Jealousy is a complex emotion that encompasses feelings ranging from suspicion to rage to fear to humiliation. It strikes people of all ages, genders, and sexual orientations, and is most typically aroused when a person perceives a threat to a valued relationship from a third party. The threat may be real or imagined.
Jealousy is often thought of in the context of romantic relationships: a boyfriend who forbids his girlfriend from talking to other men, for instance, or a person who can’t stand to see her old flame post pictures with a new partner on Facebook. But the feeling can occur in almost every type of human relationship—from siblings competing for parental attention to coworkers trying to impress a respected boss.
Although jealousy is a painful emotional experience, evolutionary psychologists regard it not as an emotion to be suppressed but as one to heed—as a signal or a wake-up call that a valued relationship is in danger and that steps need to be taken to regain the affection of a mate or friend. As a result, jealousy is seen as a necessary emotion, because it preserves social bonds and motivates people to engage in behaviors that maintain important relationships.
Unwarranted jealousy often causes relationship unrest or dissatisfaction, and jealous people can behave in ways that are unreasonable or even dangerous. But jealousy is a natural, adaptive feeling designed to preserve important relationships. Feeling jealous may signal a relationship’s value or that two people are drifting apart.
Evidence suggests that some animals that form close social bonds with each other or with humans—including primates and dogs—can experience jealousy. As in humans, the amount of jealousy felt and the situations that trigger it vary between individual animals.
Valuable though it can be, jealousy also has the potential to fuel damaging behavior. It can compel someone to obsessively monitor another's communication, relationships, and whereabouts; attempt to lower their self-confidence; or even behave violently.
Even though it may feel taboo, simply acknowledging jealousy's presence can both help ward it off in the future and strengthen a relationship in the present. Exploring the emotions that underpin jealousy can inspire self-reflection that may help to develop internal coping skills. Being honest with the other party about jealous feelings can spur productive conversations about what the relationship might be missing and how to repair the bond.
Many people feel “retrospective jealousy,” or jealousy about a partner’s past. Recognizing that such feelings are normal can help, as can making an effort to focus on the present. Interrogating a partner about past lovers or seeking constant reassurance will likely only increase feelings of jealousy.
Jealousy is often motivated by insecurity or fear. Showing compassion to your loved one for these difficult feelings is paramount. Talk openly about what triggers their jealousy and what changes may help them feel less upset. Negotiate boundaries that feel acceptable to both parties.
Jealousy can easily cross the line into controlling behavior. If your partner, friend, or loved one monitors your behavior or whereabouts, makes wild false accusations, or tries to isolate you from people that trigger his or her jealousy, the relationship has become unhealthy and potentially dangerous. Seek help.
Jealousy and envy are similar feelings, but they’re not the same. Jealousy always involves a third party seen as a rival for affection or attention. Envy occurs between only two people and is best summed up as, "I want what you have." For example, someone may feel envious of another’s wealth, status, or appearance.
Compersion is another feeling loosely related to romantic or sexual jealousy. Compersion occurs when, rather than feeling distressed that a partner is emotionally or sexually involved with someone else, the individual feels happy for them. Compersion is most often discussed in the context of polyamory and other consensually non-monogamous relationships.
Be honest about your feelings and work to directly address any underlying issues (such as inequality within the relationship or personal feelings of inadequacy). It may help for the envious partner to pursue concrete avenues—such as a career change or a new workout routine—to boost self-efficacy and self-esteem.