No one wants to be abandoned by their romantic partner. But in some relationships,jealousy or possessiveness threatens to drive people apart. When jealousy is fueled by insecurity and turns into possessiveness, a relationship may take an unwanted turn. You probably don’t want to feel owned, and your partner likely desires at least some autonomy.
Recent research illuminates how cultures and genders exhibit possessive behaviors. Evolutionary psychologists assert that complex human behaviors can be traced to their roots in protecting the species. Relationship researchers focus on mate guarding, a term that refers to an organism’s tendency to defend its territory, including its sexual partner. According to psychologists Abraham Buunk and Alejandro Castro Solano, some birds (e.g. bank swallows) may stalk their mate, spying on them as often as 100 times a day. Buunk and Solano’s work specifically addresses the possibility that cultural influences shape whether and how humans express possessive tendencies toward our partners.
Different societies have different norms. Mate guarding among human groups ranges from keeping constant tabs on a mate (like a bank swallow) to executing females who commit adultery, where it is considered a “crime of honor.” Although most studies of mate guarding have focused on males, one study surveying 137 societies conducted in the 1980s found that arguments over men were the main reason that women fought with each other. Women exhibited similar levels of jealous emotions—such as anger and aggression—as did men toward the thought of their partners becoming unfaithful.
Possessiveness can be traced to evolutionary roots, but many suspect that socialization and personality also influence whether a man or woman tries to control a partner’s behavior. In Western cultures, men do not prevent their partners from meeting other men, and may even accept the idea that their partners occasionally (and innocently) flirt; in many Islamic cultures, however, women are veiled and prohibited from interacting with men.
To explain these variations, Buunk and Solano posit that mate guarding is more likely to occur in societies in which arranged marriages are the norm. When people are not free to choose who they marry, they may require more protection to ensure that someone they do love will not come along and threaten the marriage. As Buunk and Solano state, “as one knows that the spouse did not enter the marriage out of love, one may perceive a high risk that the spouse might become sexually involved with, or might fall in love with, someone else” (p. 105). Their theory is that when people choose each other on the basis of love, they will be less concerned with the possibility that their partner will pursue a rival.
To test their hypothesis, Buunk and Solano surveyed one sample of exchange students in the Netherlands, and one sample of Argentinians ranging from 18 to 41 in age, 64% of whom were already partnered. Participants rated their perceived degree of parental influence over their choice of mate and their perception of how much parental influence was considered normative in their home country.
These 8 items were on the possessiveness scale. Participants rated each from 5 (very much applicable) to 1 (not applicable):
- I do not want my partner to meet too many people of the opposite sex.
- It is not acceptable to me if my partner sees people of the opposite sex on a friendly basis.
- I demand from my partner that he/she does not look at other women/men.
- I am quite possessive with respect to my partner.
- I do not want my partner to go his/her own way.
- I demand from my partner that he/she does not flirt with other men/women.
- I prefer it that my partner does not leave the house alone.
- I have the feeling my partner is mine, and that others have to keep their hands off him/her.
The average score of all participants on this scale was right in the middle (approximately 2.5 per item, or a total of 20 on all items). However, people scored higher on this score if they perceived their parents to have an influence on their partner choice. Moreover, this effect was stronger among people who closely identified with their own culture of origin’s family values. Most important, the findings were similar for men and women.
Women and men share the responsibility for possessiveness and jealousy in a relationship. Moreover, the findings illustrate the important role of family values in influencing behaviors associated with personality characteristics such as anxious attachment—the fear of being abandoned by your partner. Some speculate that people would be more possessive of partners they perceived as attractive, and who might be the target of others. However, there was a zero correlation between perceived partner attractiveness and individuals' feelings of possessiveness toward that partner.
If you score high on the possessiveness scale (or your partner does), it might mean that you and/or your partner have a "jealousy-predisposing" personality. Consider how your own cultural background influences the feelings that you and your partner have toward possessiveness. You may be mapping your own cultural attitudes in a way that causes undue worry and may harm your relationship's future.
Understand how your culture influences your personality and relationship to pinpoint the origins of your feelings toward your partner. Your greater awareness will help you get more fulfilment out of that relationship without worrying about losing it.