Why are some spouses and romantic partners so mean to their partner's friends?
Romantic jealousy gets tons of attention. It should. It happens all the time, it can be very intense, and it can motivate even very sensible people to do utterly stupid and embarrassing things. But there is another kind of jealousy that also matters. It, too, is pervasive. It, too, can get ugly. But compared to romantic jealousy, it mostly slips by unnoticed.
Whether you are single or coupled, you have probably seen this happen. Friends get caught in a conflict between two romantic partners. Maybe if you are a single person, you've been that friend. Let's say you're Maria, and you are good friends with Kim, who is in a relationship with Keith. You've been nothing but nice to Keith, but every time Kim wants to spend time with you, Keith whines. (It happens the other way, too – Kim might moan about Keith wanting to hang out with his guy friends.) What's the problem?
Or maybe you are the person in the romantic relationship and you totally adore your romantic partner. You just want to spend some time with your friends. So why does your partner freak out about that?
It is all about jealousy. The other kind of jealousy – of potential romantic rivals – gets all the attention. But now, social psychologists studying relationships have found that friend-jealousy is really important, too. The studies were conducted at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and reported in the article, "A friend of yours is no friend of mine: Jealousy toward a romantic partner's friends," in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
Happily, not everyone who is coupled gets jealous when their partner wants to spend time with friends. So who are the people who are particularly prone to get upset and disparage their partner's friends? The research answers that question, too.
Here are some things you should know about jealousy of friends:
1. The first thing you should know about people who get jealous of their partner's friends is that they are people who say that their romantic relationship is very important to them. In fact, if you ask them the question, "Among things that give your life meaning, how important is your relationship?," they will say that it is one of the most important things, or the most important thing. You know all those love songs with lyrics like, "you are my everything" or "I just want to be your everything"? Those lyrics describe just the kinds of people whose jealousy can be incited in a second.
2. We're not talking about how much you love your partner. Two people can love their partners equally deeply, but only one gets jealous of their partner's friends. The one who doesn't get jealous is not so exclusively dependent on their romantic relationship to give their life meaning. The non-jealous person might think – yes, I love my partner with all my heart, but I have other things in my life I am passionate about, and other people, such as family and friends, I care about a great deal.
3. There's even more to the psychology of being jealous of your partner's friends. It is not enough just to see your partner as smack dab in the center of your life. You can want your partner to be your everything and still not get jealous of your partner's friends if you are secure about your place in your partner's life. The beating heart of jealousy is insecurity.
Some people are insecure about how much their partner loves them and cares about the relationship. Researchers measure that by asking people in romantic relationships how much they agree with statements such as, "My partner is very much in love with me" and "My partner wants our relationship to last for a very long time." The ones who do not give very confident and secure answers to those questions are the ones most likely to get jealous of their partner's friends.
4. Sometimes people who are generally confident about their partner and their relationship get set off by something that stokes their insecurities. For example, in one of the studies the researchers conducted, people in romantic relationships read about other couples and how they interacted with each other when negotiating things like which movie to see. Maybe what they read sounded fine to them. But then they learn that the couple's behavior showed a lack of regard for each other, that couples often overlook the ways in which their partner is not treating them as well as they should be, and that couples often think their relationship is better than it really is. Lots of people, after reading something like that, feel a bit less secure about their own romantic relationship than they did before.
When people in romantic relationships see their partner as the center of their lives, but are not so sure their partner feels the same way about them, friends get caught in the cross-hairs. The psychological logic goes like this: If your partner wants to spend time with friends and maybe even confide in them, that makes you jealous. Those friends are threatening the special, central place that you want to have in your partner's life.
When you hear coupled people saying things like, "I wish my partner would spend less time with his [or her] friends" or "It sometimes bothers me when my partner shares personal information with his [or her] friends" or "Those friends of his [or hers] – they are so aloof (or lazy or judgmental or just about any other mean thing)," you just may be hearing the sounds of insecurity and friend-jealousy.
5. The researchers compared friend-jealousy to the more standard variety of jealousy – jealousy of potential romantic rivals. Romantic-rival jealousy is more intense. Yet jealousy of friends is important, too. It can fill a romantic relationship with conflict and ironically, undermine that relationship. Jealous people want friends out of their partner's life because they want their partner all to themselves. But by making an issue of their partner's friends, and mocking and criticizing them, they are running the risk of driving their partner away. And even if their partner stays in the relationship and gives up some or all of the time that used to be devoted to friends, that partner is probably going to be a little less happy. That's not a very loving thing to do to the person you supposedly care about the most.
6. So to coupled people, next time your partner wants to spend time with friends, maybe consider getting together with your friends. Do it not (just) to make your partner happy and your relationship less tense; do it for yourself. After all, as the researchers reminded us, studies show that married people often find their time with their friends more enjoyable than their time with their spouse.