Jealousy Gender Essay

“It is not love that is blind, but jealousy,” according to the writer Lawrence Durrell. Still, this ugly but durable emotion has served a vital evolutionary purpose. Jealousy is defined as a fear and rage response that preserves romantic bonds between sexual partners. Its function, it is believed, is to curb infidelity between parents, which advances the survival of their children and their subsequent reproductive success.

Romantic jealously is widely understood to be different for men and women because each gender has a different level of investment in reproduction. For a man to provide for genetically distant children decreases his reproductive success—and because men are uncertain whether they really are the father of said children, they are most susceptible to sexual infidelity. By contrast, women can rest assured that they are the mother of their own children; however, they are more dependent on men for resources, making them more sensitive to emotional infidelity, since it could threaten the supply of resources for herself and her child. While many subscribe to this view, the research has been inconclusive: Some studies attribute sex differences in romantic jealousy to cultural forces, while others have observed no gender differences.

Recently, a team led by Hasse Walum of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden broke new ground. He and his collaborators investigated if there were gender differences when it came to romantic jealousy, but they also wondered whether there's a genetic component. That question hadn't yet been tested, and thanks to a gold-mine research sample comprised of 1,048 monozygotic twins, 1,129 same-sex dizygotic twins, and 1,020 opposite-sex dizygotic twins, they were able to pursue it. (Monozygotic twins share 100 percent of their genes; dizygotic twins share on average 50 percent).

Participants were presented with two hypothetical infidelity scenarios:

  • Sexual jealousy: "You suspect that while your boyfriend/girlfriend was on vacation s/he had a one night stand. You realize that even if s/he did have sex with this other person, they will probably never see each other again. How upset do you think you would feel if this happened?’”
  • Emotional jealousy: "You suspect that while your boyfriend/girlfriend was on a trip s/he fell in love with someone else. You realize that even if s/he did develop these feelings, s/he will probably never see this other person again. How upset do you think you would feel if this happened?’”

Participants were asked to answer these questions along a 10-point scale, ranging from 1 (not at all) to 10 (extremely).

When Walum and his team crunched the numbers, what did they find? Consistent with prior research, women reported higher levels of jealousy on both measures, and both men and women scored higher on sexual jealousy than on emotional jealousy.

However, men reported greater jealousy in response to sexual infidelity than to emotional infidelity. These findings square with the theory that men and women differ when it comes to types of jealousy—that is, sexual vs. emotional.

The results also revealed that genetics was a significant factor—accounting for 30 percent of the equation. Yet there were no differences between men and women when it came to jealousy on a genetic level.

The authors highlight that their study provides additional evidence that men and women probably process infidelity differently. From an evolutionary perspective, it could result from exposure to different "selection pressures" over the course of human evolution. And their finding that genetic factors play a role in romantic jealousy is in keeping with previous research establishing a relationship between genes and other mating behaviors, including marital quality, monogamy, and the probability of divorce. While the investigators acknowledge the limitations of the study and future research directions, their findings lend more insight into a cruel component of human nature. 

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Vinita Mehta, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist in Washington, DC, and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. Mehta provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults. She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse. She is also the author of Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.

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Jealousy, famously described as “the green-eyed monster” in the tragedy Othello, has proven to be a theme of perennial interest among Shakespearean scholars. Although commentators acknowledge that jealousy is a contributing element in Shakespeare's characterization of such figures as Richard III and Macbeth, criticism on this theme focuses primarily on two plays: Othello and The Winter's Tale. Uncontrolled sexual jealousy and its tragic consequences are generally viewed as the central thematic concern of the former play, in which both the drama's protagonist, the Moorish general Othello, and his manipulative subordinate Iago are thought to embody jealousy in its most obsessive and superlative dimensions. Sexual jealousy also plays an integral role in the plot of The Winter's Tale. In the romance, jealousy afflicts King Leontes of Sicily, whose unfounded assumption of his wife's infidelity with his childhood friend and fellow monarch Polixenes leads to near disaster and the loss of Leontes's wife and daughter for sixteen years. Outlining some of the major concerns of contemporary critics on the subject of jealousy in Shakespeare's dramas, Katharine Eisaman Maus (1987) surveys the close connection between male sexual jealousy, as it is depicted in Renaissance literature, and issues of gender, marginality, exclusion, and spectatorship. Derek Cohen (1987) explores similar themes in both Othello and The Winter's Tale, specifically regarding the destructive link between patriarchy and male sexual anxiety exhibited by Othello and Leontes, who both abuse their virtuous and honorable wives.

Perhaps no other Shakespearean drama is so dominated by the theme of jealousy as the tragedy of Othello. While a number of other issues are explored in the drama, few commentators deny its detailed, subtle, and varied preoccupation with this motif. Kenneth Muir (1972) concentrates on the figures of Othello and Iago, considering their differing connections to the theme of jealousy. The relationship between Othello and Iago is the topic of Ruth M. Levitsky's essay (1974), in which she contrasts Iago's suspicious, Machiavellian, and ultimately jealous personality with Othello's credulity and Desdemona's virtue. Actor David Suchet, who played the role of Iago for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1985, suggests in his 1988 essay that this character's somewhat obscure motivation to do evil originates in his envious reactions to the other principal figures of the play. Feminist theory and psychoanalysis inform Edward A. Snow's (1980) study of Othello's sexual anxiety and jealousy. Snow contends that a male-dominated social order conditions Othello's uncontrolled emotions of guilt and desire, feelings that become manifest in his violent and jealous rage toward his wife. Michael W. Shurgot (1992) articulates a similar view by focusing on the striking imagery of Othello's possessive, objectifying, and grotesque verbal references to Desdemona. Millicent Bell (see Further Reading) offers an alternative interpretation of jealousy in Othello. Acknowledging that sexual jealousy is the principal subject of the drama, Bell nevertheless contends that it is actually a device Shakespeare employed to emphasize an epistemological theme associated with Othello's paradoxical reliance on and distrust of appearances.

Critical interest in the figure of King Leontes of The Winter's Tale has principally focused on his sudden, seemingly unjustified fit of sexual jealousy. Suspecting his wife Hermione of marital infidelity with his friend Polixenes, Leontes assumes he has been cuckolded and subsequently denies the legitimacy of his daughter based on little or no readily observable evidence. Twentieth-century debate over whether or not Leontes's jealousy is properly motivated remains one of play’s central areas of controversy, and a number of contemporary scholars offer explanations for the king's strange, somewhat implausible behavior. Representing a minority opinion, Norman Nathan (1968) maintains that Leontes's swift attack of jealousy may have been provoked by his perception of sexual innuendo in the banter between Hermione and Polixenes. Most contemporary commentators, however, have generally categorized Leontes's jealousy as a kind of temporary madness. Murray M. Schwartz (1973) contends that Shakespeare's text offers no significant external cause for jealousy, but that a psychoanalytic understanding of Leontes's paranoid and delusional behavior over the course of The Winter's Tale suggests an overall dramatic consistency. J. P. Thorne (see Further Reading) finds additional support for this point of view in the peculiar, ungrammatical stylistic syntax of the Sicilian king's speeches in the first act of the drama. Richard H. Abrams (1986) also favors an explanation that ties Leontes's jealousy to his abandonment of reason, which is later recovered in his reconciliation with Hermione and his daughter Perdita at the end of the play.

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