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Green-Eyed Monster: Good Security Guard or Bad Insecurity Signal?


It's not that the 43-year-old woman has men fawning over her like parking valets over a sleek Jaguar. She is, she said flatly, overweight in a world of fitness-obsessed, lithe-bodied women. Besides, she is not interested in an extramarital affair or idle flirting. All of which, she said, makes her husband's behavior seem ridiculous.

Most recently, the woman ran into a married male friend at a party. When she noticed he had the same eyeglasses, they chatted and compared their modish eyewear, then went about mingling. Later, the woman's husband asked rather snidely: "Did you two buy your glasses together? What did you two talk about?" As a final barb, he added that the friend looked nerdy.

"He is jealous," the woman said. "I will think, 'C'mon, you are a grown man!' Twenty years we have been together. I am very secure and happy with my husband. I am not going anywhere. When I am talking to someone, it is just because I am just talking to them."

Jealousy is an emotion as old as cave life, a highly sensitive, mate-defection system that evolved to sound the alarm whenever a hint of potential infidelity stirs, explained David Buss, author of "The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy Is as Necessary as Love And Sex" (Free Press, 2000). Ancestral man could not be sure of the paternity of his children, writes Buss, so he learned to jealously guard against "mate poachers" to avoid spending hard-earned resources on a rival's children. Ancestral woman, on the other hand, learned to vigilantly scan the environment for wily females wooing away her mate and his resources, which would leave her alone with her brood.

Modern-day humans are still highly attuned to potential threats to a valued relationship, said Buss, whose book exhaustively explores the roots and motivations of jealousy.

One need not be a babe to inspire jealousy. In Buss' studies of jealousy and married couples, he found objective attractiveness to be irrelevant. "What triggered jealousy in married couples was an over-perception of a mate's attractiveness," said Buss, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Texas in Austin. He asked married couples to judge their mate's attractiveness, then compared the scores with an objective interviewer's attractiveness ratings. "When mates over-perceive a partner's attractiveness, it increased what I call 'mate guarding' behavior, which ranges from increased vigilance to violence," Buss said.

Pathological jealousy, of course, is dangerous. It can lead to spousal beating (94% of wives in one study cited jealousy as a frequent cause of their beatings), psychological abuse and, in the worst case, murder. Delusions that a mate is having an affair are also destructive; mistrust, hostility and sheer fantasy can lead the accused mate to break up the relationship. Buss acknowledges all this, but he argues there is a bright side to jealousy.

Buss' somewhat benign view of mild jealousy is not held by everyone who studies the phenomenon. "Jealously stinks," said Paul Hauk, a clinical psychologist in Rock Island, Ill., and author of "Overcoming Jealousy and Possessiveness" (Westminster, 1992). "Jealousy is a problem that comes from low self-esteem and feelings of inferiority. If you have a partner who is jealous," he said, "drop them like a hot potato."

But Buss argues that jealousy can work to inflame passion. One clinical study found that 17% of women reported experiencing invigorated sexual desire after episodes of female jealousy. In another study, conducted at Indiana State University, researchers found that men said they paid more attention to their partners and tried to do something special for her following a bout of male jealousy.

For some people, a partner's desirability is reconfirmed when another person shows interest, which can lead to anything from an armload of flowers to a round of steamy sex.

Men and women are equally jealous, said Buss. Men become jealous more easily over triggers of sexual infidelity. Women are more jealous over signs of emotional involvement. And both genders admit to intentionally evoking jealousy in a partner, a behavior most common in the early, testing phases of a relationship.

In one study, 31% of women and 17% of men reported intentionally eliciting jealousy in a romantic partner. Women's tactics involved discussing an attraction to other men, dating others, lying about being attracted to others and talking about a former boyfriend. Then there is the ambiguous smile, said Buss. When a woman smiles at another man, it throws her partner into an interpretive quandary. Men often mistake a woman's friendly smile for romantic interest, according to one study, while women report they are just being friendly. "Men have a lower threshold for inferring sexual interest in ambiguous signals like a smile," Buss said.

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