What is Jealousy?

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Jealousy is a complex emotion that involves a real or perceived threat to an interpersonal relationship. An individual may resent a third person for taking away or appearing to take away the affection of their loved one.

This emotion is often accompanied by resentment, anger, hostility, inadequacy, and bitterness. Everyone experiences jealousy at some point, but the emotion can become unhealthy and negatively impact their relationships. It can range in intensity. When it’s severe, irrational jealousy can lead to distrust, paranoia, abuse, or even physical violence.

This article discusses the characteristics of jealousy, what causes these feelings, and the effects they can have. It also explores what you can do to manage these feelings and when it may be time to seek help.

Characteristics of Jealousy

While it’s typically perceived as a negative emotion, it is natural to experience jealousy in a close relationship. You may feel suspicious jealousy or reactive jealousy.

The former is based on perception and is often tied to low self-esteem and insecurity, and the latter is based on situations that actually threaten the relationship and is often tied to actions or situations that lead to or cause the betrayal of trust.

Jealousy can lead to other emotions or feelings. Psychiatrist Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, MD, explains how jealousy can manifest in relationships:

  • Acting obsessive
  • Criticizing 
  • Fault finding
  • Blaming
  • Feeling distrust
  • Being overprotective or suspicious
  • Experiencing a quick temper 
  • Verbally abusing

Complications of Jealousy

In healthy doses, jealousy can serve as a reminder to cherish or prioritize a relationship. High degrees of jealousy, however, can impact the overall quality of a relationship.

When you’re experiencing jealousy, it can cause changes to your body. According to Dr. Gonzalez-Berrios, the following physical symptoms may occur when jealousy arises:

  • Stomach aches
  • Headaches
  • Chest pain
  • High blood pressure
  • Palpitation in extreme anxiety
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Insomnia or disturbances in sleep
  • Poor appetite
  • Weakened immunity


Jealousy can occur at any time, especially in situations that feel threatening, but the emotion can also build up over time, too.

Identifying Jealousy

Jealousy can be difficult to understand and process. Depending on the situation, you may feel embarrassed, threatened, insecure, or abandoned.

As a result, you may choose to say something to your loved one, notifying them of your feelings, concerns, or fears. Or you may react more irrationally by yelling, taking away their phone, making demands, placing blame, accusing them of something that didn’t happen, or storming off.

Even if a real threat presents itself, jealousy can lead to extreme behaviors, especially if you’re feeling insecure about yourself or the relationship. For your own mental health, you’ll want to find healthy ways to handle your jealousy.

Causes of Jealousy

Various psychological and socioeconomic factors can contribute to jealousy. You may be more prone to experiencing the emotion depending on your personality and attachment style. High levels of interdependence in a relationship may increase your risk of jealousy.

Many situations can make you feel jealous. Some common ones include:

  • A partner spending significant time engaging with someone who feels threatening to the relationship
  • A new baby joins the family or a parent puts their attention on a sibling instead of you
  • A competitor (such as a sibling or coworker) appears to get ahead

You could feel jealous when a loved one spends a lot of their time hanging with a particular friend or talking at length with a coworker in front of you, or you could feel jealous when a partner acknowledges someone else's accomplishments but not yours or a coworker gets a promotion and you don’t.

Jealousy and Mental Health

Certain mental health conditions can also play a role in feelings of jealousy. Conditions that might be linked to this emotion include:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Attachment issues
  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
  • Depression
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Paranoia
  • Psychosis
  • Schizophrenia

If you are experiencing intense jealousy and other symptoms that cause distress or interfere with your ability to function normally, it is important to talk to your doctor or mental health professional.

Types of Jealousy

While there are many forms of jealousy, there are two main categories: normal and abnormal jealousy. The six main types, described by Dr. Gonzalez-Berrios, are:

  • Rational jealousy: When there is genuine, reasonable doubt, especially when you love a partner and fear losing them, rational jealousy can occur.
  • Family jealousy: This typically occurs between family members, such as siblings. When a new baby is born, a sibling may feel jealous as the attention of the parents shifts to the new baby, for example.
  • Pathological jealousy: This type of jealousy is irrational. Unhealthy feelings may result from an underlying mental health disorder such as anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or schizophrenia. Signs of pathological jealousy can include extreme insecurity, as well as a desire to control and manipulate.
  • Sexual jealousy: When there is fear that a partner has been unfaithful and has engaged in physical infidelity, you may become suspicious.
  • Romantic jealousy: This can result from a real or imagined threat to a romantic relationship, resulting in jealous thoughts or reactions.
  • Power jealousy: This type of jealousy stems from personal insecurity. You may be jealous of someone who has what you want. When a coworker receives a promotion or a reward that you wish to receive, for example, you may become jealous.

Studies conducted on heterosexual romantic relationships found that men tend to feel jealous over a third party’s dominance and are more concerned about sexual infidelity, whereas women tend to feel jealous of a third party’s attractiveness and are more concerned about emotional infidelity.

Jealousy vs. Envy

Jealousy and envy are often used interchangeably, but they have different meanings and characteristics. Where jealousy involves the fear that a third party will disrupt a relationship, envy involves the desire to have what someone else possesses. 

While distinct, jealousy and envy have some commonalities, which is why they are often confused. Both can be rooted in feelings of insecurity, and jealousy can lead a person to envy the person they see as a rival. 

With jealousy, a person might feel insecure about their relationship, while envy might involve insecurity about themselves.

Jealousy
  • Fear that someone will take what you have

  • Often leads to anger and resentment

  • Rooted in rivalry

  • Fear of losing something you have

Envy
  • Feeling that someone has something you want

  • Often leads a person to want to change

  • Rooted in comparison

  • Desire for something you don't have

Treatment for Jealousy

Jealousy is a normal human emotion, but abnormal jealousy can put you or others in danger. If you’re experiencing morbid jealousy, in which your thoughts, emotions, behaviors are irrational, extreme, or obsessive, then you may need treatment.

If you’re experiencing another underlying mental health condition, such as an anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or schizophrenia, then you’ll want to consult with a mental health professional to discuss tailored treatment options.

The most common treatment options include:

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy can be helpful for changing the thoughts that contribute to feelings of jealousy. Two types of therapy that can be particularly effective include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): Focuses on identifying the negative thoughts that lead to jealousy
  • Cognitive-analytic therapy (CAT): Focuses on relationship patterns and how people relate to others

Specific techniques that can be helpful include cognitive restructuring and cognitive reframing. Both involve changing how you view situations and relationships. Reframing is a technique you can use on your own, but restructuring is a more formal and structured approach that is directed by a trained therapist.

Medications

Medications may also be prescribed to help manage some of the symptoms that might be associated with jealousy, particularly if you also have a condition such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or borderline personality disorder. Some commonly prescribed medications include:

  • Antipsychotics 
  • Anti-anxiety medications
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)

Treatment will vary depending on the type of jealousy you’re experiencing and how it’s manifesting. Unaddressed abnormal jealousy can lead to distrust, paranoia, or abuse.

Coping With Jealousy

If you don’t learn to cope with jealousy, it can strain or hurt your relationships. If your jealousy is negatively impacting your mental health or your relationships, you should use Dr. Gonzalez-Berrios’s recommended coping mechanisms:

  • Confront your fears: Jealousy can stem from insecurity or poor self-image, which is why it’s so important to confront your fears. This could include fear of losing your partner or fear of failure. Once you recognize these fears, you can acknowledge and address them, as they are often the underlying cause of jealousy.
  • Address your expectations: In any relationship, it’s essential to develop a realistic expectation on how much time someone can spend with you. If they are unable to meet your expectations, try not to place blame. See if you can work together to set more reasonable expectations.
  • Practice gratitude: Remind yourself about all the beautiful things life has given you, says Dr. Gonzalez-Berrios. 
  • Be open and honest: Healthy relationships rely on strong communication. If jealousy arises, Dr. Gonzalez-Berrios suggests having an open and honest conversation about how you’re feeling. “Try to resolve the misunderstandings with compassion and mutual trust."
  • Practice mindfulness: Negative emotions can affect your physical and mental health. Try practicing mindfulness meditation when you’re feeling jealousy or another negative emotion, such as anger or resentment.

To maintain healthy relationships, you’ll want to communicate your feelings, address expectations, and establish a foundation of mutual trust and understanding. If jealousy becomes a problem, speaking with a mental health professional can help.

A Word From Verywell

Learning to identify jealousy is a skill. When you do experience it, try using one of the many coping mechanisms available to you. Understand, though, that jealousy does not excuse manipulation or abuse.

If coping mechanisms aren’t working or if the threat becomes disruptive to the relationship (no matter if it’s real or imagined), then you may want to seek counseling to discuss the problem with a mediator. You may find that there’s an underlying problem in the relationship which needs to be addressed.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Sarah Sheppard
Sarah Sheppard is a writer, editor, ghostwriter, writing instructor, and advocate for mental health, women's issues, and more.