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The Psychology of Jealousy

Updated: Apr 21, 2021

Experiencing jealousy may be one of the most universal sensations across different relationship structures. Monogamous and non-monogamous partners alike have to frequently navigate this highly stigmatized and potentially explosive emotion, and these navigations are rarely talked about openly. Too often, occurrences of jealousy are pathologized and dismissed; how often have you heard someone say, “I’m just a jealous person.”

Because we tend to be so silent or humiliated by our interactions with this emotion, jealousy has an enormous influence in our relationships to others and our relationship to ourselves. Feeling jealousy, or being the recipient of someone else’s jealousy, might make us feel as though our relationships are in danger of crumbling. Jealousy has the tendency to expose imagined cracks in the foundation of trust that partners build.

Jealousy is neither a weakness or a disease. It is helpful to understand what jealousy is - at its core, just another emotion we experience on a daily basis - which serves to diminish the power we give to the feeling. This is a perfect time to introduce the idea of psychology as a tool (instead of psychology as an abstract and often out-dated collection of academic concepts). Psychology as a tool allows us to conceptualize the physical and mental sensations in ways that feel less overwhelming, controlling, and unregulated. In other words, understanding the psychology of jealousy helps us to understand the nature of the feeling (why it is both valid and common) and to release some of the pressure we hold when we experience jealousy.

So, let’s get into it:

We tend to think that emotions happen to us. But cognitive science and emotion theory suggest otherwise. For example, the James-Lange Theory of Emotion says emotions may be something we do in response to stimuli. This theory says that emotions occur when your body undergoes a physical reaction to the outside world, and your brain creates emotions to make sense of that physical experience. For instance, you might have the sensation of your heart dropping when you hear bad news, and your mind creates the experience of “feeling sad” to explain that sensation.

We can think of jealousy as a feeling that explains the physical sensations of anxiety we experience when we perceive a threat to our relationships. And threats to our relationships feel really serious! Relationships are evolutionarily critical to our well-being: therefore, a threat to a relationship may feel like a threat to our well-being. And when our bodies perceive a threat, they initiate a reaction, which may feel like anxiety. So when we experience the sensations of anxiety about a relationship, we make sense of this emotion by labeling it jealousy.

But this doesn’t tell us much about the experience of jealousy. For instance, what does it feel like? Jealousy is an intense emotional and physical experience. Emotionally, jealousy can feel like: inadequacy, anger, fear or anxiety, feeling betrayal, or humiliation. Physically, jealousy can create sensations like: racing heart, high adrenaline, heart-drop feeling, headaches, dizziness or nausea, and exhaustion or weakness.

These sensations accompany and motivate our reactions to feeling jealousy. Jealousy often motivates a reaction (remember: your mind is perceiving a threat, and activating your body to respond quickly to that threat). Some of these reactions are:

  • Urgency: There is often a sense that we need to respond immediately to jealousy

  • Blame: Jealousy might provoke us to project blame onto a partner, in order to motivate them to react urgently to the sensation.

  • Possessiveness: Experiencing jealousy might make us feel as if we need to cling to or control the actions of a partner

  • Withdrawal: Jealousy might make us feel the need to withdraw or self-isolate in order to protect ourselves

You shouldn’t be afraid or ashamed of “being jealous”

Jealousy occurs in most relationships; it is both natural and normal. We often think of jealousy only in romantic relationships, but jealousy can be everywhere. Jealousy can occur between friends, family members, even parents and children. And jealousy isn’t a harmful or dysfunctional emotion to experience. Feelings happen to everyone; our minds are constantly making sense of the world around us, and feelings are an essential component of experiencing and understanding our lives.

Jealousy is just an emotion, and emotions aren’t inherently good or evil. However, emotions can become dangerous or toxic when they inspire actions that harm others.

This is not to say that jealousy is never harmful or toxic. It’s well-documented that extreme and constant projections of jealousy is a warning sign of abusive behavior.

Jealousy tends to become harmful when we act on it. Left alone, jealousy might affect us the way any other unpleasant emotion, like sadness or rage, does: it may feel like it ruins our day, or even our week, and it may be uncomfortable to sit with, but over time it fades.

When we act on the feeling of urgency that often accompanies jealousy, we materialize it into our relationships. All of a sudden there is something that needs to be fixed and dealt with immediately. We might find ourselves blaming our partners or ourselves for these feelings. Blame might be one of the most malicious aspects of jealousy. Often, if someone is feeling jealous, they will identify the cause of their jealousy to be a partner’s words, actions, or anything tangible to cite and cling to. This act of blaming can be the beginning of a vicious cycle of trying to identify and solve a problem that only exists in one person’s mind.

So what should you do when you encounter jealousy, either in yourself or a partner, friend, etc? That is a good question with a big answer - so big that we had to make another zine about it! Check back in next week to learn about how to cope with and communicate through jealousy.

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