TEMPE, Ariz. — Jealousy is not something most people think of as being a good quality in any kind of relationship. Despite its poor reputation, researchers from Arizona State University say jealous feelings can actually help strengthen friendships. Their study finds jealousy even motivates some people to behave differently because of the value they place on their friends.
“Friends aren’t just fun. They are an important resource, especially in our current situation with ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks. Friends give support during conflict, buffer against loneliness, and can even provide life-sustaining resources when we need them,” says researcher Jaimie Arona Krems, now an assistant professor of psychology at Oklahoma State University, in a university release.
Study authors discovered that not all threats to a friendship result in someone feeling jealous. For example, when someone’s best friend moves away, the study notes that friends typically feel more sadness than anything else.
As many might expect, jealous feelings tend to arise when another person enters the picture. A friend having a new romantic interest, developing a new friendship, or getting a new colleague at work can spark envy in another person. Researchers call this a “third-party threat.”
How jealousy helps and hurts our relationships
The President’s Professor of psychology at ASU, Douglas Kenrick, explains that the threat people feel from these relationship triangles comes from the one friend outside of the new connection who believes they could be replaced by their friend. Oddly enough, most people are more worried a pal will spend more time with a new friend, rather than a new lover.
“The third party threats to a friendship were not just related to a best friend spending time away from us: It mattered whether the person they were spending time with could replace us as a friend,” the study’s author says. “We found people felt less jealous about their best friend spending the same amount of time with a new romantic partner than a new acquaintance, which means what makes us most jealous of is the possibility that we might be replaced.”
Due to the threat felt by one friend, they may try to manipulate their friendship by monopolizing the friend’s time and emotions. Study authors call this “friend guarding” and it can be detrimental to the relationship. However, on the positive end of the spectrum, feeling that you’re losing a friend can cause someone to be a better friend.
“Getting jealous can sometimes be a signal that a friendship is threatened, and this signal can help us jump into action to invest in a friendship that we might have been neglecting,” says study author Athena Aktipis.
The study is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.