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Can jealousy be good for a relationship?

By Hayley Krischer, upwave
updated 9:02 AM EST, Tue February 18, 2014
Jealousy is in our evolutionary past, but how much is too much?
Jealousy is in our evolutionary past, but how much is too much?
  • There are evolutionary reasons jealousy is healthy in relationships
  • When jealousy is "chronic, debilitating and overt," then it's a problem
  • Too much jealousy can be a sign of insecurity in the relationship

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(upwave) -- When I first met my (now) husband, Andy, he had a close female friend. I'll call her Donna. Donna and Andy went to the movies together. They went out for dinner. They caught a baseball game with another couple -- while I was out of town. I asked to meet Donna many times, but kept getting the runaround for one reason or another. "I think it's weird that I haven't met her yet, and I think she's deciding if she's in love with you," I told Andy. He said I was crazy. That they were friends. "I know you might be 'just friends' with her," I replied. "But I don't think she's 'just friends' with you." Jealousy boiled up inside me.

As it turns out, I wasn't wrong. When Andy and I had been together for a few months, he invited Donna to his birthday party so she could "finally" meet me. Not only did she not show up, but they never spoke again. Clearly, Donna wasn't interested in having a platonic relationship with Andy. I'd had a reason to be jealous.

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The rumor: Romantic jealousy doesn't bode well for relationships

Romantic jealousy served an evolutionary purpose: It motivated our ancestors to prevent mate poaching, according to research published in a 2013 study. (Example: You start to follow woman into cave. I freak out. I threaten to sic saber-toothed tiger on you. You don't go into cave with woman.) Yet, jealousy still fits into our modern-day world as a "justified emotional response to losing someone," wrote study author Mark Attridge. Which explains why I felt the way I did when I thought Donna might be making a play for my future husband. But do the findings about jealousy tell us it's good for a relationship?

upwave: Tips for banishing the relationship blahs

The verdict: Jealousy can be good for romantic relationships... in very, very small doses

"A little bit of jealousy in a healthy relationship is fine," says biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, Ph.D., author of "Why We Love." "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."

upwave: How to be lucky in love

However, when jealousy is chronic, debilitating and overt -- well, that's when it becomes a problem, Fisher says. (Think: "Jersey Shore." But don't think too hard, because it might scar your brain.)

Lauren Papp, Ph.D., a University of Wisconsin human development and family studies professor who has extensively researched intimate relationships, agrees. "[Chronic jealousy] is not a positive sign for the relationship. It might be tempting to think that someone is more interested in you, or cares for you more, because they express more jealousy or possessive behavior. But jealousy really is a negative sign of insecurity in the relationship."

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