Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Six Faces of Jealousy

Candid thoughts on how jealousy operates, and how to confront it.

"Love is blind, and jealousy sees too much." —Yiddish proverb

1. The cure for jealousy

It was never a good idea to ignore jealousy, though it often isn't useful to pay attention to it either, and not only that, it can be downright dangerous. It's irreducibly problematic. We explore jealousy at our own peril, but working through and beyond being the "jealous type" is without guarantee. Who would I be, and what would I see, without jealousy? Is my jealousy fixable, or do I have to learn to live with it?

Emotions are important sources of information about ourselves, which we absolutely need to navigate successfully in the world, in relationships, in our lives. Jealousy is the loneliest emotion, because we are both with someone while also imagining being abandoned in the most awful ways possible. Jealousy is unique, because unlike other feelings which come up in relationships, it is largely present regardless of who the other person is. Jealousy moves from relationship to relationship indiscriminately, a socially transmitted disease.

LightField Studios/Shutterstock
Source: LightField Studios/Shutterstock

2. Jealousy as being impossible to control

The problem with jealousy is that it is too often a vortex, which pulls us deep down into a state of obsessional hell within which we are tormented with visions of our loved ones betraying us in the most graphic and sexual ways we can imagine. It is no accident that jealousy is described so often as a demon. And so curious that jealousy itself, like the fantasies it engenders, is cruelly seductive. Jealousy takes over, and we seem to become someone else. Jealousy, like love, is blind. But in not exactly the same ways. The dark side of obsession, near-delusional at times, jealousy is an alter ego we don't want to know. Jealousy feels addictive.

Like love, especially new, passionate love, jealousy is obsessional. Therein lies the risk. Paying attention to obsessions means getting sucked into them, because many of us simply are unable to keep a safe distance while also staring jealousy in the face. We get possessed. It's better to recognize jealousy and deal with it when we aren't in a relationship, which people won't typically do, because we get very invested in denying that we are jealous to ourselves and others. It's a dangerous, mean little secret, one we know we should hide, because it is ugly, and because we know that we are out to destroy what we love, because we are afraid of being vulnerable. Jealousy leaves no room for compassion, not for others and certainly not for oneself.

More than that, jealousy may, psychoanalytically speaking, represent a wish to eliminate the vulnerability which comes with love's uncertain future by destroying love before it can hurt us. The loss is terrible, but at least it is predictable, because we bring about events rather than living with uncertainty as to what will happen. Rather than finding out by surprise that we were betrayed, we can anticipate it, and if jealousy is strong enough, bring about the end of the relationship in self-fulfilling prophecy style. Jealousy and control go hand in hand, along with emotional coercion and worse. No amount of power-plays can alleviate the insecurity underlying jealousy.

3. Jealousy as an alter ego

In this sense, jealousy feels like it comes from outside of ourselves even as we know it originates within. Jealousy is, like a tragic and horrible news story, a huge draw. We rubberneck at our own jealousy, because it is so full of fear — fear of loss, fear of betrayal, fear of reliving past hurts — that to ignore it feels like a very dangerous idea. In this regard, jealousy signals danger — and signals of danger are unwise to ignore when we don't quite know if there is real danger.

The danger in jealousy is the perception that those who are meant to love us and with whom we feel safe and secure are impostors. Jealousy can take on delusional and psychotic dimensions at its worst. Almost a split-off self, dissociated from who we are, jealousy can be the Mr. Hyde to our Dr. Jekyll.

4. Power in ambiguity

The meaning of danger in jealousy is ambiguous, and the power of jealousy comes partially exactly from this ambiguity. The logic is circular and relentless in the face of uncertainty. There are no answers, no trusted sources of information to reassure. The only trusted information would be proof of betrayal, bringing perverse relief.

If he or she doesn't really love me, then I am a fool; I am and will be publicly humiliated; and the humiliation is both felt as a failure in the relationship and more pointedly often with sexual fantasies of our loved ones being given impossible pleasure at the hands of a rival, and ourselves helplessly watching, fascinated in a sick way, while we are feeling utterly inadequate. There is a masochistic element to jealousy quite often, which paradoxically gives pleasure and a sense of empowerment from humiliation.

If he or she does love me and has not betrayed me, then jealousy is unfounded, and I'm a big dummy for worrying. Then I have to apologize; I have betrayed my lover by doubting them. I must make amends. But jealousy doesn't go away with reassurance, because the whisperer of doubt is insistent. Jealousy is a worm, winding its way down into the brain. Those who love us are suspect, pretending, lying ... but why?

Rather than see the origins of jealousy within ourselves, the badness appears to be a quality of those who purport to love us and promise to keep us safe. Jealousy protects us from our own unacceptable fears of being loathsome, beyond worse than unlovable.

5. Infidelity is irrelevant

To a significant extent, jealousy is independent of infidelity. It doesn't really matter if the person cheated or not. If they did, jealousy can turn into something else: rage and violence perhaps, or grief and sadness. The problem with jealousy is how persistent it is, regardless of reality. Jealousy isn't about what is; jealousy is about what could happen. For the obsessively jealous mind, there is no sense of safety, no proof, no good-enough evidence, no end.

Jealousy tends to be magnified, excluding other thoughts and goals. Jealousy can hijack our motivational systems, especially the attachment system. This makes it very difficult to "use" jealousy constructively. Sometimes if we learn to steer clear of those early jealous thoughts and feelings, we can nip it in the bud, but that takes discipline and vigilance, and jealousy can rear up years later out of the blue.

Once it hits a certain threshold, jealousy becomes an either-or phenomenon. You are either consumed by jealousy, or you are ignoring the fact that you are consumed by jealousy. Like a dark star, jealousy is there whether or not you can see it, exerting a gravitational pull on your sense of reality—especially relationship reality. Jealousy disrupts our sound-mindedness, undermining relationship sanity.

6. The evolutionary origins of jealousy

Mild jealousy can be seen as healthy, a sign of evolution at work. Evolutionary biologists talk about mating. We seek mates, we compete with alternates. We want to scan for threats to our mate choice. We need to prevent mate poaching. We are motivated to be better partners in order to remain competitive. Though jealousy comes from a deep animalistic and mammalian place, giving it a feral risk, it is part of what makes us feel alive, raw, lusty, hot-blooded. Along with that werewolf element, we can lose control with jealousy, becoming irrational—brain-jacked by obsession.

Having attracted a mate, we want to retain that mate, and perhaps acquire more mates. We are right to feel a little bit insecure, not to take our mates for granted. It keeps us on our relational toes, makes us work for our partner's affections and for the health of the relationship, keeping the experience fresh and novel. A bit of that is a good thing to have; it keeps us young and our relationships vibrant. But would you still call it jealousy if it is a good thing?

More from Grant Hilary Brenner MD, DFAPA
More from Psychology Today