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Extreme Jealousy in Relationships

When you are jealous, you fear that you may lose a loved one’s affection.

Jealousy and envy are painful emotions that can be hard to distinguish from one another, says Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, Professor of Philosophy and the author of In the Name of Love.

When you are jealous, you fear that you may lose a loved one’s affection or favoritism to someone else. When you are envious, you perceive yourself as getting the short end of the stick.

Ben-Zeév has found that lovers of unavailable people experience both emotions. They want more, and they don’t want to lose what they have. This puts them at risk for developing morbid, or extreme, jealousy. Love chemicals run amok, while competitor genes and social conventions can also trigger extreme jealousy.

Morbid Jealousy

Jealousy in moderation is normal. It shows that we care about the other person, like a spouse or partner. Morbid jealousy is pathological. It is an irrational emotion that signals a psychopathological disorder, write forensic psychiatrists Michael Kingham and Harvey Gordon in a 2004 issue of Advances in Psychiatric Treatment.

Morbid jealousy is signaled by irrational, obsessive thoughts centered around a lover or ex-lover’s possible sexual unfaithfulness, together with unacceptable or extreme behavior. Surprisingly, it occurs more often in older individuals and in males. The average age at onset is 38 years. The authors emphasize that morbid jealousy is a symptom, not a diagnosis.

Jealousy Chemicals

Oxytocin has been called the love hormone, the trust hormone, and the cuddle hormone. Newer studies show that the effects of this hormone are context-dependent. When our associations are negative, the hormone can trigger commotion, according to a 2009 study in Biological Psychiatry.

The study team looked at responses in participants playing a high-stakes, competitive game after receiving either oxytocin or a placebo. They found that defeated oxytocin-high participants were significantly more envious and resentful than controls. The findings indicate that whether a particular chemical brain state triggers love or fury depends on how we perceive our social situation.

Gender Differences

Numerous studies have shown that sexual cheating triggers jealousy in men, whereas emotional cheating get women’s blood boiling. The evolutionary explanation is that a man may hinder spreading his genes if he wastes scarce resources providing for another man’s child, whereas a woman may be disadvantaged if she loses her provider.

However, the evolutionary story is too simplistic, report Pennsylvania State psychologists Kenneth Levy and Kristen Kelly. A significant subset of men react with extreme jealousy if they hear of deep intimacy between a lover or ex-lover and another man. The prevailing evolutionary story does nothing to shed light on this phenomenon, the team says.

Jealousy and Commitment

To get to the bottom of the mystery, Levy and Kelly compared attachment styles and jealousy types in men and women. They found that participants who described themselves as self-reliant or intimacy-phobic felt strongly about sexual cheating but not emotional cheating. The reverse was the case for individuals portraying themselves as needing intimacy.

Compulsive self-reliance is a defense mechanism that shields against deep-rooted fear, the team says. Intimacy-phobes will admit to extreme feelings when the relationship contract has been overtly violated but not when the infringement was non-sexual. Reactions to the latter scenario would disclose what they are trying to hide: They are vulnerable and afraid.

Jealousy as a Social Convention

Jealousy is a social convention just like monogamy, states Christopher Ryan, a Barcelona-based psychologist and co-author of Sex at Dawn. Society expects you to be jealous, and we are supremely accepting of socially-defined norms. Even as we speak, girls necks are being elongated by brass rings in parts of Thailand and Burma, clitorises cut away with rusty blades and labia sewn together in North Africa.

Ryan adds that jealousy also feeds on socially created fear—fear of financial hardship, social stigmas, and not having easy access to sex or intimacy. The author suspects that cheating would be no more than a minor irritant if we removed these triggers.

Berit "Brit" Brogaard is the author of On Romantic Love.