Jealousy, wealth and education level: How they affect our intimate relationships

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Jealousy is often considered a normal part of romantic relationships in Kenya, and even as a sign of love – there is a high social tolerance, and sometimes expectation for it.

From our teenage years onward, most of us learn that if your partner is not jealous of other men or women around you, then they don't really love you.

But close control and monitoring of the behaviour of a spouse is known to be an important warning sign for physical and emotional violence in a relationship.

The most destructive of emotions, jealousy, often flares with such intensity that is blurs the lines of rationality in the brain, pushing us to extreme or uncharacteristic outbursts, and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that pushes away the very person one desires the most.

Data from the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (2014) reveals that jealousy is highly prevalent in marital relationships in Kenya, expressed in the form of getting angry when your spouse talks to a person of the opposite sex, frequent accusations of unfaithfulness, trying to limit your partner's contact with family, or not allowing the spouse to meet their same-sex friends, and insisting on knowing where your partner is at all times.

The researchers say the concentration of such behaviour is more noteworthy than the display of any single one, and so a partner having three or more specified actions above would be a red flag.

About a quarter (24.5 per cent) of ever-married women aged 15-49 surveyed said their spouses displayed three or more of these controlling habits – the most common was jealousy or anger if they talked to other men (53 per cent) of women said their men got jealous or angry), followed by insisting on knowing where they were at all times (41 per cent).

The next common ones were husbands who frequently accused them of being unfaithful (23 per cent) and don't allow them to meet their female friends (21 per cent). About 11 per cent of women said that their husbands tried to limit contact with their family.

The women were then asked if they were ever afraid of their husbands or partners. Notably, among women who said that they were afraid of their husbands most of the time, the proportion who report that their husbands display three or more of these controlling habits is twice as high (53 per cent) than among all women in general.

Jealous husbands are most common in Coast and Nairobi, with about 33 per cent of women saying their husbands displayed three or more controlling traits.

The relationship between jealousy, education and wealth was more mixed, with women earning cash salaries more likely to experience jealousy from their spouses, compared to those who were unemployed or were employed but not paid in cash.

But jealousy isn't a preserve of men, women in Kenya too, are possessive, get angry if their men speak to other women, and try and limit a man's contact with his family and friends.

Less likely to escalate

What is interesting is that the data suggests that women are more likely than men to display at least one controlling behaviour. What is different is that women are less likely to escalate their jealousy and go ahead to display three or more controlling traits.

For male respondents, 22 per cent of them report being in a relationship where the wife or partner displays three or more controlling habits. This, interestingly, is just slightly lower than women who report the same (24.5 per cent), which means jealousy and possessiveness is perpetrated by both men and women in relationships.

Similar to women, the main controlling behaviour men (58 per cent) experience from their wives were jealousy and anger if they talked to other women, even higher than women who reported the same at 53 per cent, and their wives insisting on knowing where they were at all times (43 per cent, again higher than women who reported the same at 41 per cent).

One in three (30 per cent) of men reported that their women frequently accused them of being unfaithful, but wives were much less likely than husbands to try and limit their spouse's contact with friends and family, because all men have much more physical mobility than women – men, socially and culturally, are not expected to stay in the house, they should be "out there" looking for money. With this, women's controlling habits in total are less than that of men.

Men in their early twenties (33 per cent)) and men who live in the Coast and Nyanza (29-30 per cent) are more likely report that their partners display three or more controlling traits.

Intriguingly, the more educated a man is, the more likely he is to report controlling behaviour from his wife – the wife's jealousy lowest among men with no education compared to those with some education (14 percent compared with 22-23 percent), possibly because the "patriarchal ideal" of a dominant man is less held less strongly as education increases. But the effect of wealth is more mixed.

Psychological view

But where does jealousy come from, and why does it torment human relationships so? Psychologists often pin it on poor attachment styles, where, from infancy, a person has not learned to love and be loved in secure ways. Instead, they are prone to anxiety in love, and will act out those distressing feelings that are really about the fear of abandonment.

But some argue it may be a "necessary evil", a survival mechanism that has its roots in our evolutionary past. Its purpose was to help maintain and regulate intimate relationships, crucial to our survival as a social species.

It serves a potential deterrent to infidelity that arises in both men and women, a form of social coercion that arose to keep men from the reproductive dead-end of investing his finite resources in raising some other man's children, and women from losing the commitment and material provision of a man.

Still, psychologists say that jealousy may be losing its utility in modern, contemporary life, more useful to our ancestors than us. Our society is more prosperous and abundant, so "locking down" one person's total attention is really not a matter of life and death, unlike in centuries past where hardship was the norm.


Now, jealousy is being seen more as a personality issue, and has been linked with neuroticism, or emotional instability, the liability to such unpleasant emotions as anger, anxiety, and depression. The higher the level of instability, the more one is prone to jealousy.

"The formula for jealousy," says psychologist Steven Stosny, quoted in Psychology Today, "is an insecure person times an insecure relationship." But it's insecure people who tend to destabilise relationships and make them insecure. And a person who is very insecure is not just sexually jealous but jealous of any kind of friendship or even of a child

—"anything that takes attention off them," he adds.

It's a mistake to assume that jealousy always involves love, argues Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, a philosopher who heads Israel's University of Haifa, also quoted in the article written by Hara Estroff Marano.

"A man who despises his wife may nevertheless become jealous when someone else looks covetously at her. Here the central feature is losing to a rival." In this case, he insists, jealousy is much more about power and selfishness than love.

People indeed use jealousy as a signal

—to try to control their partner. But that only makes the relationship worse. "They substitute power for value," Stosny. "They feel a loss of personal value and rather than do something that will make them feel more valuable, they do something that will make them feel more powerful."

Christine Mungai is a writer, journalist and executive editor of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter: @chris_mungai