Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Romantic Jealousy

How can we understand problematic jealousy and help people cope better?

Jealous worry
Source: Unsplash

Jealousy is a common problem in therapy, but surprisingly little has been written in the cognitive behavioral therapy literature on how to help clients cope with it. Jealousy is always about three people, where one person perceives a threat or insult to a “special” relationship with a third person. We can see jealousy in intimate relationships, between siblings, friends, among colleagues, and even in infants.

In fact, pet owners report jealousy in their pets, with horses and dogs showing the greatest jealousy. We often confuse jealousy with envy, but envy is not about a threat to a special relationship, but rather about a threat to one’s loss of status or the perception of unfair treatment in a status or reward hierarchy.

If you attend professional conferences, you can see the envy among top competitors, who express both hostile and, in some cases, depressive envy. When they hear that someone has gained greater attention, they often gossip about their shortcomings but may also harbor their own feelings of humiliation and defeat. (I discuss these emotions in my book, Emotional Schema Therapy .)

Last year, I published a book on how we can understand and cope with intense jealous feelings: The Jealousy Cure: Learn to Trust, Overcome Possessiveness, and Save Your Relationship . I had realized over years of practice that many clients struggle with feelings of jealousy, often ruminating, blaming, begging, threatening, and sabotaging their relationships. I could not find a self-help book to recommend to clients that drew on the advances in CBT, so I decided to provide this guide.

Rather than as a failure of self-esteem or irrational should-statements, I view jealousy as a close to universal part of human nature and an attempt to cope with threats to important attachment figures in one’s life.

The evolutionary models of jealousy support this. Parental investment theory proposes that males can never be sure about the paternity of a baby, while females always know that they are the biological mother. Thus, males are more likely to feel threatened by sexual infidelity, while females are more likely than males to feel threatened by emotional closeness. Research on a wide range of cultures shows that this sex difference in jealousy holds up. Another evolutionary process underlying jealousy is competition for limited resources, which can also account for jealousy among siblings and colleagues.

People who experience intense jealousy in romantic relationships are plagued by their strong attachment to their partner while experiencing anger and anxiety about perceived external threats—others or “interlopers.” These anxious and ambivalent attachments fuel jealousy. In fact, the research shows that the greater investment a person has, the greater the likelihood of jealousy. However, this is offset if there is greater “certainty” in the relationship, as one can experience in many longer-term relationships. Jealousy is less common during the early stages of a relationship since there is little invested, but it can increase as attachment increases with time.

Attachment style also affects jealousy, with anxiously attached individuals experiencing more jealousy. In fact, those with a detached or avoidant attachment express less jealousy, since they are less dependent and focused on the need for a relationship. Contrary to popular opinion, self-esteem is not consistently related to jealousy. Indeed, there are some cases in which higher self-esteem is manifested in greater assertion as the individual tries to set limits on the infidelity and flirting of their partner.

I argue that it is important to normalize and validate the difficulty of jealousy, never telling the patient, “You shouldn’t feel this way,” or “Stop feeling jealous.” But this is like telling someone in pain to stop complaining about the pain.

I suggest making a distinction between jealousy feelings/thoughts and jealous behavior. In fact, it is often the behaviors that lead to greater threats to the relationship. These jealous behaviors include interrogating, derogating, threatening, stalking, and withdrawing. We can identify and test out the many jealous thought patterns, such as mind-reading (“She finds him attractive”), fortune-telling (“He is going to run off with her”), catastrophizing (“It would be the end of my life if she betrayed me”), and over-generalizing (“Men can’t be trusted”). Although many negative thoughts may prove accurate, it is important to test them against opposing interpretations and evidence.

I propose that many people endorse beliefs in "Emotional Perfectionism," "Romantic Perfectionism," and "Pure Mind":

  • Emotional Perfectionism fuels jealousy, since the individual believes that they should only have positive and pleasant feelings—or that their partner should have these perfect feelings. Thus, people want to “eliminate” their feelings or their partner’s jealous feelings. This is unrealistic.

  • Romantic Perfectionism entails beliefs that one should never be attracted to or flirt with others—or that one’s intimate partner should never have enjoyed sexual or emotional intimacy with others in their past. Again, totally unrealistic.

  • And Pure Mind is a kind of obsessive standard that one cannot tolerate mixed or conflicting feelings and that any negative or unpleasant thoughts and feelings must be purged. Again, an impossible task. Learning to live with noise, contradiction, disappointment, and doubt is an essential part of reality.

I think of jealousy as “angry, agitated worry,” and as such we can use a range of CBT techniques to cope with these intrusive thoughts. Drawing on the work of Adrian Wells— Metacognitive Therapy —we can think of intrusive thoughts as “just thoughts,” telemarketing calls, background noise, or clouds in the sky that pass by. Detached mindfulness can help in disengaging and observing rather than struggling with these thoughts.

Clients can set aside “jealousy time,” when they set up an appointment with their thoughts and postpone engaging with them until that assigned time. This can help clients gain greater control and detachment. During the jealousy time, the individual can ask if ruminating and worrying is going to solve any problems, gain certainty, or lead to productive action. If the conclusion is that it won’t, then we introduce the acceptance piece. This includes acceptance of uncertainty and limitations of control—and even acceptance that things won’t work out. Of particular value in this regard is what I call “The Boredom Technique,” in which an individual repeats the feared thought—“My partner could betray me”—ad nauseam, until they are bored and no longer care.

Couples also need to determine the ground rules of what their commitment means to them and what their expectations are. There are no universal ground rules—some people may accept more “open” relationships, although most will not. Communicating dissatisfaction also can involve helping clients learn better ways of expressing themselves without getting into the Prosecutor-Defendant-Judge Roles in which so many people find themselves.

Usually, the goal is not to eliminate jealousy, since this invalidation and suppression approach seldom works, but rather to find ways of incorporating jealous feelings and thoughts in a relationship. After all, jealous feelings often come from a sense that things matter and that someone is special to you, and that is not something that people want to eliminate.