Imagine for a moment that you’re running late to meet your romantic partner for a movie date. As you approach the theater, you see your partner speaking to an attractive stranger. As you wait, you happen to overhear part of their conversation. The stranger asks your partner for directions, which your partner provides happily. The stranger then invites your partner to a local concert this Friday. Your partner politely expresses interest and they exchange phone numbers.
At this point in the scenario, you might feel hurt, angry, insecure, upset, or betrayed. Perhaps you feel the sting of jealousy. You’re probably even asking yourself, “What’s he/she have that I don’t?” as you cast concerned looks at your partner. But can the experience of jealousy in situations in which a romantic rival (i.e, a person who competes for your partner’s romantic and/or sexual interest) threatens your relationship actually influence your answer to this question?
Recent research suggests that the answer is “yes.”1 Across a series of three studies, researchers collected information on participants’ jealous tendencies and personality traits, then immersed participants in imagined scenarios in which their partners were interacting with an attractive rival. Depending on the scenario, the researchers instructed participants to imagine that their partners behaved in one of three ways: indifferent to the rival, explicitly uninterested in the rival, or interested in the rival. Afterward, participants reported their feelings of jealousy, specifically in response to the scenario. In Study 1, participants indicated how similar they thought they were to the rival. In Studies 2 and 3, after seeing a profile of the rival’s personality traits, participants indicated which personality traits were most or least descriptive of themselves.
It turns out that experiencing situational jealousy (i.e., the kind that comes about in reaction to a specific experience) may change the way we view ourselves — regardless of whether or not we generally tend to be jealous lovers. In Study 1, those who experienced more jealousy due to the rival scenario were more likely to say they were similar to their rivals. Across Studies 2 and 3, participants experienced the most jealousy in situations where they believed that their partners were actually interested in a rival. Greater jealousy, in turn, predicted a tendency to identify traits in oneself that were similar to the rival’s traits. What’s especially telling is that these were the same traits that participants said were not descriptive of themselves during earlier questionnaires. Moreover, this didn’t happen in scenarios in which the partner was indifferent or clearly rebuffed the rival. Only when one’s partner actually seemed interested in the rival did jealousy predict changes in self-views.
So if the question, “What’s he/she have that I don’t?” pops into your head when a rival comes into the picture, it may be that the real answer is “Not much.” This process of thinking about the self relative to rivals could yield both positive and negative consequences for relationships. On the one hand, perceiving such similarity might facilitate one’s efforts to provide the qualities that a rival has — qualities that may be absent from one’s ongoing relationship but beneficial for its maintenance (e.g., humor). On the other hand, perceiving similarity to a rival may induce resentment toward one’s partner. If indeed your partner is attracted to a rival who you see as similar to yourself, your partner’s interest in that rival may be harder to understand and justify. In either case, these findings are a reminder of how profoundly our behaviors can influence the ways in which our partners think and feel about themselves. This is a point worth keeping in mind if another person happens to catch your or your partner’s eye. Even if neither partner is the “jealous type,” partners who engage in a little “innocent” behavior outside of their relationship (e.g., flirting with or complimenting rivals) can more strongly affect each other than they may realize.
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1Slotter, E. B., Lucas, G. M., Jakubiak, B., & Lasslett, H. (2013). Changing me to keep you: State jealousy promotes perceiving similarity between the self and a romantic rival. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(10), 1280-1292.
Fred Clavél, M.A. – Science of Relationships articles
Fred is interested in social support dynamics in romantic couples, the effects of context on relationships, relationships and health & well-being, and issues of the self in relationships. He draws primarily on theories of social exchange, attachment, motivation, and social cognition in his research.