Differences in Men’s and Women’s Friendships Cause Some Differences in Men’s and Women’s Friendship Jealousy

by Jaimie Arona Krems and Keelah Williams

If you’ve read about Gene and his best friend Phineas in John Knowles’ great American novel A Separate Peace, the women alums of Vassar’s class of ’33 in Mary McCarthy’s The Group—or work from Elena Ferrante, Sally Rooney, or pretty much any other author describing dyadic friendships in their wider social world—you’ve read about friendship jealousy. (See also the hilarious ‘Best Friend Toast’ scene from the movie Bridesmaids.) Just as romantic jealousy protects our romantic relationships from third-party threats (e.g., partners defecting to a third party, a third party poaching our partners), we’ve found that third-party threats to our friendships can give rise to feelings of friendship jealousy. But there are some differences in how friendship jealousy plays out across sex/gender.


Of course, as with many phenomena, men and women have more in common than not when it comes to friendship jealousy. We expected—and found upon re-analyzing some of the data from our previous work in U.S. samples—that the inputs and outputs of the friendship jealousy system are the same across sex/gender. The inputs to our friendship jealousy deal primarily with the value of the friend and threat of losing the friend. That is, feelings of friendship jealousy are sensitive to the irreplaceability of our focal friend. We feel greater friendship jealousy when best friendships are threatened than when only mildly close ones are. Feelings of friendship jealousy are also sensitive to the level of ‘replacement threat’ posed by the possible interloper (the person who might steal your friend). I would feel more friendship jealousy if Joel and I always worked out together in the mornings but he started working out with his new friend James than if Joel started to spent tons time socializing with James at work, or than if Joel started spending all his time with a new romantic partner. I’m not his work pal or partner, so he’s not replacing me in the latter instances. Rather, the more the interloper stands to take my place in Joel’s social relationships, the more friendship jealousy I feel. And these feelings of friendship jealousy can cause us to engage in friend guarding—behavior aimed at helping us maintain our friendships. Again, all of this holds across sex/gender.


But in a recent article, we also raised the question of when (and why) we might see sex/gender differences in friendship jealousy.


We began from the premise that common differences in men’s and women’s friendship structures and putative historical functions affect those inputs (and outputs) of the friendship jealousy system. Insofar as these aspects affect the inputs of the system, we should expect some sex/gender differences in friendship jealousy at the prospective loss of same-sex friends. (Because sex/gender segregation in friendships is the norm from early age, we focused on same-sex friends.)


We predicted—and found in samples of U.S. community participants and students—that women report greater friendship jealousy than men at the prospective loss of best friends.


Why? First, women tend to form extremely close one-on-one friendships with one other woman, whereas men tend to form looser multi-male friendship groups. If every person got 100 friend points to invest in friends, this would be like women putting 60 points into a best friend, say, and 20 points in two other close friends, whereas men put 20 points into five friends. This structural difference implies that the value, or irreplaceability, of women’s (versus men’s) best friends might, on average, be higher.


Second, women’s extremely close best friendships are not made overnight; they take much time and effort to form. Moreover, and third, women’s (versus men’s) extremely close friendships often involve a lot of self-disclosure (e.g., which bands I like, which colleagues I hate, tales about that embarrassing time I called my advisor “mom” in a lab meeting). This information is easy ammunition. If I lose my best friend to someone else, that person might learn all my dirty secrets. So, for women, it might be both more costly to replace a best friend and more costly to lose one to someone else.


Fourth, some work suggests that male’s multi-male friendship groups are actually protective against friend loss, and that women’s dyadic friendships are more prone to breaking up—making women’s friendships perhaps more vulnerable to poaching. Indeed, girls sometimes purposefully ‘break-up’ other girls’ dyadic best friendships to poach one of the newly-on-the-market friends, but we knew of no such attacks among boys’ friendships.


We could make a strong prediction that, when faced with their best friends becoming potentially closer to another friend, women might report greater friendship jealousy than men. And they did.


Our next two predictions, focusing on men, were more tentative. First, male (but not female) primates seem to have a long history of banding together in intergroup violence. The relative size of one’s coalition plays a gargantuan role in such conflicts. It’s possible, then, that for men even peripheral allies (e.g., acquaintances) would be somewhat valuable. That is, just as women might value a same-sex best friend more than men do, men might value a same-sex acquaintance more than women do. The size of the effect is small, but we do find that men report greater friendship jealousy at the prospective loss of same-sex acquaintances than women.


Second, this same logic suggests that contexts of intergroup conflict might amplify the value of men’s allies. Thus, we designed an experiment wherein some participants were told to imagine that their same-sex friends were also teammates with whom participants would face off against an opposing team. Moreover, these teammates were not only becoming potentially closer to another friend, but also to the opposing team. (Other participants were asked to imagine friends becoming closer to one’s same-sex rival.) We predicted and found that the intergroup conflict context amplified men’s reported friendship jealousy (at the prospective loss of friends-cum-teammates to rival teams). Again, though, this effect was small.


In all, the structures and perhaps historical functions of men’s and women’s friendships can bear on the inputs to the friendship jealousy system. For example, if I put most of my friendship eggs into a single best friend basket (versus multiple close friend baskets), it makes sense for me to be very sensitive to detecting and responding to threats to my best friend. By affecting these inputs—like the irreplaceability or value of the focal friend—these sex/gender differences in friendship seem to translate into some sensical sex/gender differences in friendship jealousy.


Read the paper: Sex (similarities and) differences in friendship jealousy