First, Jealousy vs. Envy:
As long as humans have been in relationships, so have envy and jealousy. And you know what? It’s not just humans—monkeys even understand fairness and demonstrate envy. Does anyone reading live with more than one dog or cat? What happens if you are petting one but not the other?
Let’s clarify what we mean when we’re talking about the dreaded ‘green-eyed monster’ in romantic relationships.
Specifically, let’s distinguish jealousy from envy. Envy is seeing or sensing that someone has something that you don’t that you would like to have. “Wow, he has a great body with abs, I wish I had abs.” Jealousy takes it one step further—when we feel jealous, we see or sense that someone has something we don’t, and because of that, we fear that we’ll lose connection with our primary person. “Wow, he has such a great body—she’s never going to want to stay with me if she sees his abs that I’ll never have.”
Envy involves just two: the envier and the envied. Jealousy is more than two: the envier, the envied, and the person in relationship with them; it’s at least a triangle. When relationship systems have more than two people in them, it obviously gets complex quickly.
Jealousy is all about feeling left out—without the sense that you have control or power to influence the people who matter to you; it’s fear of being replaced. If envy is about wanting what someone else has, jealousy is about worrying someone will take what you have.
I find that clinically and personally, we tend to be most jealous of people who have traits that are similar to some of our own most prized traits, and could even rival in comparison. For example, if your family and friends love your sense of humor and how witty you are, the sense of threat and urgency lacing jealousy will feel more poignant if your partner seems to be attracted to a comic or someone known for their humor.
Jealousy can show up in all kinds of flavors and looks different depending on how many people are in a relationship, as well as the style (e.g., open, poly, monogamish) of the relationship and identities and cultures of the partners.
Ways to Reframe Jealousy
I want to share a few different ways of thinking about jealousy so that if it’s something you’re working to find more balance around, you might find a new approach that could help!
If this sounds like you, I’d also love to invite you to muster as much tenderness and self-compassion as you can when wading into the business of exploring and leading the jealous parts of our selves to stay in balance. We don’t want to get rid of our jealous parts—they can be a brilliant, intuitive radar when they are in balance and feeling safe—we just want to make sure they don’t start being backseat drivers. Jealousy can be a real asshole backseat driver.
If you have a jealous part that was born after an event in a relationship, but you never really identified as being all that jealous before the relational norm violation/s, please know that your truster isn’t busted forever—you don’t just turn into a ‘jealous person’ and stay that way. You have to work to heal and find your balance again, but you can walk through the world again without jealousy taking up the good mental real estate.
Lots of clients express, more or less, that they would like for me to be able to surgically remove the jealous parts of them. But jealousy is like any other physical pain trying to convey a crucial message—if you have a toothache and we just numb it out, that thing might very well rot out of your head.
We want to be able to tolerate the feeling long enough to inquire why it’s hanging out, and what we might need. Because of the sociocultural history (including religious implications) packed into our understanding of jealousy, many of us inherit a reflexive emotion-dismissing tendency when it comes to feeling envious and jealous. It’s not a desirable emotional experience, and further, we can even be deemed petty or weak—sinful even—by others for feeling jealous.
But stuffing or pretending to ignore jealousy will set you up for failure fast. It will always find a way to rear its little green head. In fact, the more you stuff, the more likely it will explode without your conscious control.
As with any other social emotion or emotion proper, in the long run it’s healthier to just make room for them so they can pass on through. If you’re trying to ignore or stuff jealousy inside of you, well—do that until you can’t. Or until you’re so passive-aggressive that your partner/s can’t take it.
So, I’d like to share some additional ways of reframing jealousy that can help you stay curious and tolerate the feeling better so that you can get more useful information from it:
1) Jealousy as Angry Admiration
If you’re feeling jealous, you can reframe the experience by challenging yourself to ask what you maybe admire about the person triggering the jealous feelings. Sometimes, we’re actually just pissed that someone has a cool trait that’s similar to one of ours, especially if we feel it makes us unique—we’re afraid someone might outshine us and we’ll be left all alone. Or someone has mastered something we’re still working on. If you can slow yourself down and be honest with yourself about the root cause of the jealous feelings, it’s usually about not someone awful and despicable, but admirable and often similar to yourself.
This can be especially hard to do if the jealousy has come about in the wake of a relational norm violation (e.g., affair, infidelity, betrayal). In fact, if you just learned that you were ‘cheated on,’ this would not be the first thought experiment I would recommend—let yourself stabilize and regain your footing before trying to see what you love about the affair partner/s. If this sounds like you and you still want to find a way to begin addressing jealousy, check out Nancy Friday’s book, Jealousy.
Sometimes when we’re jealous, what we’re admiring in someone is a perceived deficit in ourselves that we estimate impacts our relationship. “Look how easy going they are—why do I have to be so uptight?” This can be especially infuriating, but useful information nonetheless. Often, the healthiest thing to do is to treat the Comparison Trap like an emotional conflict cycle with yourself: name the dance, see it, call it out, and stop it—notice when you’re comparing yourself to others in an unhelpful way that’s taking up mental real estate, then name-it-to-tame-it or redirect yourself.
When there’s jealousy—like when there’s anger—it’s helpful to trust that there’s some more vulnerable emotion hanging out just beneath it; fear, loneliness, longing—you name it. See if you can sit with your jealousy; slow things down, then notice if there’s something softer there. Social emotions like jealousy are linked with belonging—fear of being alone, isolated, disconnected, and the like is often lurking under jealousy.
Sharing fears is one way of making it easier to talk about jealousy. It can be tempting to root ourselves in anger when expressing ourselves re: jealousy; challenge yourself to stay vulnerable in it.
Also, never forget that idealization often comes along with admiration. It always helps to remember that whoever we may be feeling jealous of—they’re also a flawed, imperfect human. Ask yourself if you’re mostly encountering them in their element or seeing the highlight reel they present on socials. A little realism goes a long way in this territory.
2) Jealousy as a Barometer for Unmet Needs
Jealousy can be a great indicator that there are some unmet needs that need looking after—usually, by you and your partner/s. If jealousy gets stirred up when you hear, say, that your partner has been regularly spending time after work providing emotional comfort for an attractive colleague who is going through a divorce, check in with yourself and maybe ask for a relationship check-in; there may just be a need for some emotional closeness and extra TLC.
Now, if your intuition tells you that the emotional support being provided in the example above is disproportionate to the emotional experience, check in with your partner. Emotional affairs in the workplace are increasingly common, so if your gut sends up a flare, listen.
Another common place that I see jealousy spike up is when a partner verbally comments on the attractiveness of others (even if it’s just celebrities) but withholds such comments about their lover. Instead of telling your partner to stop acting jealous, notice/ask what they’re longing for beneath the jealousy and see what you can do to help! Sometimes it’s as simple as sharing more compliments.
Give a whack at nonviolent communication when talking about unmet needs! You just share your observations, feelings, needs, then requests. For instance, “When I hear you commenting on how sexy that guy on TV is, I feel a little insecure and maybe like you don’t still find me sexy like when we first met. I think that’s because I’m just needing to hear from you how you feel about me a little more often. Would you be willing to try to verbalize a few more compliments throughout the week?”
While we’re here, envy can also be a barometer for unmet needs, just more of the individual/self-love flavor. If you feel envious of someone’s career or travel, for instance, ask yourself if you have any longings or wishes inside of you that you haven’t honored. Have you always wanted to go on a trip to another country solo? Do you want to prove something to yourself by getting fit and running in a marathon? Tune into envy to illuminate your longings, then do something about them!
3) Jealousy as a Trail Marker for Enduring Emotional Vulnerabilities
Joseph Addison: “Jealousy is a pain which a man feels from the apprehension that he is not equally beloved by the person whom he entirely loves.”
If jealousy is showing up, we can also see it as a trailhead for an enduring emotional vulnerability, or as we say in Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, an emotional “raw spot.” Imagine it sort of like having a big bruise—people can casually bump into it, but it is so deep it’s still really sensitive.
There are a number of childhood and early life experiences that can impact how jealousy shows up and hangs out in our bodies; being abandoned or neglected by a primary caregiver, having younger siblings/sibling with chronic illness or being treated differently than siblings/family members, parents dating/remarrying, to name a few. Looking at it this way, when we feel jealous, we can slow down and take some time to check in and see if the feeling traces back to an earlier time in our life, igniting an old fear or pain point.
We may have also experienced relational norm violations in past/present relationships as adults, and these can also create lasting vulnerabilities. If you’ve been ‘cheated on’ in the past, for instance, it can be helpful to remember to recognize that jealousy can actually be trying to help protect you from getting hurt again—it’s trying to tell you, “There are some similar factors here as there where during the dangerous time when we got hurt. We never want to be hurt again like that! Stay on alert!”
It can be helpful to build relationships with the different parts of you involved in jealousy so that you can learn how to soothe and lead your own frightened or dysregulated parts. Remember—100% of you is never jealous. There are parts of you that are. There’s maybe a super analytical part, a suspicious part, and a part that remembers the grief of being ‘cheated on’ that get together and queue jealousy. Maybe analytical part needs to be reminded of its own logical fallacies and probable miscalculations. Suspicious part might need to be reassured that you’ve done counseling and learned how to look for more empathic people to relate with now.
It may sound hippie dippie, but I promise the neurobiology will catch up—if you take those parts under your wing and speak to them, they’ll listen and calm. “I’ve got us” is an example of a great, reassuring message you can share inside with jealous, unsure parts of yourself. “We’re safe” is another. Imagine language to soothe a scared little kid—any of that will work! “I’m going to take good care of us. You’re not alone. Everything is going to be okay. I’m right here.”
Right after an ‘affair’ has been revealed, your radar can actually go into hyperdrive for a while. From my clinical experience it’s normal if jealousy ramps up intensely for up to 6-8 months or so after the reveal, but it tends to taper off once the relationship has stabilized and started to attune again. It can be tempting to be sassy with jealous parts, but I really want to invite you to extend them love and compassion. Jealous parts are distressed and just trying to take care of you—be the most patient with the parts of yourself the cause you the most angst, suspicion included.
4) Jealousy as Primal Panic
When jealousy isn’t that present in our lives, it’s often when we feel like our partner really hears us, values us, and will be influenced by us and what matters most to us. Primal panic is when our most primitive attachment wiring screams out, YOU MIGHT LOSE YOUR SAFE HAVEN! YOU MIGHT LOSE YOUR PRIMARY PARTNER! It’s when our attachment wiring tells us to seek proximity to the person/people we’re bonded with because DANGER! DANGER! YOU COULD END UP ALONE!
If you’ve ever experienced jealousy in a relationship, you might have noticed that it’s a little hard to keep your cool about it. Especially if you have that anxious/preoccupied way of coping in attachment relationships. Our most ancient wiring knows that alone = danger. So the feelings you’re feeling aren’t because you’re overreacting or petty or weak—they helped your ancestors stay in close, sustaining relationships; they helped our predecessors survive.
I see this kind of primal panic activated frequently in poly/open relationships where there aren’t clear, shared relational norms and expectations or ways of consistently maintaining and renegotiating shared understandings and agreements. In relationships of all sorts, we tend to feel unsafe and out of control when we sense/feel that our partners will or cannot be 1) accessible, 2) responsive, and 3) emotionally engaged. These are three qualities we see in relationships with secure, healthy bonds (Dr. Sue Johnson, Emotionally Focused Therapy).
While we’re here, Franklin Veaux has some wise words on jealousy: “The way to keep from feeling threatened or jealous is to figure out what lies at the root of the jealousy and then deal with that, not by creating relationship structures that are intended to make the jealousy go away. Jealousy is rooted in other emotions, such as insecurity or fear of loss.”
Ask your partners what you do that makes them feel reassured and soothed when they feel unsettled. Make sure that they also know what you need in the same boat! It’s okay if you aren’t sure what you need to feel reassured; agree to keep on the lookout and let your partner/s know when they do something that feels good and helpful. It’s normal for folks whose families tended to dismiss emotions or who pretended everything was fine when it wasn’t to not really know what they need because it was never provided. If you feel hopeless about getting your needs met or unsure if it’s possible—that’s also normal. I’d invite you to just stay open and curious. You might be surprised.
5) Jealousy as an Intuitive Warning Sign
Last but not least, I want to mention that sometimes jealousy is actually your intuition tuning into a boundary violation that’s being kept from you. I hear about an especially healthy kind of jealousy popping up when there have already been secret boundary violations or someone has come close. Especially if someone is explaining things away with phrases like “just friends,” or seems to be gaslighting you, trust your intuition.
“5 signs your partner’s friendship is not an innocent friendship” from Kyle Benson for The Gottman Institute:
“Has the friendship been hidden?
Are your questions about the friendship responded with ‘don’t worry’ or discouragement?
Have you asked it to end, only to have your partner tell you no?
Have your boundaries been disrespected?
Is the friend the subject of fantasies or comments during troubled times in the relationship?”
Our motor neuron circuitry, “mirror neurons,” allow us to feel what other people are describing/feeling/thinking, so if a partner is trying to keep a secret like an ‘infidelity,’ chances are everyone in the relationship can feel it, even if they aren’t 100% sure what it is. I can't tell you how many clients and friends report some version of, “I just knew,” when asked why they finally confronted a partner suspected of being involved in a secret relationship.
All that to say: trust your guts. Again, if you’re still freshly in the wake of an affair reveal or you haven’t done your individual counseling work to heal early life wounds, your guts may overreact for a little while, but your intuitive power will be restored as your balance and wellness is.
I hear a lot of women, in particular, trying to compartmentalize and avoid feelings of jealousy because “it’s not a good look,” or it’s “unattractive,” but if you ignore an emotional experience like this, you could be missing out on crucial data about important people and relationships.
How can you tell when your jealousy isn’t just a message to tune into, but something more problematic? April Eldemire, LMFT for The Gottman Institute (2018) categorizes the following as unhealthy jealous behaviors:
“Checking your spouse’s phone or email without permission
Insulting your spouse
Assuming that your spouse is not attracted to you
Grilling your spouse on their whereabouts throughout the day
Accusing your spouse of lying without evidence”
Jealousy can also provide useful information about the trust system in a relationship if we’re patient with it and keep an open line of communication about our wants and needs in terms of boundaries. If something has happened in your relationship that’s made it hard to trust and jealousy feels like it’s taking over your life, couples counseling can help—you don’t have to go it alone; there’s hope.
It’s not a fun feeling to feel, but jealousy helps move us in the direction of relationship preservation—it spurs us to check on the health of our most precious bonds.
Additional Resources for Working with Jealousy:
Tristan Taormino - The Jealousy Workbook
Franklin Veaux - The Practice of Jealousy Management
Nancy Friday - Jealousy
Robert Leahy - What if Your Partner is Jealous?
Michele Scheinkman & Denise Werneck - Disarming jealousy in couples relationships: a multidimensional approach
The Gottman Institute - Why Do We Get Jealous in Relationships?
Take care of each other!