Jealousy typically refers to the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that occur when a person believes a valued relationship is being threatened by a rival. The word jealousy stems from the French jalousie, formed from jaloux (jealous), and further from Low Latin zelosus (full of zeal), and from the Greek word for “ardour, zeal” (with a root connoting “to boil, ferment”; or “yeast”).
What is jealousy?
We’ve all experienced jealousy at some time in our lives, although the reasons why each of us gets jealous and the emotions we feel may differ.
According to clinical psychologist, “jealousy is a complex reaction to a perceived threat to a valued relationship or to its quality”. Unlike envy, it always involves a fear of loss and three people.
Definitions of jealousy
The complexity of jealousy allows people to define it in different ways. Dictionary definitions describe popular meanings of jealousy. Scientific definitions emphasize aspects of jealousy that have received attention in theory and research. Despite differences in wording and emphasis, definitions of jealousy usually share basic themes. These shared themes indicate jealousy is a meaningful concept. Jealousy can also be distinguished from concepts such as envy
Jealousy is a “complex reaction” because it involves such a wide range of emotions, thoughts and behaviours.
Emotions – pain, anger, rage, sadness, envy, fear, grief, humiliation.
Thoughts – resentment, blame, comparison with the rival, worry about image, self-pity.
Behaviours – feeling faint, trembling and sweating, constant questioning and seeking reassurance, aggressive actions, even violence.
How jealousy protects love
In relationships where feelings of jealousy are mild and occasional, it reminds the couple not to take each other for granted. It can encourage couples to appreciate each other and make a conscious effort to make sure the other person feels valued.
Jealousy heightens emotions, making love feel stronger and sex more passionate. In small, manageable doses, jealousy can be a positive force in a relationship. But when it’s intense or irrational, the story is very different.
JEALOUSY IS ABOUT FEAR
It is crucial to understand what jealousy is and what it is about. Jealousy is about fear–fear of the unknown and of change, fear of losing power or control in a relationship, fear of scarcity and of loss, and fear of abandonment. It is a reflection of our own insecurity about our worthiness, anxiety about being adequate as a lover, and doubts about our desirability.
For every jealous feeling there is an emotion behind the jealousy that is much more significant than the jealousy itself. Behind jealousy there is an unmet need or a deep fear that our needs will not be met. Recognizing those fears and unmet needs is the key to unmasking jealousy and taking away its power. Jealousy is just the finger pointing at the fears and needs we are afraid to face. When jealousy kicks in, it is the ancient reptilian part of our brain going into a “fight or flight” response because we feel that our very survival is threatened. When you feel jealous, ask yourself, “What is it that I am really afraid of? What do I need to make this situation safe for me?” “What is the worst thing that could happen and how likely is that to happen?”
How jealousy damages love
Sometimes jealous feelings can get out of proportion. For example, when a man makes an embarrassing scene at a party because his wife accepts an invitation to dance with an old friend, or when a woman is overwhelmed with jealousy because her husband’s company appoints a female boss.
These kinds of reaction can put a huge strain on a relationship, leaving the other partner feeling as though they’re constantly walking on eggshells to avoid a jealous reaction. The jealous partner, often aware of their problem, swings between self-blame and justification.
If you’re the jealous one
Overcoming jealousy takes patience and hard work. If you feel your jealousy stems from issues in childhood, you may find counselling useful. If you’re recovering from an affair, you’ll need to deal with those issues first.
Here are some things you can do for yourself:
Give yourself a reality check – take a good look at those things that trigger your jealousy and ask yourself how realistic the threat is. What evidence do you have that your relationship is in danger? And is your behaviour actually making the situation worse?
Use positive self-talk – when you start feeling the twinges of jealousy, remind yourself that your partner loves you, is committed to you and respects you. Tell yourself you’re a loveable person and that nothing’s going on.
Seek reassurance – one of the best ways to beat jealousy is to ask your partner for reassurance. Make sure you don’t nag or bully, but rather share your insecurities and ask them to help you overcome the problem.
You may also find the exercise Managing jealousy useful.
Living with a jealous partner
Having a jealous partner can be exhausting. Here are some ideas that may help ease their jealousy:
POWER IMBALANCES CAN AGGRAVATE JEALOUSY
A new relationship can dramatically alter power dynamics in a relationship. Particularly in a triad or triangle situation, where one person has two lovers and the other two only have one, an unfortunate dynamic of competition and a struggle for control can arise. This can be minimized by encouraging all parties to communicate their needs openly and by negotiating reasonable agreements that are fair to everyone. The person with two lovers should bend over backwards to avoid a power struggle and make sure both of his or her partners get enough time, attention, affection, commitment, and sex. If someone in this position abuses power, they should be called on it immediately. Both lovers should become allies to demand a change in their partner’s behavior, rather than allowing themselves to be manipulated against each other. Unless everyone cooperates and is careful of each other’s feelings and needs, it is easy for one person to feel like the “odd person out.” No one should feel powerless in a relationship– there is enough love for everyone to be satisfied.
Think of the problem in a different way – remember that jealousy is a sign of love. If your partner didn’t value your relationship, you wouldn’t be having this problem. Rather than becoming defensive, try to be understanding and supportive.
Check your behaviour – if you know that certain behaviours trigger your partner’s jealousy, change them if you can if only until the problem has been overcome. Be sure to stick to any agreements you’ve made, too, but avoid making promises you’ll find difficult to keep, such as always being contactable.
Build your partner’s confidence – be sure to take every opportunity to tell your partner how much you love them and why you wouldn’t want to be with anyone else. Give lots of compliments and talk about the wonderful future you’re looking forward to spending with them.
Coping with jealousy
People who experience pathological jealousy, and people for whom jealousy triggers violence, may benefit from professional counseling. People who experience normal jealousy have at least nine strategies for coping with jealousy. The problem-solving strategies include: improving the primary relationship, interfering with the rival relationship, demanding commitment, and self-assessment. The emotion-focused strategies include: derogation of partner or rival, developing alternatives, denial/avoidance, support/catharsis, and appraisal challenge. These strategies are related to emotion regulation, conflict management, cognitive change, and ground rules for managing jealous competition.
THE COST/BENEFIT ANALYSIS OF JEALOUSY
Being involved in non-monogamous relationships requires being willing to stretch ourselves and to tolerate a certain amount of discomfort, risk-taking, and uncertainty, especially at the beginning. While jealousy can be literally paralyzing at the outset, usually the balance of pain to pleasure will gradually shift until the enhanced satisfaction and joy will far outweigh the anxieties and insecurities. If you find that you and your partner(s) are unable to resolve jealous feelings on your own, get some outside help. Having a long talk with supportive friends can give you a fresh perspective and some honest feedback. Joining a support group can also be helpful, as other people who have been in similar situations may have good ideas for creative problem solving. Individual counseling or couple’s counseling can also create a safe environment for each person to express painful feelings and identify possible solutions.
Despite their best efforts, some people find that the fear and pain evoked by a non-monogamous relationship are too overwhelming. They may decide that it’s just not worth the trouble, and may opt to return to a monogamous lifestyle. The first six months of exploring this new lifestyle are usually the hardest, so if you survive that, most of the hard work is behind you, and you can relax and enjoy the wonderful relationships you have successfully created.