What's Really Behind Jealousy, and What to Do About It
Practical tips for dealing with a partner's jealousy, or your own.
Posted Oct 28, 2014
It's a common misconception that jealousy is a sign of love.
I recently saw the following quote on Twitter, from a source whose username at least suggested the author was associated with psychology: “The people who are really in love get jealous over stupid things.” I was surprised to see this misconception so deeply ingrained that even seemingly psychologically savvy people believe it.
Jealousy can be a major relationship problem—a survey of marital therapists reported that romantic jealousy was a serious problem for a third of their clients.1 I hope to dispel the myth that jealousy is a sign of love. But if it's not, then what really motivates jealous responses? Research has linked several traits to greater jealousy:
- Low self-esteem.2,3
- Neuroticism: a general tendency to be moody, anxious, and emotionally unstable.2,4
- Feelings of insecurity and possessiveness.5
- Dependence on your partner:6,7 Even asking people to imagine that they don’t have good alternative partners leads to more negative reactions to hypothetical jealousy-inducing scenarios.8
- Feelings of inadequacy in your relationship: Generally fearing that you’re not good enough for your partner.3,9,10
- An anxious attachment style: A chronic orientation toward romantic relationships that involves fear that your partner will leave you or won’t love you enough.11,12 Research has shown that temporarily causing people to feel more securely attached, by asking them to think about receiving support from a loved one, makes them react less severely to a hypothetical jealousy-inducing situation.13
All of these factors that relate to jealousy are about the insecurities of the jealous people, not about the love they have for their partner.14
So if your partner is exhibiting unwarranted jealousy, what should you do?
You should realize that your partner’s jealousy isn’t about you; it’s about them. Respond to expressions of jealousy by reassuring your partner of your love. Research has shown that those who respond to partners’ jealousy by reassuring them of their interest and attraction tend to have more stable relationships.15
What should you do if you’re jealous?
How should you deal with jealousy if you’re the one snooping through your partner’s email? Several actions can help you cope:
- Avoid situations that are likely to arouse false suspicions. In one survey, researchers found that those who were jealous tended to monitor their partners’ Facebook activity. The more they snooped on Facebook, the more they would find evidence to worry about, leading to even more spying, and creating a vicious cycle of increased monitoring and jealousy.16
- Work on yourself. Work on building your confidence in yourself and your relationship.
- Communicate with your partner. If you are experiencing jealousy, talk about it with your partner—but the way you talk is key: If you express anger or sarcasm, or hurl accusations at your partner, that’s not going to help. You must be direct, but not hostile. Calmly explain your feelings and discuss how to find a solution. This will enable you to be more satisfied17 and prevent your partner from being confused by your jealous behavior.18 These communication strategies are most likely to bring out positive responses in your partner.19
Sometimes jealousy is justified: If your partner has had an affair and has betrayed your trust, for example, that is a serious issue. If you are jealous because you’re involved with someone who doesn’t seek monogamy, while you do, then your jealous feelings may be a good reason to leave the relationship and seek someone whose relationship goals are more compatible with yours. But when you get jealous over “stupid things," you’re not showing love; you’re revealing your own insecurities.
“There is more self-love than love in jealousy”—Francois Duc de La Rochefoucauld
Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College, who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior.
- 1 White, G. L. (2008). Romantic jealousy: Therapists’ perceptions of causes, consequences, and treatments. Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, 7, 210-229.
- 2 Khanchandani, L., & Durham, T. W. (2009). Jealousy during dating among female college students. College Student Journal, 43, 1272-1278.
- 3 White, G. L. (1981). Some correlates of romantic jealousy. Journal of Personality, 49, 129-145. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.1981.tb00733.x
- 4 Gehl, B. L. (2011). Personality antecedents of the experience and expression of romantic jealousy. Dissertation Abstracts International, 71, 6482.
- 5 Salovey, P., & Rodin, J. (1984). Some antecedents and consequences of social-comparison jealousy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47, 780-792. doi:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.110
- 6 Buunk, B. (1982). Anticipated sexual jealousy: Its relationship to self-esteem, dependency, and reciprocity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 8, 310-316. doi:10.1177/0146167282082019
- 7 Murphy, C. M., Meyer, S., & O'Leary, K. (1994). Dependency characteristics of partner assaultive men. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 103, 729-735. doi:10.1037/0021-843X.103.4.729
- 8 Rydell, R. J., McConnell, A. R., & Bringle, R. G. (2004). Jealousy and commitment: Perceived threat and the effect of relationship alternatives. Personal Relationships, 11, 451-468. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2004.00092.x
- 9 Knobloch, L. K., Solomon, D., & Cruz, M. G. (2001). The role of relationship development and attachment in the experience of romantic jealousy. Personal Relationships, 8, 205-224. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2001.tb00036.x
- 10 White, G. L. (1981). A model of romantic jealousy. Motivation and Emotion, 5, 295-310.
- 11 Buunk, B. P. (1997). Personality, birth order and attachment styles as related to various types of jealousy. Personality and Individual Differences, 23, 997-1006. doi:10.1016/S0191-8869(97)00136-0
- 12 Sharpsteen, D. J., & Kirkpatrick, L. A. (1997). Romantic jealousy and adult romantic attachment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 627-640. doi:10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1687
- 13 Selterman, D. F., & Maier, M. A. (2013). Secure attachment and material reward both attenuate romantic jealousy. Motivation and Emotion, 37, 765-775. doi:10.1007/s11031-013-9340-y
- 14 Miller, R. (2012). Intimate relationships (6th ed). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
- 15 Sheets, V. L., Fredenall, L. L., &Claypool, H. M. (1997). Jealousy evocation, partner reassurance, and relationship stability: An exploration of the potential benefits of jealousy. Evolution and Human Behavior, 18, 387–402. doi: 10.1016/S1090-5138(97)00088-3
- 16 Muise, A., Christofides, E., & Desmarais, S. (2009). More information than you ever wanted: Does Facebook bring out the green-eyed monster of jealousy?. Cyberpsychology & Behavior, 12, 441-444. doi:10.1089/cpb.2008.0263
- 17 Bevan, J. L. (2008). Experiencing and communicating romantic jealousy: Questioning the investment model. Southern Communication Journal, 73, 42-67. doi: 10.1080/10417940701815626
- 18 Bevan, J. L., & Tidgewell, K. D. (2009). Relational uncertainty as a consequence of partner jealousy expression. Communication Studies, 60, 305-323. doi: 10.1080/10510970902956057
- 19 Yoshimura, S. M. (2004). Emotional and behavioral responses to romantic jealousy expressions. Communication Reports, 17, 85-101. doi: 10.1080/08934210409389378