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Threats to romantic relationships: How they are perceived and how they are guarded against in an uncommon mate market


The study of jealousy from an adaptationist perspective is dominated by the hypothesis that 1) relationship threats are either sexual or emotional in nature, and 2) there are sex differences in response to these threats. While there is considerable support for sex differences in response to researcher-created stimuli, the notion that people spontaneously conceive of threats as either sexual or emotional threats is untested. Using an unobtrusive, mixed-methods design, I mapped the cognitive space of jealousy. Contrary to conventional supposition, the sexual-emotional distinction is not a primary means of threat organization; instead, threats are organized by 1) their severity, 2) the presence of a specific rival versus a partner's disinterest, and 3) a partner's deceptive actions versus their honesty. A sexual-emotional distinction, if present, is not among the principle means of threat organization. In addition to the analysis of an aggregate population, I also provide analysis of several comparison subpopulations.

Because jealousy is an adaptive response to a (suspected) loss to a romantic rival, a facultative response should account for the traits of rivals in the local mating environment. Using the same unobtrusive, mixed-methods design as the study described above, I evaluated the prediction that jealousy responds facultatively. Specifically, men with many attractive -- and, therefore, threatening -- rivals are more attentive to their partners' deceptive actions and to their partner's intentions to stay or leave the mateship. Women with many sexually-accessible -- and, therefore, threatening -- rivals are more attentive to their partners' deceptive actions.

To avoid the costs of a mate's infidelity, "fidelity" is predicted to rank highly among a suite of reproductive success-enhancing traits. Specifically, I predicted that men would highly value "sexual fidelity" and women would highly value "emotional fidelity". I evaluated community and university members' responses to a zero-sum allocation task using various quantitative statistics. My predictions were largely supported: Both community and university men highly valued sexual fidelity in a mate. Additional analysis revealed university men were an adequate proxy for community men vis-à-vis mate preferences. Data from community women supported the prediction by highly valuing emotional fidelity in a mate. Conversely, university women most valued sexual fidelity; they least-valued cues of resource acquisition, counter to standard sexual selection logic and multiple previous studies of university women. This suggested the presence of an uncommon mate market affecting university women's preferences.

To describe how an uncommon mate market affected university women's preferences, I conducted long-form, semi-structured interviews, analyzed with framework analysis. The prime mover of university women's mate preferences appears to be the demography and geography of Isla Vista, affecting women's intrasexual competitive tactics and men's responses to them. In this mate market, women find themselves in the uncommon position of being able to use a man's sexual fidelity -- typically a noisy signal -- as an honest signal of his devotion to the mateship.

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