Jealousy and the Psychology of Arousal

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Reader’s Question

My girlfriend and I recently broke up from a 3-year relationship. During our time together I often was turned on by the thought of her with another guy. It started with getting jealous when she told me of her past sexual encounters and relationships with other guys. As time went on, my jealousy turned into sexual excitement. I found myself asking her details of her past encounters during sex together and later found myself wanting her to cheat on me. It became an obsession of mine and, despite her reluctance (which I was surprised by), she agreed to sleep with another man. The very thought of her agreeing was extremely sexually stimulating. She never did sleep with anyone else and, after a while, the idea lost most of its luster.

I am still very much in love with her, and my jealousy is still a strong turn on. I asked her to tell me about her experiences, if and when she does sleep with someone else, mostly because I feel it’s the only way I can get any sexual relief. I can’t bring myself to fantasize about other women nor do I want to have sex with anyone other than her. She, however, isn’t comfortable even talking about it and (at least for now) has no desire to be with other guys. She never understood my desire to be made to feel jealous, or how I could find it to be a turn on. I myself am still unsure where it stems from. Are my feelings normal, and what is the psychology behind them?

Psychologist’s Reply

Physiological arousal is physiological arousal, regardless of the source. So, whether we’re angry, jealous, afraid, or sexually stimulated, our hearts race, blood pressure increases, and so forth. We create a label for the feeling based on what’s happening to us. If the arousal is the result of something desirable, we call it excitement or being turned on. If not, then we determine what is the more precise name for our feeling upset. For at least 50 years, researchers have recognized that if they subtly caused physiological arousal while individuals were in the presence of an attractive other, the sexual attraction to that other person increased. Why? The theory is that the “extra” arousal is attributed to the sexual arousal the people feel due to their attraction.

From this model, it makes sense that physiological arousal from jealousy sometimes fuels sexual passion, provided there is the context for experiencing sexual arousal during or immediately after the arousal from the jealousy. Indeed, many couples report having passionate “make-up sex” after a fight (and some fights include feelings of jealousy). The explanation is that the arousal from the anger and upset is attributed to sexual arousal, once the couple decides to move from fighting to having sex.

One explanation for why sexual passion seems to run highest at the start of a relationship is that the newness and uncertainty associated with a budding relationship creates physiological arousal, which then gets attributed to sexual arousal due to the attraction and frequent sexual activity. As the relationship matures, however, the novelty and uncertainty decline, which may contribute to the common experience of less wind in the sexual sails. So, when there is a flare up of arousal, from jealousy or other sources, and it occurs in the context of sexual activity, the excitement can become something deemed desirable and worth repeating.

Based on what I’ve described, it may not be surprising to learn that there is a subculture of men who refer to themselves as cuckolds. That is, they enjoy their girlfriends or wives having sex with other men. Some cuckolds prefer to watch such activity, while others only want to hear about it. Presumably knowing that one’s partner is having sex with someone else creates enough jealousy to fan the flames of desire. Cuckolds may also enjoy the realization that their partners are both sexually desirable and desirous. Typically, the extra sex partners are strangers, to ensure that an emotional relationship does not develop. Similar motives and dynamics may explain the appeal of swinging, or partner swapping, by members of yet another subculture.

If there is no chance of resuming your relationship, you’re likely best off shifting your sexual attentions away from your ex-girlfriend. That may seem impossible now, but will become easier with a bit of committed effort. In the bigger picture, now that you know how exciting a dose of jealousy can be, you may want to date women who are at least somewhat open to alternative sexual lifestyles.

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