It’s tough to talk about differences between women and men these days, and we’re not taking a firm stance here. When it comes to culture wars, we prefer to dodge the draft.
With that said, if you think your girlfriend is way more jealous than you, there’s some science that backs that up—sort of—but more likely than that, you’re just failing to recognize the differences between how you and the woman in your life experience jealousy.
Jealousy has a strong biological basis.
Evolutionary psychologists are convinced that men and women do, in fact, experience romantic jealousy differently. Joel Wade, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Bucknell University and he’s just the sort of evolutionary psychologist who can explain how differently men and women feel their pangs of jealousy.
This isn’t something that you control; it doesn’t matter how nice or understanding you are, Wade suggests. Being jealous is something that we’re born into.
“Jealousy has a strong biological basis,” Wade says. “So much so that different personality types experience it similarly, [meaning that] personality does not have a big effect on it.”
Speaking of biology, sex is a big part of that. So it makes sense that your lived experience of jealousy is going to be different than your girlfriend’s—and that disconnect can serve to highlight her responses to the awful emotion, while diminishing recognition of your own. End result? You assume your girlfriend is way, way more jealous than you are.
And maybe she is. We don’t know your girlfriend. All we can do is present a few questions to ask yourself when you reckon with the bizarre three-way between men, women, and the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on:
Is she really more jealous than you are?
Does your girlfriend flip out when you chat politely with an interesting female coworker at the office party? Does she fume when you go out to lunch with an old college friend—who just happens to both: A) be a woman, and, B) share your taste in obscure 1960s folk music? Are there other scenarios like this you can imagine without even trying very hard?
Maybe. But before we agree that women are simply more jealous than men, we’d better take a quick look in the mirror.
“Both sexes get jealous, and you can’t say that women get jealous more than men or men get jealous more than women,” Wade says. “But if you look at the specific types of jealousy, or what makes them jealous, then you see a sex difference.”
(There are studies that suggest adolescent girls are a bit more jealous of friendships than boys. But that’s hardly the same thing, is it?)
What’s making her so jealous? What about you?
Here’s the thing: Your girlfriend may not be able to stand your (totally innocent, we swear) friendship with a woman she sees as a potential draw on your affections. But, if you’re like most heterosexual men, you’re more likely to get jealous of potential physical relationships between your girlfriend and any other dude out there.
“Men typically get more upset when jealousy has a sexual focus—that is, if someone’s making sexual advances toward the partner, or the partner’s actually making sexual advances or having sex with someone else,” Wade explains. “And if you look at emotional jealousy…say the partner is using someone else as their emotional confidante…both sexes get jealous at that, but women tend to be more jealous over that than over a partner actually having sex with someone else.”
You can’t say that women get jealous more than men or men get jealous more than women.
Wade refers to research like this enormous poll-based study from Chapman University. Researchers asked about 64,000 American adults if they’d be more upset by “sexual infidelity” or “emotional infidelity”—and you just can’t beat a sample size like that.
Well, the results are in: A total of 54 percent of heterosexual men said they’d be most upset by a partner physically cheating on them. Only 35 percent of straight women said the same thing.
Don’t get any bright ideas, though. This was an either/or question, and just because your girlfriend might be more upset by you swapping secrets with a female friend than swapping spit with a stranger doesn’t mean she won’t kick you to the curb for both.
Meanwhile, among heterosexual respondents, a whopping 65 percent of women said they’d be more devastated by an emotional betrayal, while just 46 percent of men named that as their biggest problem, jealousy-wise.
Again, though, this question just asked which was worse: physical or emotional betrayal. Either way, betrayal is always a problem (unless you’re in one of those next-level open relationships we keep hearing so much about…).
What can straight couples learn from their same-sex counterparts?
Note that we’ve just been talking about heterosexual partnerships so far. Things get really interesting when you consider the responses of gay men, lesbian women, and bisexuals of both sexes.
Responses from people in these groups didn’t show any statistically significant preference between sexual and emotional infidelity. “Preference” seems like the wrong word, there, but you know what we mean.
“Heterosexual men really stand out from all other groups,” David Frederick, PhD, lead author on the Chapman University study said in a press release. “They were the only ones who were much more likely to be most upset by sexual infidelity rather than emotional infidelity.”
So, why are straight men so different?
Well, according to Wade, straight men can blame two things: Evolution and social conditioning. Either way, here’s the important part: It’s not their fault!
Men tend to think that infidelity is a blow against their masculinity.
“Women always know that [their children are] theirs because they carry the baby,” Wade points out. “But for men, they don’t always know that this is their biological child. From an evolutionary perspective, using one’s resources to raise another man’s child leaves you with no genetic legacy.”
So the early dudes who were super-sensitive about making sure they were the real dads ended up passing on more of their genetic information to the future. Somewhere in those genes, then, there’s a little note that reads: “Watch out! Make sure she’s not sneaking around with the Neanderthal in the cave down the street!”
Then there’s the general social environment, which spreads some pretty goofy ideas about masculinity sometimes.
“Socially, we condition men to be more upset about sexual infidelity,” Ward says. “Men tend to think that this is a blow against their masculinity—if my partner’s…with some other guy, what does that say about me as a man? So both the biology and the social aspects work together there.”
The end result? We’re worried about our girlfriends and wives sleeping around. Our girlfriends and wives are worried about us liking another woman more than them. And guess which one is easier to cook up in the imagination?
It can’t all be bad news, can it?
As annoying as a jealous girlfriend can be—and as tormenting as a jealousy episode of your own definitely is—evolution doesn’t really make mistakes.
There are some useful effects of this most-bitter of emotions, says Wade.
“There’s research showing that inducing jealousy in a partner can sometimes be beneficial in a relationship,” he says.
“If one wants to know, does my partner still care about me, well, you can ask the partner, and hopefully they will answer truthfully,” Wade explains. “But also, they could flirt with someone else, or bring up a past relationship and see if that provokes a jealous response in the partner. If it does, that’s an indication that the partner definitely still cares about you. If there is no jealous reaction, it could signal that this person is not as committed…to you as you might hope.”
There’s research showing that inducing jealousy in a partner can sometimes be beneficial in a relationship.
That might suck, but at least you’ll know. Still, you probably shouldn’t try this at home.
“One has to be really careful there,” Wade says, a statement we think is a great candidate for Understatement of the Millennium. “Some people might respond more positively to that jealousy induction than others, but, nevertheless, there is research showing that inducing jealousy can be useful.”
So maybe your jealous girlfriend is actually just a genius, outsmarting you at every turn? Like we said, we don’t recommend trying this at home. It’s a nasty thing to play with people’s emotions like that.
Is evolution really the only way to explain sex-based differences in jealousy?
Allow us to throw our own little Scopes Monkey Trial in regards to your jealous girlfriend and, we must insist, your own jealous self. Well, not quite a Monkey Trial; we’re not denying evolution here, or saying anything about what you should teach in public schools (culture-war draft-dodgers, remember?).
We just mean to say that the science on jealousy isn’t quite settled, and evolution may not tell the whole story about men, women, and relationship insecurity. In fact, some researchers hold that all of these studies claiming men are more worried about sexual infidelity and women are more upset about emotional infidelity are based on—gasp—flawed study design!
The big one was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2002. Authors DeSteno, Bartlett, Braverman, and Salovey found that differences between men and women in jealousy only show up in studies that use a “forced-choice response format.”
In other words, the Chapman University study asked respondents to choose one option when presented with the prompt, “Take a moment to imagine which of the following situations would be MOST upsetting or distressing to you.”
Option 1: “You found out that your partner is having a sexual relationship with someone else (but has not fallen in love with this person).”
Option 2: “You found out that your partner has fallen in love with someone else (but is not having a sexual relationship with this person).”
What’s missing in this format, DeSteno et al. would suggest, is a third option: “Neither/both.” In a forced-choice question, you have to choose one option.
How many of those respondents were equally worried about both types of infidelity? How many were in a polyamorous or otherwise open relationship?
We don’t know because we can’t know. DeSteno et al. suggest, though, that this could render the findings of the Chapman study, and many others like it, “measurement artifacts” rather than true reflections of our jealous, jealous hearts.
So take this all with a grain of salt. And if your girlfriend really is driving you crazy with her jealousy, maybe talk to her about it. If that doesn’t work, well, you’ve got a tough choice ahead of you, yourself: Stay or go.