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We Can Get Jealous

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March 6, 2019
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March 8, 2019

Reasons We Can Get Jealous

A little jealousy in a romantic relationship is undoubtedly natural. Certainly each of us has felt an uncomfortable jealous twinge at some point in a relationship. We feel jealous in such moments because of our sense that a cherished connection we have with another person is threatened, and our fear that a loved one may find someone else to replace us.

While most people experience jealousy on a very occasional and mild basis, others feel it to a pathological degree. For such extremely jealous individuals, their jealousy almost always leads to the end of relationships.

Evolutionary psychologists have spent years researching jealousy. In her review of the literature, Harris (2004) writes that evolutionary psychologists suggest that jealousy might have given a “fitness advantage” for men and women.

More specifically, Buss (1995) concluded that a specific set of brain circuits determines a jealous reaction, and found that men were more jealous about physical infidelity while women were more jealous about emotional infidelity.

I appreciate researchers' efforts to uncover gender differences in jealousy because gender differences are often—if not always—at work. Yet in my clinical work with men and women, which often focuses on relationship issues,

I have found several types of destructive jealousy among both men and women. Take a look below and see if you’ve had experience with someone who presents any of these types:


Hands down, insecurity is the most common source of jealousy. People often throw around the term "inferiority complex," which is not a clinical term, but refers to an underlying impoverished ego or low self-esteem—

a jealous man who feels insecure in his romantic relationships, for example, does not feel confident that he is good and valuable enough to keep another person interested in him over time. It’s important to note that insecurity is usually not absolute in men and women.

In other words, a woman may be bright and highly effective at work as a high-powered lawyer, though her psychopathology (getting jealous) comes out in her romantic relationships.

Overall, is she an insecure woman? No, but she has the capacity to become deeply jealous in her romantic relationships.

Obsessive Thinking

A recent female client of mine in her late 20s, whom I’ll call "Maryanne," finds herself feeling jealous in almost every relationship she has. Clinically, she also meets several criteria for obsessive-compulsive disorder though she doesn’t meet the criteria for the full diagnosis. Maryanne’s brain tends to work on perpetual overtime, always generating new anxieties and worries.

Because this is her general cognitive (thinking) style, her tendency to overthink and obsess about things inevitably seeps into every one of her romantic relationships. For obsessive types, the hardest thing in the world to manage is uncertainty, aka the Unknown.

While most people can handle a fair amount of uncertainty, when Maryanne’s boyfriend comes home late, she can’t tolerate the unknown (why he's late, what he’s been doing).

When she feels uncertain about where her boyfriend is, her mind fills in the blanks and generates answers, many of which are negative.

Very often, she comes up with facts created out of thin air about her boyfriend’s probable infidelity—and then feels extremely anxious and jealous. If she didn’t have an obsessive cognitive style, she would be a lot less jealous.

Paranoid Personality

Many men and women I’ve worked with get jealous, but their jealousy actually stems from an overall paranoid approach to many things in life. While paranoia at the most severe end of the spectrum takes the form of Schizophrenia-

Paranoid Type, the vast majority of paranoid individuals fall toward the milder end of this spectrum. Many men and women have some paranoid characteristics but their paranoia isn’t severe enough to meet the diagnosis of full-blown paranoid disorder.

Men and women with mild or moderate paranoia have great difficulty trusting others and often infer malicious intent to others’ motives


They frequently have a personality type that leads them to feel victimized and persecuted, frequently feeling that others are out to get them. They often feel that others are trying to sabotage them, their goals, or their career.

They also often perceive that others have put them down, rejected them, or patronized them, even when witnesses tell them otherwise


Finally, men and women with a paranoid personality style are often blamers, assigning blame to others as opposed to looking inward and accepting accountability for their own flaws or mistakes.

Too often, they get jealous and grasp onto a strong belief that their partner is cheating—and no amount of evidence can convince them otherwise.

... and Reality

If you ask a jealous person whether he (or she) was justified in feeling jealous, he would probably cite several examples where jealousy was actually founded in fact. In other words, a partner really was cheating, or truly did betray him! The question becomes: Is there a pattern of jealousy, or is this an isolated incident?

A person can accurately be labeled a jealous person if she (or he) has a history of becoming jealous with multiple partners, many or all of whom did not actually do anything to justify it. If you are in a relationship with someone who’s triggering intense feelings of jealousy in you


ask yourself if you have felt jealous with other partners in the past, or if these feelings stem exclusively from your current relationship.

If you don’t have a history of being jealous, odds are that your jealous feelings in your current relationship aren’t actually a problem. In fact, it might be that your instincts are signaling that you are in a relationship with someone you might not be able to trust.

In this situation, you aren’t becoming "the jealous type"; you're more concerned and distrustful.

Having a partner label you as jealous when you don’t have a history of jealousy is a sign that your feelings are being mislabeled. In such a case, you’re not jealous; you’re justifiably worried.


The next time a partner engages in jealous-type behavior with you, remember to put the behaviors and feelings in context by considering whether the jealousy is new, or whether it reflects a longstanding pattern.

If you’re in a relationship with someone who has a history of getting jealous, understand that the root of this type of behavior—insecurity, obsessiveness, or a paranoid personality—is not going away anytime soon.

Working through such deeply rooted issues takes a lot of time and frequently requires intensive psychotherapy.

If you have a partner who is willing to go to therapy to deal with these issues head-on, the relationship may be worth keeping; if not, you need to be clear about what you can and cannot put up with in the future.

Without clear boundaries, men and women who get jealous can be very bad for your mental health.

What Drives Jealousy?

Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen once wrote, "Jealousy is no more than feeling alone against smiling enemies." This simple statement sets a perfect scene in our minds of what jealousy feels like;

Others are happy, overtly joyful or secretly mocking, while we are left alone to look like a fool.

However, what drives us to feel jealous and suffer over this stirring emotion isn't always the "smiling enemies" we formulate in our minds. The "sexy secretary" and "college love" are rarely the threats we think they are, but the overwhelming, possessed state of suspicion we enter because of these characters, can be a real hazard to our closest relationships.

Jealousy itself can take on a sort of wicked presence in our lives. Actions taken on its behalf have been known to crush a budding romance, slowly erode a longstanding union or even lead to serious abuse.

In a blog I recently wrote for The Huffington Post on "sexting" cheating couples out of real intimacy, I described how the ease and accessibility of technology now breeds even more distrust and deception between couples. Email, text messaging and Facebook can be a perfect platform for forging new connections.

And as the floodgates of communication open, the green waves of jealousy begin to flow. Jealousy isn't something we have much control over. In truth, it is a natural, instinctive emotion that everyone experiences at one point or another.

The problem with jealousy is that it masks other feelings and attitudes that are even more hurtful to us and those closest to us. Its intensity is often shielding deep-seated feelings of possessiveness, insecurity or shame.

I believe that what lies at the heart of jealousy very often isn't the threat itself, but a drive we have within us to torment ourselves and berate ourselves with self-critical thoughts.

Think about the thoughts we have when we feel jealous. Lurking behind the paranoia toward our partners, or the criticisms toward a perceived third-party threat, are often critical thoughts toward ourselves. Thoughts like,

"What does he see in her?" can quickly turn into "She is so much prettier/thinner/more successful than me!" Even when our worst fears materialize and we learn of a partner's affair, we frequently react by directing anger at ourselves for being "foolish, unlovable, ruined or unwanted." These critical inner voices and the feelings of humiliation that they foster can be more painful to us than the threat itself.

They can also be more real. This negative self-coaching accompanies us into our personal relationships and instills in us a level of doubt and criticism that keeps us from perceiving ourselves as truly lovable.

It reminds us to be suspicious with thoughts like, "She doesn't really care about you" or "You can't trust him. Just keep him at a distance."

This internal coach was formed from negative experiences we had as children. Whether we were witness to a destructive interpersonal relationship or were made to feel bad about ourselves by a significant parental figure, we internalized these experiences by identifying with the destructive attitudes that were being expressed.

If we felt insignificant because we were ignored, it is very likely we have carried this insecurity with us into adulthood and into any romantic relationship we form.

Many of us are often unaware of the basic shame that exists within us, because it comes so naturally to think self-critical thoughts about ourselves.

Yet, shame from our past can heavily influence the degree to which we feel jealous and insecure in the present. In a serious relationship, real hurt from rejection or betrayal can trigger old feelings that there is something basically wrong with us.

In the same way, this inner critic turns on us, it also turns on those closest to us. When we notice ourselves fostering unwarranted suspicions or accusing our partners of being "distracted, rejecting, insensitive or cruel," it is important to consider how much of this is our real point of view and how much is a product of the coaching of our critical inner voice.

Are these criticisms based on real events or actions? Are our unfavorable reactions disproportionate to the situation? While real rejections do hurt, long-term harm is primarily caused by how our critical inner voice continues to criticize and influence us long after the incident is over.

When we listen to destructive self-coaching that fuels our insecurity and distrust, we risk acting on our emotions to a degree that hurts both us and those close to us.

Over time, we become less like the person we really are and more like the person our critical inner voice is defining us as.

For example, when we end up searching our partner's cell phone for suspicious texts or restricting our partner from having friends of the opposite sex, we may be acting on old self-doubt and mistrust that has nothing to do with current circumstances.

Even if we do then find a text message from an ex in our partner's phone or hear that our partner hung out with an attractive co-worker at a company event, we may overreact in a way that neither we nor our partners are likely to respect.

Accepting these negative attacks and not challenging them can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy by creating actual distance between ourselves and our partners, pushing them further away from us, perhaps ultimately into another person's arms.

Even when our "worst fears" are realized, no act of dishonesty or even infidelity should be used as evidence for the attacks our critical inner voice has been leveling against us.

Understanding the roots, triggers and reasons for our feelings of jealousy is an important part of maintaining a healthy relationship. To do this, we must be aware of the critical inner voices driving our uncertainties and self-doubt.

If we can identify these thoughts, we can challenge them as the "smiling enemies" they are, the ones that want us to wind up alone. We can act against the thoughts that tell us to be suspicious, mistrusting and accusatory.

Though challenging these thoughts may initially make us anxious and may even intensify the voice attacks in the short run, in the long run it will strengthen us as individuals and improve our trust and communication with our partners.

The more we weaken this internal enemy, the more we strengthen a positive sense of self. This will enable us to accept the reality that we are loved and reject the misperception that we are going to be betrayed.

And if there were an infidelity, we would be much better able to get through it if we weren't letting our critical inner voice get the better of us.

What's Really Behind Jealousy, and What to Do About It

Jealousy can be a major relationship problem—a survey of marital therapists reported that romantic jealousy was a serious problem for a third of their clients.1 I hope to dispel the myth that jealousy is a sign of love.

But if it's not, then what really motivates jealous responses? Research has linked several traits to greater jealousy:

Low self-esteem, Neuroticism: a general tendency to be moody, anxious, and emotionally unstable, Feelings of insecurity and possessiveness, .Dependence on your partner:

Even asking people to imagine that they don’t have good alternative partners leads to more negative reactions to hypothetical jealousy-inducing scenarios

Feelings of inadequacy in your relationship: Generally fearing that you’re not good enough for your partner, An anxious attachment style: A chronic orientation toward romantic relationships that involves fear that your partner will leave you or won’t love you enough.

Research has shown that temporarily causing people to feel more securely attached, by asking them to think about receiving support from a loved one, makes them react less severely to a hypothetical jealousy-inducing situation

So if your partner is exhibiting unwarranted jealousy, what should you do?

You should realize that your partner’s jealousy isn’t about you; it’s about them. Respond to expressions of jealousy by reassuring your partner of your love.

Research has shown that those who respond to partners’ jealousy by reassuring them of their interest and attraction tend to have more stable relationships.

What should you do if you’re jealous?

How should you deal with jealousy if you’re the one snooping through your partner’s email? Several actions can help you cope: Avoid situations that are likely to arouse false suspicions. In one survey, researchers found that those who were jealous tended to monitor their partners’ Facebook activity.

The more they snooped on Facebook, the more they would find evidence to worry about, leading to even more spying, and creating a vicious cycle of increased monitoring and jealousy

Work on yourself. Work on building your confidence in yourself and your relationship.

Communicate with your partner.

If you are experiencing jealousy, talk about it with your partner—but the way you talk is key: If you express anger or sarcasm, or hurl accusations at your partner, that’s not going to help. You must be direct, but not hostile.

Calmly explain your feelings and discuss how to find a solution. This will enable you to be more satisfied and prevent your partner from being confused by your jealous behavior.

These communication strategies are most likely to bring out positive responses in your partner

Sometimes jealousy is justified: If your partner has had an affair and has betrayed your trust, for example, that is a serious issue. If you are jealous because you’re involved with someone who doesn’t seek monogamy, while you do,

Then your jealous feelings may be a good reason to leave the relationship and seek someone whose relationship goals are more compatible with yours. But when you get jealous over “stupid things," you’re not showing love; you’re revealing your own insecurities.

Jealousy Is a Killer: How to Break Free From Your Jealousy

Jealousy is a killer. Relationships end because of jealous conflicts, and people kill other people because they are jealous. Imagine this. You are at a party and someone is friendly and you smile. Your partner thinks that you are betraying her. Or your partner tells you a funny story about a former lover, and you feel threatened.

You feel the anger and the anxiety rising inside you, and you don’t know what to do. Susan could identify with this. She would glare at her partner, trying to send him a “message” that she was really annoyed and hurt. She hoped he would get the message. At times, she would withdraw into pouting, hoping to punish him for showing an interest in someone else.

But it didn’t work. He just felt confused. At other times Susan would ask him if she still found her attractive. Was he getting bored with her? Was she his type? At first, he would reassure her, but then — with repeated demands from her for more reassurance — he began to wonder why she felt so insecure. Maybe she wasn’t the right one for him.

And when things got more difficult for Susan, she would yell at him, “Why don’t you go home with her? It’s obvious you want to!” These kinds of jealous conflicts can end a relationship. But if you are jealous, does that mean there's something terribly wrong with you? My colleague, Dennis Tirch, and I just published a paper on jealousy — and how to handle it.

Click here to get a copy of the article that appeared in the International Journal of Cognitive Therapy. We describe a step-by-step approach to helping people cope with their jealousy.

Jealousy is angry, agitated worry.

When we are jealous, we worry that our partner might find someone else more appealing, and we fear that he or she will reject us. Since we feel threatened that our partner might find someone more attractive, we may activate jealousy as a way to cope with this danger.

We may believe that our jealousy will keep us from being surprised, help us defend our rights, and force our partner to give up interests elsewhere. Similar to worry, jealousy may be a “strategy” that we use so that we can figure out what is going wrong or learn what our partner “really feels.”

We may also think that jealousy can motivate us to give up on the relationship — so that we don’t get hurt any more. If you are feeling jealous, it’s important to ask yourself what you hope to gain by your jealousy. We view jealousy as a coping strategy. Similar to other forms of worry, jealousy leads us to focus only on the negative.

We interpret our partner’s behavior as reflecting a loss of interest in us or a growing interest in someone else: “He finds her attractive,” or “He is yawning, because I am boring.”

Like other forms of worry, jealousy leads us to take things personally and to mind-read negative emotions in other people: “She’s getting dressed up to attract other guys.”

Jealousy can be an adaptive emotion.

People have different reasons — in different cultures — for being jealous. But jealousy is a universal emotion. In The Dangerous Passion, evolutionary psychologist David Buss makes a good case that jealousy has evolved as a mechanism to defend our interests.

After all, our ancestors who drove off competitors were more likely to have their genes survive. Indeed, intruding males (whether among lions or humans) have been known to kill off the infants or children of the displaced male. Jealousy was a way in which vital interests could be defended.

We believe that it is important to normalize jealousy as an emotion. Telling people “You must be neurotic if you are jealous” or “You must have low self-esteem” will not work. In fact, jealousy — in some cases — may reflect high self-esteem: “I won’t allow myself to be treated this way.”

Jealousy may reflect your higher values.

Psychologists — especially psychoanalysts — have looked at jealousy as a sign of deep-seated insecurities and personality defects. We view jealousy as a much more complicated emotion. In fact, jealousy may actually reflect your higher values of commitment, monogamy, love, honesty, and sincerity.

You may feel jealous, because you want a monogamous relationship, and you fear that you will lose what is valuable to you. We find it helpful to validate these values in our patients who are jealous. Some people may say, “You don’t own the other person.” Of course, this is true — and any loving relationship with mutuality is based on freedom.

But it is also based on choices that two free people make. If your partner freely chooses to go off with someone else, then you may rest assured that you have good reason to feel jealous. We don’t own each other, but we do make affirmations about our commitment to each other.

But if your higher values are based on honesty, commitment, and monogamy, your jealousy may jeopardize the relationship. You are in a bind. You don’t want to give up on your higher values — but you don’t want to feel overwhelmed by your jealousy.

Jealous feelings are different from jealous behaviors.

Just as there is a difference between feeling angry and acting in a hostile way, there is a difference between feeling jealous and acting on your jealousy. It’s important to realize that your relationship is more likely to be jeopardized by your jealous behavior — such as continual accusations, reassurance-seeking, pouting, and acting out.

Stop and say to yourself, “I know that I am feeling jealous, but I don’t have to act on it.” Notice that it is a feeling inside you. But you have a choice of whether you act on it. What choice will be in your interest?

Accept and observe your jealous thoughts and feelings.

When you notice that you are feeling jealous, take a moment, breathe slowly, and observe your thoughts and feelings. Recognize that jealous thoughts are not the same thing as a REALITY. You may think that your partner is interested in someone else, but that doesn’t mean that he really is. Thinking and reality are different.

You don’t have to obey your jealous feelings and thoughts.

Notice that your feelings of anger and anxiety may increase while you stand back and observe these experiences. Accept that you can have an emotion — and allow it to be. You don’t have to “get rid of the feeling.”

We have found that mindfully standing back and observing that an emotion is there can often lead to the feeling weakening on its own.

Recognize that uncertainty is part of every relationship.

Like many worries, jealousy seeks certainty. “I want to know for sure that he isn’t interested in her.” Or, “I want to know for sure that we won’t break up.”

Ironically, some people will even precipitate a crisis in order to get the certainty: “I’ll break things off with her before she breaks up with me!” But uncertainty is part of life, and we have to learn how to accept it.

Uncertainty is one of those limitations that we can’t really do anything about. You can never know for sure that your partner won’t reject you. But if you accuse, demand, and punish, you might create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Use effective relationship skills.

You don’t have to rely on jealousy and jealous behavior to make your relationship more secure. You can use more effective behavior. This includes becoming more rewarding to each other — “Catch your partner doing something positive.”

Praise each other, plan positive experiences with each other, and try to refrain from criticism, sarcasm, labeling, and contempt. Learn how to share responsibility in solving problems —

use “mutual problem-solving skills.” Set up “pleasure days” with each other by developing a “menu” of positive and pleasurable behaviors you want from each other. For example, you can say, “

Let’s set up a day this week that will be your pleasure day, and a day that will be my pleasure day.” Make a list of pleasant and simple behaviors you want from each other: “I’d like a foot-rub"; "Talk with me about my work"; "Let’s cook a meal together"; or "Let’s go for a walk in the park.”

Jealousy seldom makes relationships more secure. Practicing effective relationship behaviors is often a much better alternative. For more information about how to improve your relationship, click here.

Below is an outline from the Leahy and Tirch (2008) article on the nature of jealousy.

M I Ro

photos by pixabay,com

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