Jealousy is an emotion that encompasses a range of unpleasant feelings such as negativity, fear, insecurity, and anxiety. It can occur in relationships when your partner behaves in a way that makes you fear his/her betrayal. At times, the emotion arises from misinterpreting an event – taking your partner’s innocent behaviour and thinking about it in the worst way possible. For example, thinking that your partner is cheating if they come home late, or doesn’t return your phone call immediately.
It is usually maintained by your uncertainties about the relationship, such as not knowing where you stand compared to a third party, what is really going on in your partner’s mind, and whether your reactions are subjective or based on an actual situation of betrayal. Some individuals may be more vulnerable to jealous behaviour, causing them to act in irrational ways. For example, someone who was cheated on by their previous partner may feel the need to regularly check their current partner’s phone or Facebook page. However, engaging in these behaviours is likely to increase their suspicion, rather than calm it.
Jealousy has generally been associated with negative outcomes such as relationship conflict, domestic violence, and divorce. It can also cause the non-jealous partner to feel controlled and mistrusted, especially when the jealous partner attempts to restrict their freedom, or engages in surveillance behaviours such as reading emails or monitoring their partner’s whereabouts.
Are there different types of jealousy?
Various typologies has been proposed, one of which distinguishes between three types of jealousy:
Reactive jealousy: the degree to which individuals experience negative emotions when their partner is or has been emotionally or sexually unfaithful. For example, feeling angry or hurt from seeing your partner flirt with, or finding out that they have been intimate with another person.
Possessive jealousy: describes the effort that a person goes to to prevent their partner from having contact with individuals of the sex they are attracted to. For example, attempting to control/limit your partner’s autonomy by forbidding them from socialising with other women/men.
Anxious jealousy: involves constantly thinking about and visualising their partner’s infidelity which results in feelings of anxiety, suspicion, worry and distrust.
This typology assumes that different types of jealousy differ in the extent to which they could be problematic or unhealthy for the relationship. For example, as reactive jealousy is triggered by actual involvement with another person, this can be seen as rational (i.e. signals that you care for each other and value the relationship enough to want to protect it).
In contrast, possessive and anxious jealousy can be triggered in the absence of a real threat and can become problematic for a number of reasons. Characteristic of anxious jealousy is the rumination of thoughts, what some people know as “overthinking”. Rumination has been found to be a maladaptive way of coping with stressful events, as it can result in feeling depressed, experiencing low self-worth and relationship distress. Possessive jealousy can be unhealthy when it is aimed at controlling one’s partner, and when it results in repeatedly invading your partner’s privacy boundaries such as repeatedly calling or texting, or monitoring them on social media. However, its function can also be positive when it motivates either partner to engage in behaviours that protect the relationship.
How do I overcome jealousy?
Depending on how you express it, different techniques and/or types of counselling may be used to manage the intensity of your jealousy experience. If you are dealing with your partner’s transgression and have decided to forgive his/her infidelity, your reactive jealousy may be best dealt with by working through the feelings of anger and hurt, and learning ways to let go of any resentment, bitterness, or desire for vengeance. Once you have decided on forgiveness, it is likely that you will be less inclined to developing paranoia and feelings of distrust. Anxious jealousy experiences on the other hand may be best managed by addressing any irrational beliefs, insecurity, and distrust.
Can jealousy be a force for good?
Jealousy tends to carry a negative connotation – but is it really the emotion that we hate to admit, or the way that we act when it hits us? When expressed positively, some of the potential benefits include:
- Enhancing closeness and intimacy – For example, rather than being passive aggressive upon seeing an attractive person show interest in your partner, use it as an opportunity to rediscover the positive attributes that attracted you to your partner in the first place.
- Boosting your fitness/health – If you’ve been putting off going to the gym or haven’t found the motivation to improve your physical health, jealousy can be the fuel you need to kick start healthier habits – no doubt it will boost your self-esteem and confidence too!
- Motivation to be a better half – We’re all too familiar with ‘the comfort zone’ in a relationship, where we start to get a bit too lazy, a bit too busy, and find ourselves slacking off in the relationship. Jealousy can serve as a reminder for you to be the best partner you can be, as well as motivating your partner to be the same. Organise a date night or plan an activity you’ve never done before. Better yet, surprise your partner with tickets to a concert they’ve been wanting to go to. The ideas are endless!
- Mutual reassurance – Everyone likes to feel appreciated and valued. By engaging in assertive communication, both parties are less likely to become withdrawn or avoidant. It’ll allow you to seek the reassurance you need, while also letting your partner know how much the relationship means to you. Just remember that constant reassurance is likely to do more harm than good.
Should I seek help?
There is nothing embarrassing or shameful about wanting to seek help for such intense emotions. If you feel that jealousy is consuming your everyday thoughts and would like to regain control over your actions, it may be helpful to see your GP or therapist who can help you work on the areas that are affecting you most. This could be on how to express your jealousy positively, maintaining a balance between security and freedom in the relationship, creating mutually acceptable boundaries, or developing effective strategies to deal with any personal insecurities and the uncertainties of love.
Barelds, D.P.H., & Barelds-Dijkstra, P. (2007). Relations between different types of jealousy and self and partner perceptions of relationship quality. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 14, 176-188.
Scheinkman, M., & Werneck, D. (2010). Disarming Jealousy in Couples Relationships: A Multidimensional Approach. Family Process, 49, 486-502.