Whether seen as a sign of true love or of a lack of trust in one’s partner, jealousy is a range of states and behaviours attributed to romantic relationships. In reality, it also appears in other types of interactions, revealing the inclinations of the person who feels it, but also the quality of the relationship that generates it.
How we can recognise and combat jealousy when we experience it personally—either as the jealous person or as the “target” of jealousy—depends on our willingness to cultivate a balanced relationship with ourselves and with others.
The relationship triangle
Jealousy is a negative emotion, born out of the fear that someone might “steal” the love, approval or attention of a person of interest to us. The Greek etymology of the word describes jealousy as “a distressing feeling caused by the suspicion or certainty that the loved one is unfaithful.”
Unlike envy (acute dissatisfaction triggered when someone outshines us in appearance, achievement or financial status), jealousy stems from the fear of losing something or someone. Its manifestation leads to the emergence of a “triangle of relationships” comprising the jealous person, the partner (or object) over whom they exercise exclusivity, and the “opponent” who threatens a state or situation that is desirable to the jealous person.
Experts highlight that, from a purely romantic perspective, jealousy involves an emotional dimension (anger, sadness, fear, hatred), a cognitive dimension (constant assessment of the risk of being deprived of the relationship) and a behavioural dimension (actions by which the person tries to protect what he or she considers to be his or her own).
Jealousy at home and at work
According to researchers, even babies show a form of jealousy towards their mothers when they direct their attention to other people or things in their proximity, and pets are capable of emotional reactions similar to jealousy (especially dogs).
Jealousy is therefore not confined to the romantic realm or to a particular category of interactions and beings; it is universal in nature and can infiltrate almost any type of attachment: siblings competing for their parents’ attention, students yearning to be at the top of the class, or subordinates striving to impress their boss.
Based on the idea that jealousy is the result of a process of social comparison, Rosario Zurriaga, professor at the Department of Social Psychology at the University of Valencia, analysed the responses of 426 employees in different sectors (204 men and 222 women) who were presented with a hypothetical scenario of a workplace relationship.
The research confirmed that even the workplace is conducive to the development of feelings of jealousy, showing that both men and women feel threatened by certain social skills of colleagues perceived as “rivals”: openness to others, sense of humour, or empathy. In addition, men reported higher levels of jealousy towards physically dominant “competitors,” while women revealed insecurity about the external attractiveness of colleagues perceived as “rivals.”
A similar finding was reported in an earlier study, which found no gender differences in the generation of jealousy based on the social dominance characteristics of rivals. The study also found that, both in the workplace and in private, men are jealous of the physical characteristics of their rivals, while women react to the attractiveness of those with whom they compare themselves.
Other research shows that men tend to be more jealous at the prospect of sexual infidelity, while women are particularly sensitive to emotional betrayal by their partners.
Although the socio-cultural perspective argues that the identified gender differences mask certain stereotypes about the different ways in which men and women form attachments, the counter-arguments do not invalidate the veracity of these theories, but only highlight the importance of cultural and environmental factors in shaping the expectations that men and women have of each other.
Why are we jealous?
Often confused with intense and passionate love, jealousy actually points to a range of problems that lead to toxic relationships, abandonment, and painful hurt. To deal with it differently, it’s important to decipher its causes, whether it’s low self-esteem, a need for control, poor parental role models or unrealistic expectations from a partner.
Jealousy can be a learned behaviour that can accompany us from childhood (when the monopoly on parents is disrupted by the arrival of a younger brother or sister) into adulthood and adult relationships.
If poorly handled by parents, the arrival of a second child in the family can leave the first-born with a fear of abandonment, the feeling that he or she is not valuable enough in the eyes of the adults, or the belief that he or she must sabotage the junior’s presence in order to regain his or her privileged place in the home. The lack of emotional security that results from anxious attachment can continue into adulthood, accompanied by the certainty that attachments to others must be carefully monitored and protected at all costs, even in the absence of any real threat.
Lack of self-confidence is another cause of jealousy, and self-critical people with low self-esteem who are used to comparing themselves to others are perfect candidates for the classic jealous profile.
These types of people tend to interpret the actions of their partner (or other important people in their lives) through the prism of their own beliefs about themselves, constantly looking for confirmation of the worst-case scenarios, as well as signs of rejection where none actually exist.
Mistrust of the partner, in turn, leads to a tendency to check up on him or her obsessively, to express suspicions about his or her possible intentions, and to dwell on negative thoughts (rumination). Difficulties in trusting one’s partner may be the result of their infidelity, or one may have a pathological cause that is not directly related to the history of the relationship. According to psychologist Iulia Barca, one’s personality structure can include paranoid tendencies, which by their very definition imply a distrust of others, suspecting that they have hidden, often malicious, intentions towards us.
Taken to the extreme, these personality traits have the potential to materialise in intrusive behaviours of intense surveillance of one’s partner, violating their right to privacy.
“It is well known that most of the crimes committed by men in a marital relationship stem from the feeling of jealousy. At an international level, if you look at all cultures around the world, people [even] kill each other because of jealousy,” says psychotherapist Gaspar Gyorgy, describing how jealousy can turn into obsession and paranoia.
Jealousy can also be a veritable indicator of the need to control a partner’s behaviour, to make decisions for them, to undermine their will, thus revealing various forms of abuse.
“The partner becomes more and more intrusive in the other person’s life, tries to control all their actions, tries to monitor them, becomes suspicious,” points out psychiatrist Mihai Bran.
Although it is not one of our natural needs, the need for control becomes dominant in those adults who, in childhood, were confronted with neglect, the emotional unavailability of their parents or a lack of predictability. An insecure family environment, inadequate to the child’s needs for growth and development, activates the hypervigilance of the young child, who craves stability and emotional comfort. In this context, hypervigilance acts as a self-defence and prevention mechanism against states of generalised anxiety, and also manifests itself in relationships with close people whose autonomy is likely to jeopardise the much-desired illusion of security.
He/she loves me, he/she loves me not
Although some applaud the saying, “If they’re not jealous, it means they don’t love me,” jealousy is not a necessary part of love. Furthermore, jealousy motivated by apparent love can lead to underestimating the severity of certain acts committed by a partner, and even tolerating abuse (verbal, physical, emotional, sexual, etc.).
Jealousy is not an appropriate means of detecting problems in a couple either, as there are other ways of noticing inappropriate behaviour on the part of a partner.
In addition to their good qualities, a jealous partner (or sibling, friend, colleague) will also bring into the relationship a number of habits typical of toxic people: a tendency to possessiveness, repeated expressions of distrust, a tendency to be intrusive and monopolise the other to the point of social isolation, or rejection of common sense boundaries.
The emergence of such tensions in the couple undermines the foundation of mutual trust on which the relationship is built, interferes with effective and honest communication, and prevents the development of a strong bond between the two.
To avoid the deterioration of a couple’s relationship, or any other bond threatened by an exacerbated sense of ownership, we need to recognise jealousy’s ability to turn even the best of intentions into potentially destructive weapons.
So when we experience the effects of jealousy in our partner or other people we care about, we have an obligation—for our own emotional well-being and for the benefit of the relationship—to express our opinions, feelings, and suggestions about any behaviour we consider inappropriate.
If, on the other hand, we are on the other side of the fence, we need to learn how to recognise and constructively express the negative emotions brought to the surface by the power of jealousy by following some guidelines that will help us to better manage the situation:
- Identify thoughts about situations that trigger jealousy
Before showing suspicion towards your partner or expressing fears about the future of the relationship, you need to identify the source of the automatic thoughts. Are there solid arguments, backed up by real facts, that reinforce your suspicions, or does it all come from within, from a place of absolute insecurity?
- Avoid attempts to control your partner’s environment
Eliminating disruptive factors that arouse feelings of jealousy can seem to be an effective strategy to ensure that the relationship is well protected (from the presence of certain people, from visiting certain places that arouse suspicion, etc.). In reality, however, the desire to secure your “love story” in this way turns you into a person who is exclusively focused on your own needs, who is oriented towards control and who is always ready to restrict your partner’s freedom of movement in order to obtain the desired emotional comfort.
- Avoid prohibitions
Treating your partner like a child who is allowed or forbidden to behave naturally will frustrate him or her and make him or her want to get some fresh air or perhaps even escape from the cage in which he or she is condemned to live. In any relationship, boundaries are mutually agreed upon and reflect the will of both parties, not the result of a unilateral ban.
- Don’t confront your partner when emotions are high
Tackling sensitive issues head-on at a time of high adrenaline and tension can lead to unmanageable conflict. That’s why it’s a good idea to try to calm down by going for a walk, listening to your favourite music or getting an objective perspective on what’s bothering you before starting a “heavy” discussion.
However, when things get out of hand and you conclude that you can’t recover on your own, it’s worth considering seeking the support of a relationship specialist who can explore the sources of your insecurities and help you choose behaviours that will strengthen your relationship.
Genia Ruscu has a Master’s Degree in Social Work Counselling.