AUSTIN, Texas—The green-eyed monster can not only destroy a partnership but renew one as well — and may even be the key to a happy relationship, says a University of Texas at Austin psychologist in a new book on the destructive and triumphant sides of human desires.
“Jealousy is as important as trust in keeping couples together,” says Dr. David Buss in The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy is as Necessary as Love and Sex,which will hit stores on Valentine’s Day (Feb. 14). “To counteract the desire to stray — and to strengthen the bond between partners — jealousy evolved as an early detection system of infidelity.”
Buss, a UT Austin professor of psychology and internationally known expert in the areas of sex, emotions and human mating, has spent the last 10 years studying the role of jealously in relationships. Drawing on experiments, surveys and interviews conducted in 37 countries on six continents, as well as insights from recent discoveries in biology, anthropology and psychology, Buss discovers that the evolving origins of sexual desire still shape passions today.
Although some theories propose that jealousy is an immature emotion, a sign of insecurity, neurosis or flawed character, Buss believes that it is an adaptation. “Non-jealous men and women are not our ancestors, having been left in the evolutionary dust by rivals with different passionate sensibilities. We all come from a long lineage of ancestors who possessed this dangerous passion.
“Jealousy co-evolved with the evolution of love,” he writes. It’s unlikely that love, with the tremendous psychological investment it entails, could have evolved without a defense that shielded it from the constant threat from rivals and the possibility of betrayal from a partner, Buss notes.
“Jealousy evolved to fill that void, motivating vigilance as the first line of defense and violence as the last. The paradox is that jealousy — an emotion evolved to protect love — can rip a relationship apart.
“The potency of jealousy convinced me that it could not be ignored by science,” says the psychologist, adding that jealousy is a very understudied topic, but central to relationships and to the understanding of domestic violence. Through surveys, Buss discovered that nearly all men and women have experienced at least one episode of intense jealousy. “Thirty-one percent say that their personal jealousy has sometimes been difficult to control. And among those who admit to being jealous, 38 percent say that their jealousy has led them to want to hurt someone.”
In his research, the UT psychologist discovered that jealousy also represented a form of ancestral wisdom that can have useful consequences. “Jealousy is not always a reaction to infidelity that has already been discovered,” he says. “It can be an anticipatory response, a preemptive strike to head off an infidelity that might be lurking on the horizon.”
Properly used, jealousy can enrich relationships, spark passion and amplify commitment, according to Buss. “The total absence of jealousy, rather than its presence, is a more ominous sign for romantic partners. It portends emotional bankruptcy.”
Studies reveal that more women than men intentionally elicited jealousy. More women than men apparently evoke jealousy to increase a partner’s commitment and to test the strength of a relationship. “By evoking jealousy, a woman causes her partner to believe that she has attractive alternatives available, and that, if he does not display greater commitment, she might kiss him good-bye and depart for greener mating pastures,” Buss writes, adding that women who successfully use this tactic are more likely to keep the commitment of their mates.
By evoking jealousy, says the researcher, a woman gains valuable information about the depth and consistency of her partner’s commitment. Women reap this benefit most at a time in the relationship when the need to test the strength of the bond is especially strong — women whose partners have been away for a while, women whose partners experience a sudden surge in status and women who feel they might be perceived as being less desirable than their partner — all need these vital appraisals of a man’s commitment.
Buss also examined the triggers of jealousy. He points out that women tend to get more jealous concerning issues of emotional infidelity whereas men become more jealous when their partners are guilty of sexual infidelity. “The responses also are wildly different in men and women,” says Buss. “Men are more inclined to get violent; women get depressed.”
The Dangerous Passion also explores why women have affairs and how people cope with jealousy and infidelity.
Buss is the author of other books, including Evolution of Desire and Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind. He teaches courses in human mating and evolutionary psychology.