples. The bottom line is that to understand what form of cheating would hurt one’s own partner most, direct, open communication with that person is needed. Their feelings may differ substantially from “norms.” Overall the study shows that beliefs about typical male versus female jealousy patterns often reveal more about the beliefs-holder than the gender those beliefs target.

The research is published in the journal Evolutionary Psychological Science.


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