Green-Eyed Insights

Chapman professors’ jealousy research gets real, with help from some historical and pop-culture characters.

On a February morning in 1859, New York Congressman Daniel Edgar Sickles marches up to his wife’s lover, pulls out his pistol and fatally shoots the mischief-maker. Sickles goes free, the first person to successfully use a plea of temporary insanity.

In a Valentine’s Day episode of the Emmy-winning sitcom Modern Family, Claire is delighted when Phil drags her out of a party where another man has charmed her with goofball jokes — Phil’s forte. The scene closes with cuddles and hugs.

Could the same human emotion possibly be behind those wildly different scenarios? Yup, our old green-eyed friend, jealousy, is the devil behind such troubles. Like hot sauce, jealousy comes in degrees, from the gentle stuff that just perks things up a bit to the killer dose that launches the tears. It can be cupid’s friend or a source of tragedy.

All of this is why two Chapman University researchers are studying jealousy at length, eager to put a scientific eye on an emotion that is fodder for poets, artists and novelists. Real-life jealousy can be devastating, so understanding how it works is vital, say Jennifer L. Bevan, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies, and David Frederick, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology in the Crean College of Health and Behavioral Sciences.

Bevan is the author of the award-winning book
The Communication of Jealousy
and studies jealousy on social media as well. Frederick just published a study revealing the key factors that fire up jealousy, and discovered they aren’t the same for men and women.

It’s serious research, with implications for therapists who counsel couples and families. But we also see it leap from the textbook page when we ask Bevan and Frederick to apply their insights to pop culture and some famously jealous folks, both real and imagined.

“You scoundrel, you have dishonored my home; you must die!”

So said Congressman Sickles just before he pulled the trigger. It’s an extreme, but very male, response, says Frederick.

“People often think of emotions as irrational. But emotions are powerful motivations that evolved over millions of years,” Frederick says. “The threat of losing his partner evoked jealousy in Sickles, which drove him to confront the potential threat to his relationship. Cultural context is also important to consider to understand emotions. Sickles not only faced the threat to his relationship, but he risked being viewed as weak and someone who could be disrespected by others if he didn’t act. The harm to his social reputation if he didn’t act may have further fueled his anger.”

“My Jealousy, my pride, my anger.”

The tempestuous relationship of Hollywood glam couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton captivated the tabloids for more than 10 years. In a 1974 love letter recently auctioned, Taylor, the legendary leading lady, attempts to express her jealousy to her philandering husband and frequent leading man, Burton.

“My darling (my still) My husband. I wish I could tell you of my love for you, of my fear, my delight, my pure animal pleasure of you — (with you) — my jealousy, my pride, my anger at you, at times. Most of all my love for you, and whatever love you can dole out to me — I wish I could write about it but I can’t. I can only ‘boil and bubble’ inside and hope you understand how I really feel. Anyway I lust thee, Your (still) Wife. P.S. O’Love, let us never take each other for granted again! P.P.S. How about that — 10 years!!”

Alas, Taylor didn’t quite hit the mark, Bevan says.

“Elizabeth is being very indirect here, so it’s very possible that Richard does not even know she is jealous! If she really wants to get her point across, she would be clear with him about the fact that she is jealous. But jealousy is a complicated experience, and Elizabeth does a wonderful job of illustrating that – she is jealous about him, angry with him, in love with him, and attracted to him, all at once. These are all things that a jealous person can feel.”

 “That wasn’t flying. That was falling with style!”

Toy Story’s Buzz and Woody are like jealous siblings vying for Andy’s affection. Woody sets out to embarrass Buzz, mocks his name (“Buzz Light-Beer”), his aerial ability and so on. It feels like a toxic relationship, but Bevan assures us it’s not. “A lot of platonic relationships can involve jealousy, even though we tend to focus on jealousy in romantic partnerships,” Bevan says. “This is akin to sibling rivalry, in which two children are competing for parental affection and attention, which are seen by the children as finite. A lot of younger children act out their rivalry by teasing and being aggressive, similar to how Woody acts. I bet that a lot of younger children watching this movie recognized these behaviors in their own sibling relationships. The fact that it ends with them being so close is a great message for children — and people of all ages!

“It’s going to wake you up.”

Jealousy is often a vital plot device in situation comedies and helps lead to happy endings. Bevan’s research finds that a pang of mild romantic jealousy, or the platonic variety of Toy Story fame, can lead to happy endings in real life, too. But it’s all in how it’s communicated.

“If communicated in a constructive way — open and honest, explaining and sharing jealous feelings without being accusatory and angry — a small amount of jealousy is not a bad thing,” Bevan says. “Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist, has a quote about jealousy that I love, and that I subscribe to: ‘A little bit of jealousy in a healthy relationship is fine. It’s going to wake you up. When you’re reminded that your mate is attractive and that you’re lucky, it can stimulate you to be nicer and friendlier.’”

Why Study Jealousy?

Impact motivates Professor Jennifer Bevan, who notes that jealousy has been linked to lower relationship satisfaction and commitment, and is a major cause of conflict and relationship break-ups. In the extreme, jealousy is a significant predictor of intimate partner violence, psychological abuse and stalking, adds Bevan, Ph.D., director of the Master’s Program in Health and Strategic Communication at Chapman.

Professor David Frederick wants to shed light on human behavior. Most recently he published a major study revealing the key factors that fire up jealousy. He discovered that heterosexual men are much more likely to be vexed by sexual infidelity, while their female counterparts are more resentful of emotional infidelity.

Chalk it up to evolutionary biology, says Frederick, whose study was published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior. Males want to guarantee that the kids eating up their hard-earned bread and butter are in fact their offspring. Females tend to perceive emotional infidelity as a greater threat than sexual cheating because of the risk they’ll be left alone with all those hungry kids.

Frederick did not find similar results among male and female bisexuals and homosexuals.

His is the first large-scale examination of such gender and sexual orientation and was based on a poll of nearly 64,000 Americans collected through an online survey.

Dawn Bonker

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