Study Offers New Explanation for Gender Differences in Jealousy

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

When South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford was caught red-handed returning from a tryst with his Argentine mistress last June, he told the Associated Press he had met his "soul mate." His choice of words seemed to suggest that having a deep emotional and spiritual connection with his mistress somehow made his sexual infidelity to his wife less tawdry.
What the two-timing governor didn't understand is that most women view emotional infidelity as worse, not better, than sexual betrayal. Research has documented that most men become much more jealous about sexual infidelity than they do about emotional infidelity. Women are the opposite, and this is true all over the world. The prevailing theory is that the difference has evolutionary origins: Men learned over eons to be hypervigilant about sex because they can never be absolutely certain they are the father of a child, while women are much more concerned about having a partner who is committed to raising a family.

New research now suggests an alternative explanation. The new study does not question the fundamental gender difference regarding jealousy; indeed, it adds additional support for that difference. But the new science suggests the difference may be rooted more in individual differences in personality resulting from one's relationship history but can fall along gender lines.

Pennsylvania State University psychological scientists Kenneth Levy and Kristen Kelly doubted the prevailing evolutionary explanation because a conspicuous subset of men exist who, like most women, find emotional betrayal more distressing than sexual infidelity. Why would this be? The researchers suspected it might have to do with trust and emotional attachment.

Some people, men and women alike, are more secure in their attachments to others, while others tend to be more dismissive of the need for close attachment relationships. Psychologists see this compulsive self-reliance as a defensive strategy, protection against deep-seated feelings of vulnerability. Levy and Kelly hypothesized these individuals would tend to be concerned with the sexual aspects of relationships rather than emotional intimacy.

Similar to earlier studies examining gender differences in jealousy, Levy and Kelly asked men and women which they would find more distressing: sexual infidelity or emotional infidelity.  Participants also completed additional assessments, including a standard and well-validated measure of attachment style in romantic relationships.

Findings confirmed the scientists' hypotheses. As Levy and Kelly report in Psychological Science, those participants with a dismissing attachment style--who prize their autonomy in relationships over commitment--were much more upset about sexual infidelity than emotional infidelity. Conversely, those participants securely attached in relationships, including securely attached men, were much more likely to find emotional betrayal more upsetting.

The scientists state these findings imply the mechanisms of psychology and the cultural environment underlying gender differences in jealousy may have greater roles than previously recognized. They also suggest jealousy is more multiply determined than previously hypothesized.

Additionally, by placing jealousy within an attachment theoretical perspective that highlights the value of taking a more nuanced approach relative to earlier research, it points to new research possibilities, suggesting that promoting secure attachment may be an effective means of reducing the kind of sexual jealousy that contributes to domestic violence.

Catherine Allen-West

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Review Date: 
September 16, 2010