When it comes to jealousy, men and women aren’t always on the same page. Previous studies have shown that, while men are more likely to see red over a partner’s sexual infidelity, women are more upset by emotional cheating. Evolutionary psychologists theorize that the difference is rooted in the sexes’ historical roles—men wanted to guarantee that their partners were carrying their children, while women needed to feel secure that they and their children would be cared for by a committed partner. Yet, that evolutionary explanation doesn’t account for a large subset of men who say that emotional disloyalty is more upsetting than sexual infidelity, and women who are more upset by sexual betrayal.
To gain a more nuanced understanding of gender and jealousy, researchers from Pennsylvania State University approached the issue with some modern psychology. In a study published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers found that, while generally speaking, the evolutionary explanation of gender and jealousy held up, when viewed through the lens of attachment theory—broadly, the psychological theory about our tendency to foster intimate relationships with other people—both men and women with secure emotional histories were more likely to experience jealousy over emotional infidelity, and those who were insecure or dismissing, were more likely to be riled by sexual cheating.
To tackle the issue, researchers recruited 416 college students from New York City, whose attachment styles were assessed through questionnaires containing a series of vignettes—each reflecting either secure, fearful, preoccupied, or dismissing attachment styles. Participants were instructed to select the story that most accurately reflected their own attitude about romantic relationships, and were categorized accordingly. In a subsequent questionnaire, participants were asked whether they would be more upset by their partner “having passionate sexual intercourse with another person,” or “forming a deep emotional attachment to another person.”
They found that, regardless of gender, 77.3% of securely attached participants viewed emotional infidelity as more upsetting, while 64.8% of insecure or dismissing participants thought sexual cheating was worse. These findings, the authors say, shed light on the intricate psychological nature of jealousy, and may help to develop techniques to determine the underlying dynamics of sexual jealousy—a well documented cause of spousal abuse, battering and even homicide. The authors suggest that, gaining a better understanding of not only the broad differences in jealousy between the sexes, but of the differences in jealousy within genders, may help to identify methods for interrupting abuse by fostering stable, secure attachments.