The happy green eyed monogamist: role of jealousy and compersion in monogamous and non-traditional relationships.

Author:Aumer, Katherine


Scholars have long been fascinated by the question as to whether or not jealousy is a cultural universal. They have asked: Are there gender differences in what sparks jealousy? How do people deal with jealousy? However, since the 1970s and 1980s, social commentators have begun to address another, very different, type of question: Can people alter their jealous reactions to their partners' affairs? What impact does jealousy (or the lack thereof) have on intimate relationships? Are multiple relationships really a threat to intimate relationships?

A plethora of scholars have addressed the first two sets of questions. Our major concern, however, will be the third set of questions. Specifically, we ask: Are there gender differences in the tendency to feel jealousy or "compersion" (i.e., to take pleasure in one's partner's sexual pleasure in other sexual encounters)? (Precisely what theorists mean by feelings of "compersion/empathy" will be discussed in a later section.) What is the impact of a tendency to be jealous or to take pleasure in a partner's pleasure (to have a compersion reaction) on relationship satisfaction? Does gender, one's ability to be jealous or compersive, and type of relationship (monogamous versus non-traditional) interact in shaping relationship satisfaction?

  1. Traditional Perspectives on Jealousy

    According to the American Psychological Association (VandenBos, 2007), jealousy can be defined as:

    "A negative emotion in which an individual resents a third party for appearing to take away (or likely to take away) the affections of a loved one" (p. 506).

    Researchers in Israel (Nadler & Dotan, 1992) and the Netherlands (Bringle & Buunk, 1986) found that individuals experience the most jealousy and the most severe physiological reactions (e.g., trembling, increased pulse rate, nausea), when a loved one's affair poses a serious threat to their dating or marital relationship. Berscheid and Fei (1977) also provided evidence that low self-esteem and the fear of loss are important factors in fueling jealous passion. They found that the more insecure men and women are, the more dependent they are on their romantic partners and mates, and that the more seriously a relationship is threatened, the more fierce their jealousy.

  2. Is Jealousy a Cultural Universal?

    Most scholars assume that jealousy is a cultural universal--known to exist in all cultures--although culture and historical era shape how jealousy is defined, what sparks it, and how men and women deal with it. Anthropologists, cultural psychologists, historians, and social psychologists tend to focus on the influence of culture and historical era on people's perception as to the nature of jealousy (Hatfield, Rapson, & Martel, 2007). Evolutionary psychologists tend to focus on the universality of jealousy, arguing for its antecedents in human kinds' evolutionary and genetic heritage.

    According to Buss (1994), for example, in the course of evolution, men and women were programmed to differ markedly in the kinds of things that incite jealousy. Since men can never know for sure whether the children they think are theirs (and in which they may choose to invest their all), are really their own, men should find sexual infidelity the most worrying. Women, on the other hand, who know that any children they conceive are theirs, should worry far less about their mates' sexual liaisons. What worries women is the possibility that their mates may be forming a deep, emotional attachment to a rival, thus squandering scarce resources on another. Scientists have also collected evidence that in men, sexual infidelity incites the most jealousy, while in women, the discovery that their husbands have formed a deep emotional attachment to another women, and/or is squandering resources on her is most upsetting (Buss & Schmitt, 1993; Glass & Wright, 1992).

    Cultural and evolutionary theorists have also collected considerable evidence indicating that men and women often respond differently to jealous provocation. For example, Israeli psychologists Nadler and Dotan (1992) found that when jealous men tend to concentrate on shoring up their sagging self-esteem, jealous women are more likely to try to do something to strengthen the relationship. Bryson (1977) speculated that these gender differences may well be due to the fact that most societies are patriarchal. In such societies, it is acceptable for men to initiate relationships. Thus, when men are threatened, they can easily go elsewhere. Women do not have the same freedom; therefore, they devote their energies to keeping the relationship from foundering.

    Studies in a variety of countries--including Israel (Nadler & Dotan, 1992) and the Netherlands (Buunk, 1982)--have found that these same gender differences exist in many parts of the world. When Harris (2003) conducted a meta-analysis of more than 100 studies designed to determine whether there are gender differences in what sparks jealousy, she found little support for the evolutionary contention. Harris reviewed men's and women's self-reports and psychophysiological reactions, as well as data on morbid jealousy, spousal abuse, and jealousy-inspired homicides in a variety of jealousy provoking situations. In summarizing this voluminous research, she concluded that:

    The results provide little support for the claim that men and women are innately wired to be differentially upset by emotional and sexual infidelity (p. 117).

    Jankowiak (1995) concurs, arguing that in all cultures, both men and women find emotional and sexual infidelity extremely upsetting. He contends that it is male power, not innate gender differences, that accounts for differences in men's and women's willingness to express their jealous feelings.

  3. The Impact of Jealousy on Relationship Satisfaction

    When theorists speculate about the possible relationship between jealousy and relationship satisfaction, they often make very divergent predictions. Jealousy can be seen as a "cute" correlate of young love, or evidence that the lover cares about his beloved--an emotion that binds a couple together and prevents a rival's mate from poaching. Jealousy can also be seen as a neurotic manifestation of insecurity ("she is insanely jealous") or a rational reaction to the discovery of a trusted mate's infidelity and betrayal ("Who wouldn't be jealous?). Unsurprisingly, although theorists have often investigated the links between jealousy and relationship satisfaction, the results of such correlational studies are often conflicting (Demirtas & Donmez, 2006). Some research indicates that jealousy is positively related to relationship satisfaction (Dugosh, 2000; Fleishmann, Spitzberg, Andersen, & Roesch, 2005). However, other research contends that the two are negatively related (Guerrero & Eloy, 1992; Hansen, 1982), and that participants may differ in what they assume is meant by "jealousy."

    Pfeiffer and Wong (1989) have shown that there are multiple dimensions to jealousy, specifically: cognitive, behavioral, and emotional. Cognitive jealousy can be conceived as obsessions and suspicions about one's partner's fidelity. Behavioral jealousy is seen as acts that one does when suspecting infidelity, like checking messages on their partner's phone or rifling through their partner's clothes in attempts to find evidence of infidelity. Finally, emotional jealousy encompasses feelings of hurt or rejection one would feel should one's partner be suspected of flirting, dating, or having relations with another person. Considering these dimensions of jealousy and the conflicting data on how jealousy impacts satisfaction in relationships, we contend that the correlation between jealousy and relationship satisfaction may be influenced by a host of intervening variables--for this paper, we are specifically focusing on the type of jealousy and the status of the relationship: mongamous vs. non-traditional.

  4. Compersion and/or Empathy

    In the 1970s and 1980s, at the height of the Sexual Revolution, social commentators began to suggest that a traditional, patriarchal, monogamous relationship should not be the social ideal. Theorists such as O'Neil and O'Neil (1984), in Open Marriage, for example, proposed that many couples might be happier and more satisfied if their marriages be supplemented by occasional extramarital activities, such as "wife swapping," "swinging," and the like. According to the folklore, such social experiments did not work out very well and were likely to lead to divorce and disease. However, there is little compelling evidence in praise or in criticism of such experiments and those that followed (see Conley, Ziegler, Moors, Matsick, & Valentine, 2013).

    In recent years, however, a few social commentators have once again begun to propose that couples would do well to consider alternative types of romantic and sexual relationships. Talk shows, for example, often feature couples who testify to the advantages (or disadvantages) of new types of romantic and sexual relationships where partners are allowed to seek sexual satisfaction outside of their normal partner--among them casual sex, open relationships, and polyamorous relationships (open relationships are dyadic relationships in which partners are emotionally committed to one another, but are not sexually exclusive). Polyamorous relationships seek to achieve the same strong emotionally committed bonds, but with multiple partners. Polyamory is often considered to be "responsible non-monogamy" (Anapol, 1997, p. 19).

    Polyamorous relationship structures are extremely diverse and can assume a variety of different forms depending on what the couples consider to be relevant relationship rules (Duma, 2009). For example, such relationships can consist of three or more people who may or may not all be involved with each other. Two different relationship structures for a polyamorous relationship, consisting of just three people, are a "V" and a "triangle"...

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