How Romantic Jealousy Changes Us

We start to see ourselves as more like our rivals.

Dr. Erica Slotter at Villanova University wants to help us understand romantic jealousy and, in doing so, get over it — or embrace it.

In a recent experiment published in Personal and Social Psychology Bulletin — one of the few academic articles I've seen that seamlessly references Legally Blonde — Slotter's team of psychologists asked people in relationships to envision various scenarios, some of which would hypothetically make them jealous. As Slotter described them to me, "In one [scenario] they were with their romantic partner, and everything was fine. In another, their partner was flirting with — or even just noticing and commenting on — a potential romantic rival. In a third scenario, that rival was actively pursuing and flirting with the partner."  

In the second scenario (but not the third), the subjects said they felt jealous.

Slotter then asked them to compare themselves to profiles of the romantic rivals, according to a set of qualities. Were they athletic? Intelligent? Enthusiastic? In the second scenario, people were quick to rate themselves highly in ways that made them similar to the rival. It seemed to be something of an unconscious "I've got what he/she's got" reaction.

SHARK300200.jpg(Personal and Social Psychology Bulletin)

As Slotter explained it to me hypothetically, "If I am with my husband and I notice that he's interested in another person, his interest in me is waning, right? He's probably interested in this person because she is wonderful or attractive. If I'm motivated by jealousy, I would make myself more similar to the rival."

The crux of the idea is that we do well to consider what's driving our self perceptions. In situations that make us jealous, we might be changing the way we see ourselves to something more similar to the person who "we feel is capturing the attention and affection of our partner."

Psychologists have long documented that self concepts are especially malleable in terms of becoming similar to people in whom we're interested romantically. That can be healthy, to a degree. Here, though, Slotter emphasizes, we're changing to see ourselves as similar to people we don't like.

As the research paper concludes, "Like Legally Blonde’s Elle, we may try to embody the smart, serious individual that we perceive our partner to be attracted to over ourselves. When we feel our partner’s feelings for us are waning, the subsequent jealousy we experience is sufficient to promote us changing ourselves to keep the partner." Or at least seeing ourselves differently.

The next step, then: Is this bad? Slotter intends to look next at what it actually means for relationships. "Does this help retain a partner's interest? If so, is that healthy for the couple?" And then, "If you have a partner with a consistently wandering eye, is this a relationship worth keeping?"

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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