Is Jealousy a Sign Your Partner is Likely to be Unfaithful?

Why are some people more jealous than others? New research suggests that many of us have distinctly Freudian motives.

Joanna Malinkowska/Freestocks

Jealousy is a serious problem. Not only can it lead to suspicion, arguments, and break up, but violence perpetrated against women by their male partners is most often motivated by sexual jealousy. Scientists should be making every effort to understand more about jealousy , because we can only combat the negative consequences of jealousy if we know how and why it emerges.

Angela Neal of the University of South Carolina and Edward Lemay of the University of Maryland are striving to discover more about why we are suspicious of our partners, and recently published the results of their research in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

They had around 100 male-female couples complete daily surveys for one week. Each survey included questions about respondents’ anger and negative behaviors directed toward their partner, about how attracted they felt to people other than their partner, and about how attracted they suspected their partner felt to other people.

Neal and Lemay found that volunteers suspected their partner’s attraction to others was low when it really was low, and high when it really was high. Their estimates weren’t 100% correct, but they were quite accurate.

However (and here’s where it gets interesting), volunteers’ own attraction to others was much more closely linked to their estimates of their partner’s attraction to others. Put another way, people who hankered after a fling suspected their partner wanted one too; people who thought of no one but their partner believed that their partner was similarly innocent.

A person’s suspicion of their partner was much more strongly predicted by their own attraction to others than by the partner’s actual attraction to others.

This process is akin to the psychological phenomenon of ‘projection’, first formulated by Sigmund Freud. It’s the idea that we deal with undesirable emotions and attitudes by assuming those emotions and attitudes are held by other people. We think others are guilty because we feel guilty ourselves; we think our parents are angry at us because we are angry at them.

So, why do those with a wandering eye project their desire for illicit sex onto their partner? The researchers speculate that it could be because, when we are asked to theorize about our partner’s desires, our own desires come more readily to mind. We feel similar to our partner in other ways, and it may simply be easier to assume their wishes are the same as ours. Another possibility is that we project because of what psychologists call “motivated cognition”: that is, we are inclined to reach certain conclusions because they make us feel better. This means that if we feel guilty about being attracted to someone else, a belief that our partner is also guilty may reduce our own feelings of guilt.

This is really important because, as Neal and Lemay found, people are angrier with their partner when they suspect their partner of harboring desire for sex with another person, and their suspicions are stronger when they themselves are fantasizing most about illicit sex.

So, when you next find yourself obsessing about your partner’s interest in other people, you might benefit from taking a look in the mirror and asking yourself if it’s your own fantasies that are to blame. Conversely, if you discover your partner really is a cheater, and can’t believe you didn’t spot the signs, console yourself that it was probably your innocence rather than your naivety that put a check on your jealousy.

Neal, A. M., & Lemay, E. P. (in press). The wandering eye perceives more threats: Projection of attraction to alternative partners predicts anger and negative behavior in romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Read summary

The content of this post first appeared in the 16 Jan 2018 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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