- Online technologies can increase the occurrence of jealousy in romantic relationships.
- Jealousy is not always negative and can be sign of investment and vulnerability in a relationship.
- Jealousy can be symptomatic of early attachment injuries.
Jealousy frequently pops up in couples therapy, and there are ever-increasing opportunities for jealousy in the digital age. Instagram algorithms routinely play to sexual desire and encourage a wandering gaze. Work texts can drift subtly into flirting and be carried on after-hours and bleed into home life. An ex can reach out to us through our phone and reconnect and reminisce as we lay in bed beside our partner.
When jealousy arises—and it will—what do we do about it and whose fault is it? Should someone better police their own digital activities and connections for the sake of their partner’s sense of security? Or is their partner's reaction simply over-stated and un-attuned to other interpersonal needs (non-sexual friendships) or harmless fantasies? Here's how couples can start to answer those questions.
Is Jealousy Always Bad?
No. Jealousy often gets a bad rap but can be a sign of care and investment in the partner. Sometimes the person on the receiving end of jealous emotions needs this consolation. Jealousy can mean that the partner doesn’t take the relationship for granted, that it matters, and that they have skin in the game.
A laissez-faire attitude (i.e. zero jealousy) can itself be a negative sign of indifference, romantic drift, or even an inability to be vulnerable. In some of these cases, a little anxiety or jealousy needs to be activated and created in the relationship. There has to be a sense of risk and some interpersonal vulnerability. Our time on earth is limited and our relationships, too, are mortal: they end, fail, and come apart. Without a little bit of anxiety or indeed jealousy, couples can coast too easily. This is the roommate or sibling situation that many couples describe falling into.
In short, when jealousy arises, don’t panic. Investigate it and take it first as a meaningful sign of relationship value from your partner.
When Is Jealousy Problematic?
Jealousy becomes a problem when it is unexamined, automatic, and the ruling emotion in a couple. Sometimes jealousy can enlarge to the point of obsession and compulsivity, exhausting both partners and interfering with basic day-to-day functioning. This can happen after a traumatic experience like an affair and can feel justified; indeed, the jealous partner can feel as if they were proven right.
However, the constant vigilance and anxiety that makes up this kind of jealousy can further feelings of alienation and even serve as a distraction from the necessary examination of the pain and hurt underneath. In these cases, it is better to seek out a therapist or family doctor for further support and guidance to manage this elevated experience of jealousy.
Be Curious About Your Partner's Attachment History
In more moderate forms of jealousy, however, it is advisable to be curious about the jealous partner’s attachment history: Who were their attachment figures growing up, and how secure or consistent was their attention and affection?
Very often, with high levels of jealousy, there are attachment injuries underneath: a history of insecurity or feeling like the rug could be pulled out at any minute and love could be withheld or denied. Knowing this can lend empathy to your partner and reframe their jealousy as less about your activities than about their emotional history. This can shift the conversation from one of blaming and shaming to one of curiosity, empathy and intimacy.
Because the technologies we use to connect are almost always with us and implicate us in our most intimate settings (bed, bathroom), the threat is not alleviated when we are alone with our partners at home. The conveniences of online technologies can feel like interpersonal cuts to our partner when we connect in seemingly harmless ways with others in our online social bubbles. Being mindful of when and how we connect with others, and being intentional and transparent with the meanings of these connections, can help anticipate and mitigate eruptions of romantic jealousy.
Janice A. Spring, After the Affair. New York: Harper, 2020.
Stan Tatkin, “The plight of the avoidantly attached partner in couples therapy,” New Therapist, 2009.