Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Jealousy

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What is jealousy and how can it be managed?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Jealousy is said to be a ‘green eyed monster’, a ‘curse’ and the ‘root of all evils’. Jealousy has inspired the work of poets and song writers, themes of jealousy fuel excitement and anticipation in the greatest novels. Jealousy is a primary cause of relationship breakdown and the foremost reason cited for spousal murder (Buss, 2000). So what is it about this emotion that brings out the worst in people and why do some people reject jealousy while others are consumed by it?

Are you the jealous type[edit | edit source]

Consider the following.

Without your partner’s knowledge have you ever:

  • Looked through their wallet?
  • Checked their text messages, Facebook or email?
  • Snooped through their drawers?

If you answered yes, you may have suffered pangs of the green eyed monster but these behaviours are considered natural, to the extent that two thirds of people surveyed admitted to doing so and 80 percent acknowledged they knew a friend who had done so. Among those surveyed by Derby, Knox & Easterling (2012) snooping behaviours predominantly occurred while a partner was either showering or not at home, 40 percent conceding their snooping was motivated by curiosity, whereas one third suspected an infidelity. Snooping behaviours often emerge when one partner feels the other may be withholding information, snooping functions to reduce or confirm uncertainties when one is faced with nondisclosure (Derby et al., 2012). According to Buss (2000) these actions may well not be a ‘curse’, rather for good reason as potentially such actions may intercept a looming betrayal, or stop one in its tracks. Despite this, when reflecting on feelings of jealousy we tend to view this emotion negatively, largely as maladaptive and as a source of personal pain and distress. Conversely, while jealousy may be heterogeneous, it is normal (in most cases) and primes one to take action in the face of a threatened relationship (Harris, 2010). Buss (2000, chap.1) remarks that love and jealousy are “intertwined passions”, while Freud offered that it is the absence not existence of jealousy (within normal levels), that is a sign of pathology (as cited in DeSteno, Valdesolo & Bartlett, 2006). Jealousy of this type can be successfully overcome with communication; furthermore, if managed skilfully can serve to improve relationship quality. But there is a dark side.

Now consider these scenarios.

Without your partner’s knowledge, have you ever:

  • Undertaken surveillance?
  • Restricted their social activity and/or contact with family and friends, ensuring compliance through threats of harm or intimidation?
  • Examined clothing for signs of sexual activity?
  • Taken action to prevent a perceived transgression?

If you answered yes in the absence of a concrete indiscretion, habitual behaviours of this kind are considered aberrant and can have destructive consequences for the jealous person and the target of the jealousy. Jealousy of this nature can ruin relationships; corrode self-esteem and at its most extreme result in domestic violence and spousal homicide (Buss, 2000).

What is Jealousy?[edit | edit source]

Jealousy is a complex emotional state triggered in response to a perceived threat (real or otherwise) of losing a loved one to a rival. Jealousy is difficult to conceptualize as it not a primary or unitary emotion, rather a multifaceted emotional response that can comprise of fear, anger and sadness, betrayal, resentment, anxiety and embarrassment inter alia (Guerrero, Trost & Yoshimura, 2005). Individual responses to jealousy evocation are divergent and influenced by underlying mechanisms including feelings of inadequacy, levels of self-esteem, relationship dependence, attachment styles and social comparison (Guerrero et al., 2005; Karakurt, 2012; Rydell & Bringle, 2007). However, the American Psychological Association (2002, p. 506) defines jealousy as “a negative emotion in which an individual resents a third party for appearing to take away (or likely to take away) the affections of a loved one. Jealousy requires a triangle of social relationships between three individuals”. While romantic relationships are thought to be the prototype for examining jealousy, this emotion can manifest within any triadic relationship whereby one is presented with the existence of a rival which threatens the primacy of the love bond. Furthermore, the object of jealousy may be a partner’s work, pet, hobby, or other stimuli that may be perceived as threatening (Schienkman & Werne, 2010). Owing to the complexity of jealousy, the literature offers slightly varied definitions; however, the common thread among each is the fear of loss within the context of a social triangle (e.g., Buss, 2000; Cipriani, Vedovello, Nuti & Fiorino, 2012; Guerrero et al., 2005).

Types of jealousy[edit | edit source]

Romantic jealousy[edit | edit source]

Romantic jealousy.

Jealousy within a romantic relationship can be aroused by the threat of competition, comparison and fear of rejection or being replaced (Harris, 2010). Rydell and Bringle (2007) differentiate between two types of romantic jealousy, reactive and suspicious, noting that the antecedents which arouse the feelings of jealousy will affect the response; additionally, that the characteristics of a relationship can either temperate or intensify such responses. For example individuals who report high levels of secure relationship attachment are less vulnerable to suspicious jealousy (Mullen & Martin, 1994) whereas those who perceive their self-identity within the context of their relationship (weak sense of self as a separate individual) are increasingly susceptible (Karakurt, 2012). Accordingly, reactive jealousy occurs in response to a real event which threatens the self and the relationship, for example an infidelity, while suspicious jealousy is that which is founded in ambiguous events appraised as threatening and is often disproportionate to the event itself. Reactive jealousy is considered normal and is typically a response to the violation of trust which commonly results in feelings of anger and fear (Rydell & Bringle, 2007). In extreme circumstances where reactive jealousy has resulted in a criminal act or a ‘crime of passion’, the circumstances are often considered justifiable (Buss, 2000). Suspicious jealousy however is considered problematic and is associated with individual disposition, including low levels of self-esteem, high levels of insecurity and anxious/avoidant attachment styles (DeSteno, Valdesolo & Bartlett, 2006; Mullen & Marin 1994; Rydell & Bringle 2007). For example, in a community study undertaken by Mullen and Martin (1994) it was found that among those with high jealousy scores, 63 percent were assessed to have impaired self-esteem.

Adolescent jealousy[edit | edit source]

Throughout adolescence friendships are of great importance and particularly among girls can be quite intense; consequently, some teens are especially vulnerable to the perils that often arise in their friendship networks (Pedersen, 2010). With a likeness to romantic jealousy, jealousy among adolescents is stirred by the perceived threat of losing a valued relationship; however, is routinely encountered within circumstances whereby a rival poses a threat to the exclusive dyadic ‘best friend’ relationship. While adolescent responses to friendship jealousy may vary, results from a number of studies suggest that friendship jealousy is commonly associated with acts of physical aggression, and the more covet relational aggression; for example, intimidation, gossiping and social exclusions (Culotta and Goldstein, 2008; Parker, Walker, Low & Gamm, 2005). The aggressive behavior expressed in response to the feelings of jealousy is intended to ‘protect’ the relationship and can be directed towards the friend and/or the rival. Adolescents who repeatedly engage in problematic jealous behaviours risk the loss of the friendship their behaviour served to protect while additionally compromising social acceptance among the larger peer group; subsequently, this can result in the victimization and peer isolation the of jealous individual (Parker et al., 2005).

Among their samples both Culotta and Goldstein (2008) and Parker et al. (2005) found that teens who experienced low levels of self-esteem and self-worth displayed a greater vulnerability to jealousy and were more likely to report worry and fear of peer rejection. Furthermore, it was concluded that girls reported higher frequencies of jealousy-evoked situations than did boys, with the authors postulating this may be consequent to greater intimacy and emotional investment in girls’ friendships. These finding offers support to alternate research which highlights the interplay between, relationship dependency and self-esteem in jealousy response and expression (Rydell & Bringle, 2007).

Abnormal[edit | edit source]

Othello Syndrome[edit | edit source]

Othello syndrome synonymously referred to as pathological or morbid jealousy can be described as the darkest form of suspicious jealousy. The syndrome aptly named after the main character in Shakespeare’s play Othello is a psychiatric disorder characterised by obsessive delusions of infidelity and intense paranoid jealousy expressed towards one’s spouse or partner (APA, 2002). The syndrome can present with or without psychotic symptoms and has an average age onset of 38 years. The prevalence of Othello Syndrome is relatively uncommon (<1% of the population); however, the acute symptoms experienced by the individual typically result in aggressive and violent behaviours; consequently this increases the risk of harm posed to self and/or others (Miller, Kummerow & Mgutshini, 2010). The aetiology of pathological jealousy is unclear; however, it has been identified that individuals diagnosed often present with simultaneous neurological or psychiatric illnesses; for example, brain trauma, dementia and drug and/or alcohol dependence (Cipriani et al. 2012; Miller et al., 2010). Psychotic pathological jealousy is routinely treated with pharmacotherapy treatments, while nonpsychotic treatments often focus on cognitive behavioral interventions (Miller et al., 2010).

Theoretical perspectives[edit | edit source]

Evoluntionary Theory[edit | edit source]

According to Buss (2000, chap. 1) “jealousy is as necessary as love and sex”; as such, from an evolutionary perspective, to understand jealousy we must first consider love, for without love there would be no jealousy. For our ancestors the upshot of mate selection was the predetermination of reproductive success or failure; consequently, a mechanism was needed to aid in the adept choice of mate and to sustain this union, this was love. The passion of love between mate’s ensured commitment and reproduction survival. But what have you if a better mate comes along? Here enters jealousy (Buss, 2000). Buss asserts that jealousy is a highly adaptive emotion that served our ancestors well and while both in antiquity and the present, if left to fester can have deleterious consequences, jealousy continues to aid protection against relationship threats. Had our ancestors failed to experience jealousy, the process of successfully winning and maintaining a mate would have undoubtedly been afflicted by disloyalty, perfidy and infidelity, resultantly the demise of the gene pool. Jealousies stir into action the fight and protect response which guards the relationship from any potential rivals. Specifically, jealousy thwarted infidelity which for men could result in cuckoldry (unknowingly raising another man’s child) and for women the loss of resources vital for the survival of her offspring (Buss, 2000). Although this theory offers a credible account of the origins of jealousy among men and women it is relatively narrow in that it cannot explain the function of jealousy among the broader range of relationships for example, same-sex, parent-child and peer relationships.

Social Cognitive Theory[edit | edit source]

Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) is distinct from evolutionary theory in that it considers not only the implications a rival threat poses to the relationship and its associated benefits, but also the threat to self-identity. Social cognitive theorists place an emphasis on the interplay between self and cognitive appraisal when considering jealousy arousal, suggesting that it is the appraisal of threat to self and relationship rewards that will ultimately determine jealousy expression or response (Harris, 2003). SCT draws upon Lazarus’s theory of emotion, which postulates when faced with a life event an individual will evaluate the situation as either, positive, negative or neutral within the context of their wellbeing, this is the primary appraisal stage. Immediately after which one then engages in a secondary appraisal process, in doing so the individual simultaneously evaluates the extent of benefit, harm or threat posed by the event and their ability to cope, this then stimulates an emotional response (Reeves, 2009). In the case of a jealousy-evoking event, SCT proposes that the extent to which one becomes jealous is dependent on the aspects of one’s self being challenged and the degree to which one perceives their relationship rewards are threatened (Harris, 2010). According to Salovey and Rodin’s (1984) Domain Relevant Hypothesis, it is the threat to self and the subsequent social comparison one engages in that draws out the greatest jealousies, specifically if a rival “surpasses an individual in domains that he or she find important”.

The benefit of applying a SCT to jealousy is that is allows for jealousy to be considered within the broader scope of individual differences and culture. The emphasis on cognitive appraisal can account for variability in jealousy expression and experience, for example types of action by one’s partner which may give rise to jealousy in one culture or context may not have the same meaning in another. For example couples who willing engage in acts of extra-dyadic sexual activity or swinging, view this activity as recreational not as a threat to perceived self- worth (de Visser & McDonald, 2007), similarly the once practiced spousal swapping custom of the geographically isolated Alaskan Eskmio was viewed as necessary both personally and socially (Hennigh, 1970). It would appear that in circumstances whereby extra-dyadic sex is mutually endorsed, cognitive appraisals of threat are divergent and unrelated to reproductive survival.

Sex differences[edit | edit source]

A number of studies have found evidence to suggest that men and women differ in their responses to jealousy evocation; however, the explanations for this are mixed (e.g., Culotta & Goldstein, 2008; Harris, 2003; Levy & Kelly, 2010; Parker et al, 2005). Evolutionary theorists postulate that men are primarily jealous in response to an imagined or real sexual infidelity and women an emotional one. Stemming fundamentally from Darwinian Theory, men and women have differing needs relative to reproductive survival. For men a mate’s sexual infidelity risks pregnancy and subsequent cuckoldry, additionally the opportunity to propagate ones genes are moderated; whereas for a woman it is less the sexual indiscretion that evokes her jealousy as she cannot be fooled into raising another’s child unwittingly, it is the emotional infidelity that arouses a woman’s jealousy for this represents a loss of her mates commitment and her stable child-rearing environment (Buss, 2000).

To test this theory among a modern-day sample Buss, Larsen, Western and Semmelroth (1992) presented 202 undergraduate students with an infidelity questionnaire which posited various scenarios reflecting sexual or emotional indiscretions by a partner. For example, which would be more distressing; imagining your partner forming a deep emotional attachment to another person, or imagining your partner enjoying passionate sexual intercourse with that person? Overwhelming men endorsed sexual infidelity and women emotional infidelity as most distressing (60% and 83% respectively). The findings of this study offer support for an evolutionary account of sex differences in jealousy; however, an evolutionary theory cannot explain sex differences in relationships which have no foundation in reproductive survival, neither can it account for differences within gender.

jealousy and attachment style image.

Giving consideration to this Levy and Kelly (2010) provide an alternate explanation which may account for sex differences in jealousy arousal. The authors reflect on literature which indicates that men more so than women are likely to minimise the need for intimacy and emotional dependency, and emphasise the need for self-reliance, the authors highlight that these traits are characteristic of insecure and avoidant attachment styles. Additionally, individuals with these attachment styles are also more likely to display a tendency towards casual and indiscriminate sexual activity (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991). Proposing that sex differences in jealousy are the result of differences in attachment style, Levy and Kelly examined levels of predicted distress among men and women relative to sexual and emotional infidelity within the context of attachment styles. Subsequent to measuring attachment style (secure, dismissive, fearful/avoidant or preoccupied), the authors presented a culturally diverse sample of 416 undergraduates with an infidelity questionnaire (designed by Buss et al., 1992). The data analysis confirmed support for the hypothesis; that individuals assessed to have a dismissive attachment style were more likely to report sexual infidelity as jealousy evoking compared to those with a secure attachment style. The findings showed that men were more likely to endorse dismissive attachment style. Comparably, the results showed that 73.3 percent of men and women who endorsed secure attachment styles reported increased levels of jealousy associated with an emotional infidelity.

Jealousy is not envy[edit | edit source]

The terms jealousy and envy are often confused or used as synonymous nouns and verbs; however, they differ considerably in both definition and state. Distinct from jealousy, envy does not comprise of loss; rather the opposite, a desire for gain coupled with a sense of unfairness and resentment towards those who ‘have’. More specifically envy refers to a state of dissatisfaction relative to the good fortune of others. Additionally, in contrast to jealousy the state of envy need only involve two people; the envious and the target of envy, negative feelings are generally generated by a desire for objects, attributions and status (APA, 2002). Similarly, the evolutionary functions of each are also discernible, jealousy serves to guard off potential rivals in order to prevent cuckoldry and to ensure the continuity of resources associated with relationship commitment (Buss, 2000), while envy has functioned to motivate action towards gaining resources essential for survival (Hill & Buss, 2008).

Historical examples[edit | edit source]

Shakespeare[edit | edit source]

Othello Act III. Scene 3. Iago.

Othello and Desdemona

Possibly the most widely referenced example of jealousy across the academic literature is the tragic story of Shakespeare’s character Othello, (e.g., Cipriani et al., 2012; Desteneo et al., 2006; Miller et al., 2010). When Iago is passed over for promotion by Othello he seeks revenge on the General, Moor of Venice. Unbeknown to Othello, Iago’s web of deceit lures him to believe his wife Desdemona is unfaithful and having a love affair with his lieutenant. Fuelled by jealous rage Othello is determined to end this and kill Desdemona. In the midst of the night, Othello wakes and confronts Desdemona; she declares her love and protests her innocence. But Othello will not be swayed, maintaining his conviction Othello suffocates Desdemona. Othello later learns of Iago’s treachery and laden with guilt condemns himself death (Irving & Marshall, n.d.)

The Bible[edit | edit source]

Cain and Abel

Cain kills Abel.

The biblical story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4.1-8) offers a murderous account of jealousy. The sons of Eve were farmers, Cain the first born worked the land and was said to be of ‘wicked’ character, while Abel was a shepherd, peaceful and moral. When the time came to make offerings to the Lord, both brought with them the bounties of their labor. Cain presented to the Lord the fruits of the ground and Abel his first fattened lamb. However, the Lord was not respecting unto the offerings of Cain but only to those of Abel. Cain was enraged, for he loved the Lord only to find this was not reciprocated; moreover, his brother was preferred, admired and accepted by the Lord. Accompanying his sense of fury, Cain was feeling betrayed, the Lord had committed adultery. In an act of jealousy, Cain led Abel to the fields and ‘slew’ him, taking out his rival (Nauta, 2009). The book of Genesis does not offer an explanation for the rejection of Cain’s offerings; however, it is revealed in the new testament that Cain’s offerings may have been rejected because of the heart of he was making the offering (Hebrews 11:4).

How to beat the green eyed monster[edit | edit source]

As humans we inherently desire to belong, doing so by forming emotional attachments with others, equally it is through our interactions with others we develop a sense of self, value and wellbeing. Satisfying our psychological need for relatedness is essential for good mental health and happiness; in addition, quality relationships with others promote learning, growth and development (Reeves, 2009). In contrast, the lacking of social bonds and close personal relationships are associated with many adverse emotions, among them sadness and depression (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Given the investment we make in forging and maintaining relationships and the benefits we afford from them, it would be nonsensical if we were not driven to ward off potential threats and competitors; however, it is how one goes about this that is pertinent. Buss (2000) argues that the damaging aspect of jealousy is not the jealousy itself but rather the destructive behavioral response to such. Jealousy is natural and it can be rational, so how can jealousy lead to positive relational outcomes?

The literature congruently highlights that the underpinning mechanisms associated with feelings of jealousy are those related to the self (e.g., self-esteem and inadequacy); as such, strengthening an independent sense of self can serve to buffer against the harmful effects of jealousy. Additionally, communicative coping responses can function to reduce uncertainty, repair self-esteem and maintain a relationship following an experience of jealousy (Guerrero & Andersen, 1995). Building on previous research, Guerrero and Andersen (1995) examined the effectiveness of a range of mechanisms individuals use to cope with jealousy evocation. The findings showed that of the 12 communicative responses examined, four specific cognitive and behavioral strategies were constructive and effectual in jealousy management.

Firstly as communication is the corner stone of any close relationship, disclosing jealous feelings was found to strengthen relationship features such as intimacy and trust, in turn enhancing relationship satisfaction and efficacies in communication. Secondly, strengthen self-esteem was reported to assist in decreasing dependency on the primary relationship; subsequently, cognitive reappraisal of the self and the situation is reframed so that the perceived rival is no longer a threat to the primary relationship. Furthermore, participants reported that the self-protection methods of avoidance and denial aided in self-esteem preservation by keeping jealousy related emotions and cognitions at bay. Lastly, reaching out to family and friends for support through the difficult period was beneficial in self-esteem reparation (Guerrero & Andersen, 1995).

Quiz[edit | edit source]

1 A man unwittingly raising another man's child is known as cuckoldry?


2 Men and women differ in their responses to jealousy evocation?


3 Reactive jealousy is considered pathological?


4 Impaired self-esteem is associated with jealousy?


See also[edit | edit source]

Related book chapters

References[edit | edit source]

APA dictionary of psychology (2002). In VandenBos G. R. (Ed.), (1st ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Bartholomew, K., & Horowitz, L. M. (1991). Attachment styles among young adults: A test of a four-category model American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.61.2.226

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497.

Buss, D. M. (2013). Sexual jealousy. Psychological Topics, 22(2), 155-182. Retrieved from

Buss, D. M., Larsen, R. J., Westen, D., & Semmelroth, J. (1992). Sex differences in jealousy: Evolution, physiology, and psychology. Psychological Science (Wiley-Blackwell), 3(4), 251-255. Retrieved from

Cipriani, G., Vedovello, M., Nuti, A., & di Fiorino, A. (2012). Dangerous passion: Othello syndrome and dementia. Psychiatry & Clinical Neurosciences, 66(6), 467-473. doi:10.1111/j.1440-1819.2012.02386.x

Culotta, C. M., & Goldstein, S. E. (2008). Adolescent's aggressive and prosocial behavior: Associations with jealousy and social anxiety. The Journal of Genetic Psychology: Research and Theory on Human Development, 169(1), 21-33. doi:10.3200/GNTP.169.1.21-33

Derby, K., Knox, D., & Eaterling, B. (2012). Snooping in romantic relationships. College Student Journal, 46(2), 333. Retrieved from

DeSteno, D., Valdesolo, P., & Bartlett, M. Y. (2006). Jealousy and the threatened self: Getting to the heart of the green-eyed monster. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(4), 626-641. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.91.4.626

de Visser, R., Dee. (2007). Swings and roundabouts: Management of jealousy in heterosexual 'swinging' couples. British Journal of Social Psychology, 46(2), 459-476. doi:10.1348/014466606X143153

Guerrero, L. K., & Andersen, P. A. (1995). Coping with the green-eyed monster: Conceptualizing and measuring communicative responses to romantic jealousy. Western Journal of Communication, 59(4), 270-304.

Guerrero, L. K., Trost, M. R., & Yoshimura, S. M. (2005). Romantic jealousy: Emotions and communicative responses. Personal Relationships, 12(2), 233-252. doi:10.1111/j.1350-4126.2005.00113.x

Harris, C. R. (2003). A review of sex differences in sexual jealousy, including self-report data, psychophysiological responses, interpersonal violence, and morbid jealousy. Personality & Social Psychology Review (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates), 7(2), 102-128.

Hennigh, L. (1970). Functions and limitations of Alaskan Eskimo wife trading. Arctic, 24-34. retrieved from

Hill, S. E., & Buss, D. M. (2008). The evolutionary psychology of envy. In R. H. Smith (Ed.), (pp. 60-70). New York, NY US: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from

Irving, H., & Marshall, F. A.,(Eds.) (n.d) The Works of Shakespeare. Vol VI. London: Blackie & Son

Karakurt, G. (2012). The interplay between self esteem, feeling of inadequacy, dependency, and romantic jealousy as a function of attachment processes among turkish college students. Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal, 34(3), 334-345. doi:10.1007/s10591-012-9185-7

Levy, K. N., & Kelly, K. M. (2010). Sex differences in jealousy: A contribution from attachment theory. Psychological Science (Sage Publications Inc.), 21(2), 168-173. doi:10.1177/0956797609357708

Miller, M. A., Kummerow, A. M., & Mgutshini, T. (2010). Othello syndrome: Preventing a tragedy when treating patients with delusional disorders. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing & Mental Health Services, 48(8), 20-27. doi:10.3928/02793695-20100701-05

Mullen, P. E., & Martin, J. L. (1994). Jealousy: A community study. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 164, 35-43. doi:10.1192/bjp.164.1.35 Nauta, R. (2009). Cain and abel: Violence, shame and jealousy. Pastoral Psychology, 58(1), 65-71. doi:10.1007/s11089-008-0146-x

Parker, J. G., Low, C. M., Walker, A. R., & Gamm, B. K. (2005). Friendship jealousy in young adolescents: Individual differences and links to sex, self-esteem, aggression, and social adjustment. Developmental Psychology, 41(1), 235-250. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.41.1.235

Peterson, C., (2010) Looking forward through the lifespan. Frenchs Forest, NSW: Pearson Australia

Reeves, J., (2009). Understanding motivation and emotion. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons

Rydell, R. J., & Bringle, R. G. (2007). Differentiating reactive and suspicious jealousy. Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal, 35(8), 1099-1114.

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Scheinkman, M., & Werne, D. (2010). Disarming jealousy in couples relationships: A multidimensional approach. Family Process, 49(4), 486-502. doi:10.1111/j.1545-5300.2010.01335.x