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Jealousy in friendships isn’t always a bad thing, according to new research

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Hollie Richardson
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Jealousy in friendships.

New research has discovered that feelings of jealousy can actually be a useful tool in maintaining friendships.

Jealousy has always been an inevitable part of some friendships.

Many people reading this will have felt the pang of jealousy after spotting a photo of a pal with their new partner on Instagram. Or have perhaps experienced those conflicting feelings of envy and happiness for a friend who finds a new best friend at work. And then there are the confusing times when a friendship group hangs out somewhere without inviting you along. 

However, despite it being so common among friendships, there’s a bit of a taboo when it comes to admitting these kinds of feelings. No one wants to be known as the green-eyed monster in the group, right?

But new research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that a little bit of jealousy can actually bring something positive to some friendships.

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Researchers from Arizona State University, Oklahoma State University and Hamilton College have found that feelings of jealousy in friendships are related to the value of the friendship and also motivate behaviors that maintain them. 

According to the study, when friendships are threatened by another person – such as a new romantic partner or new friend at work – jealousy is the dominant feeling. The intensity of jealous feelings vary by how likely the third-party threat is to replace someone in the friendship. 

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“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,” explained Douglas Kenrick, who is a professor of psychology at ASU and an author on the paper.

“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.”

Jealousy in female friendship
Female friendship: research suggests that jealously can help maintain a good friendship.

Feelings of jealousy over being replaced are associated with behaviours that could overcome the third-party threats, like trying to monopolise a best friend’s time and manipulate their emotions.

“Together, these behaviors are called ‘friend guarding’, and they occur across cultures and also in non-human animals. Female wild horses are known to bite and kick other female horses,” said Keelah Williams, assistant professor of psychology at Hamilton College.

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However, not all friend guarding behaviors focus on trying to control a best friend: jealousy also leads people to committing to being 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,” said Athena Aktipis, assistant professor of psychology at ASU and author on the paper.

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Ultimately: yes, it’s perfectly normal to feel a little jealous when a new person enters a friendship circle, and that’s quite reassuring to know. It could even prompt you to commit to making more time to see the friend or to ask how they are. 

Just try to understand your feelings, communicate with your friend and don’t let the envy ruin things.

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Hollie Richardson

Hollie is a digital writer at Stylist.co.uk, mainly covering the daily news on women’s issues, politics, celebrities and entertainment. She also keeps an ear out for the best podcast episodes to share with readers. Oh, and don’t even get her started on Outlander…