A New Theory About Old Sex Differences in Jealousy

Cristen Conger

It's refreshing to run across new studies like this one from Pennsylvania State University that poke holes in the kneejerk theory that in relationships, men are ultimately motivated by sex and women live for love. That idea especially came up while Molly and I were researching for our episode on whether men and women cheat for different reasons. Time and again, the studies seemed to condense women down to soul mate-seekers straight out of Debra Messing movies, while the men play sex-hungry beasts.

Similar concepts also come up when discussing gender differences in relational jealousy. Men are supposedly more jealous of sexual infidelity since their evolutionary motivation is to spread their seed. Women -- the child-bearing nurturers looking for stable providers -- are thought to take emotional infidelity harder. I have trouble with lumping the genders together with such sweeping generalizations, which is I was particularly interested in the Penn State findings (via SciAm).

Clinical psychologists Kenneth Levy and Kristen Kelly concluded that relational jealously is more determined by individual personalities than gender. In their study, those who reported more jealousy from sexual cheating tended to have dismissing, or resistant, attachment styles. Attachment types are based on the idea that our responses to distressing situations are rooted in parental behavior and childhood experiences. Those with dismissing attachment styles avoid intimacy and strive to maintain independence, which makes sense that they'd react more strongly to physical, rather than emotional, infidelity.

According to the researchers, men are more likely to be dismissive types than women, which helps explain a gender imbalance. That pins the sex differences in jealousy more in cultural gender constructs and socialization instead of the primitive drives of our evolutionary predecessors. Whether you buy the attachment theory or not, I think this type of research moves the gender conversation in the right direction, away from strict His/Hers divisions and toward a broader behavioral spectrum.