Jealousy has long been seen as deeply undesirable in a relationship. But eminent psychologist Dr David Buss, a professor at the University of Texas, has published an explosive book arguing that jealousy is vital in keeping a relationship healthy.
Women, he says, are especially keen to make their partners jealous. They enjoy the attention they get when they flirt with other men and, if such attention makes their partners jealous, that is a bonus; when her partner realises how attractive she is to other men, it can increase his commitment to her.
It is also a way of testing a partner’s resolve. If a man is not concerned about his partner’s flirtatiousness, she’ll realise his feelings for her might not be as strong as she’d like them to be.
The most common reaction in men who are jealous is to become more attentive to their partner. So, as a tactic, jealousy often works.
In one study, a group of men and women who were dating took part in a jealousy test. Seven years later they were contacted again, and it was revealed that those who had shown jealousy while dating were much more likely to get married.
In fact, many marriage therapists now say a total absence of jealousy signals a lack of real passion in a relationship.
Some even prescribe a bit of jealousy as a way of stimulating a relationship. A common observation of marriage therapists is that when a man discovers his wife has had an affair, sexual passion is re-ignited in the marriage.
In Professor Buss’s own study of newlyweds, women more than men report flirting with others in front of a partner, showing interest in others, going out with others and talking to another man at a party, all in order to make their partner jealous.
But perhaps one of the most effective and subtle female strategies is simply to smile at other men. Psychologists have found that most men misinterpret what a woman’s smile means, and assume it is a signal of sexual interest.
So when a woman smiles at another man while at a party with her partner, she is skillfully using against them the inherent male bias in interpreting body language.
The man being smiled at believes she is romantically interested and makes an advance, and the partner gets annoyed because he detects a rival. Yet no one can blame the woman who instigated the rivalry because all she was doing was
being innocently friendly.
But a lot depends on the motivation behind trying to invoke jealousy. One study found 8% of women do it in order to bolster their low self-esteem, and an even smaller percentage do it in order to punish their partner, taking revenge for a previous wrong.
Yet a massive 38% of women report they evoke jealousy to increase their partner’s commitment.
Jealousy is also used by 40% of women to test the depth of their relationship.
This could explain why women who rate themselves as more involved in the relationship than their partner have the strongest tendency to use jealousy.
This could be the one flaw in Professor Buss’s arguments about the positive nature of jealousy -it would seem that you need to turn to eliciting jealousy only if you lack the confidence to feel desirable.
But the true revolution in thinking about jealousy produced by Professor Buss’s work is the revelation that jealousy can be a good thing – that it acts as a natural defence mechanism to shield love from rivals.
If you never felt jealousy, you would not be vigilant to possible threats to your relationship from competitors, or be aware of the signs of betrayal.
‘His and hers’ jealousy makes women more forgiving than men
It is a fierce and sometimes deadly emotion.
But the feelings that jealousy arouse are very different in men and women, it seems.
Researchers studying adulterous relationships have uncovered ‘his ‘n’ hers’ versions of the emotions felt when a partner cheats.
The differences can be traced back to evolutionary instincts and mean that a woman is more likely to forgive a cheating man out of a need for security than the other way round.
Psychologists found that when a man is caught cheating, it is not the sex that upsets the woman but that he might form an emotional attachment with the other woman.
Their anger is at the prospect of losing the relationship that ensures security and safety for themselves and their children.
But when a woman is caught cheating, it is the sex that upsets the man, not the fact that she might fall in love with her new partner. They do not want children of other men diluting the gene pool.
The study, in journal Psychological Science, said: ‘Men learned over eons to be hyper-vigilant about sex because they can never be absolutely certain they are the father of a child, while women are more concerned about having a partner who is committed to raising a family.’
But it added a growing number of men are becoming more reliant on secure relationships.