Surprisingly this negative feeling may help your friendships

Jealousy is pretty much universally considered a negative attribute. No one likes to admit they are jealous of someone else, let alone a close friend. Surprisingly, though, a new study from Arizona State University finds that a little bit of jealousy on one end of a friendship can end up being a good thing.

We’re all naturally social creatures, and keeping at least a few close friends has long been linked to improved health outcomes, both mentally and physically. That being said, maintaining a friendship for years or even decades isn’t always easy. 

“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,” explains study co-author Jaimie Arona Krems, who earned her doctorate at Arizona State University and is now an assistant professor of psychology at Oklahoma State University, in a release. “We wanted to understand how we keep friendships, and we found feelings of jealousy can act like a tool for maintaining friendships.”

How does jealousy help maintain friendships? When we feel like we’re being replaced in a friendship by someone else, it often motivates us to take “friendship preserving actions” we normally wouldn’t. Furthermore, jealousy over a friend spending more time with other people can cause us to place more value or importance on that friendship. 

As the old saying goes, you don’t really appreciate what you have until it’s gone.

Imagine you’ve been best friends with Billy for the past 10 years. Well, Billy is suddenly hanging out almost every night with Jim, his new pal from work. After a few weeks of Billy blowing off your phone calls, you’re starting to feel pretty jealous of Jim. Consequently, you start to realize just how much your friendship with Billy means to you. 

So, what do you do to try and re-establish your friendship with Bill? The research team says that when people feel like a “third-party” is moving in and replacing them in a friendship, they’ll often turn to somewhat underhanded tactics such as purposely taking up all of their friend’s time and even manipulating 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,” says Keelah Williams, an assistant professor of psychology at Hamilton College who earned her doctorate and law degree at ASU.

However, the team at ASU made it a point to emphasize that not all friend guarding behaviors are nefarious or dishonest. In many cases, the jealousy people feel when they see their friends hanging out with new acquaintances simply motivates them to be better friends.

“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,” notes co-author Athena Aktipis, assistant professor of psychology at ASU.

Now, it’s also important to stress that not all threats to a friendship illicit the same levels of jealousy. For instance, in scenarios in which a person’s good friend moved far away, that individual would usually feel more sad than jealous. 

What seems to kickstart people’s jealousy and subsequent friendship-maintaining actions is when we feel like our role as a friend is being threatened. Among studied individuals, levels of jealousy varied greatly depending on just how much the person felt like they were being replaced. So, people usually felt more jealous about their friend hanging out with a new platonic acquaintance as opposed to a new girlfriend or boyfriend.

“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. 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,” comments study co-author Douglas Kenrick, a President’s Professor of psychology at ASU.

In conclusion, it’s not so much the jealousy that’s beneficial when it comes to maintaining friendships as it is the actions our jealous feelings motivate us to take. It’s human nature to take the good things in our lives for granted, but a friendship is like a garden; it isn’t going to flourish and thrive without some effort.

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.