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What Causes Jealousy?

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In the spectrum of human emotions, jealousy is almost certainly one of the most complex, frustrating, and uncomfortable. This cocktail of anger, sadness, suspicion, and envy can destroy relationships, cause bouts of depression and anxiety, and even lead to serious violence or—in extreme cases—homicide. While jealousy and envy are sometimes used synonymously, jealousy refers to the fear of losing someone or something you value, while envy is resentment over something you don’t have but want. Jealousy is probably a hard-wired emotion that humans have developed through evolution. Evolutionary psychologists have written extensively about the role jealousy plays in mating strategies. But even emotions with genetic underpinnings only manifest in certain environments, and there are several factors that make jealousy more likely to surface.

Fear of Being Replaced
People don’t normally experience jealousy unless they feel threatened by another person or entity. Sibling jealousy is usually caused by a child’s fear that the parents will replace him or her with a new sibling or love another sibling more. In romantic relationships, jealousy is typically triggered by a third party. The third party doesn’t have to actually pose a threat; the mere perception of a threat is enough to get the wheels of jealousy turning.

Individual Psychological Factors
Like almost every other emotion and relationship problem, jealousy is heavily affected by individual factors. Past experience can increase a person’s likelihood of being jealous. An adult whose parents modeled jealousy may tend more toward jealousy, and a person who has been betrayed by a lover might be more prone to suspicion. Traits such as anxiety can also affect jealousy. People who tend to worry a lot are more likely to worry about losing a loved one.

Relationship Quality
Some people are more prone to jealousy than others, but virtually everyone is more jealous in an unstable or unloving relationship. After all, jealousy is centered on the fear of losing someone. If you’re unsure of your spouse’s love or your child is unclear whether you love him or her as much as a new sibling, jealousy is much more likely to become explosive. Indeed, in relationships that are already troubled, jealousy may be the final nail. Because jealousy is heavily influenced by the quality of a relationship, practicing loving communication and taking time out for one another is an excellent way to protect against severe jealousy.

The unique dynamics of a relationship can also affect jealous feelings. When there’s a mismatch in relationship styles, it can be a recipe for jealousy. Attachment plays a significant role in jealousy, and people with insecure attachment styles can be more jealous than people who are securely attached. For example, a husband who needs a lot of attention and reassurance might be more prone to jealousy if his wife tends to like her personal space. A highly social husband might make his more introverted wife jealous, particularly if she’s not used to having the large number of close relationships he has.

Preventing Jealousy
Jealousy is not always a negative emotion. It can alert you to a deficit in your relationship and help you become mindful of potential outside threats. After all, sometimes you really are in danger of losing your mate. But when jealousy takes over or occurs for no apparent reason, it can be highly destructive. Couples experiencing problems with jealousy may benefit from couples therapy. Other ways to minimize jealousy include:

  • Talking directly and openly about feelings
  • Discussing strategies to minimize jealousy
  • Practicing honesty in interpersonal relationships
  • Examining whether the jealousy is caused by external or internal factors
  • Working to improve lacking elements within the relationship
  • Taking time to make the other person feel special and valued

References:

  1. Allen, J. (2000). Romantic jealousy: The role of attachment style and social comparison processes in the violent expression of romantic jealousy. Leicester: University of Leicester.
  2. Springer, S. (n.d.). Jealousy is a dangerous sword. Clinical Psychology Associates. Retrieved from http://cpancf.com/articles_files/jealousyinrelationships.asp

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Comments
  • Bea December 16th, 2012 at 9:46 AM #1

    For me, the times in my life when I have felt the most jealous have been times when I really wasn’t feeling all the good about myself. I am either having a bad self esteem day, or there is something going on that is making me feel like I am less than someone else. I hate it when those feelings creep in and then totally impact hjow I feel about other people or different situations, but I think that for most of us this is pretty inevitable. It is only when you are feeling really strong and good about yourself that you are able to push those feelings of jealousy aside and be happy for others and for what you have.

  • W.N December 16th, 2012 at 2:24 PM #2

    A former relationship has made me extremely vulnerable to jealousy. Now whenever I am in a relationship the slightest of things can start the J route for me. I just can’t help it.

    I try to stay away from relationships but the warmth and good feeling that one provides is something I miss. But when I am in one the jealousy makes it hard to sustain. Being open about what I feel could make a partner run away from me. I have no clue as to what I should do, so any advice that works in this situation would be much appreciated..

  • Chelsea Robertson December 17th, 2012 at 4:03 AM #3

    It’s when you want to hang on to something so badly, but them you look and it has moved on and you haven’t

  • keel December 17th, 2012 at 8:56 AM #4

    I have never heard the difference between jealousy and envy before. It definitely gave me something to think about and apply in my own life. Thanks for the great information!

  • steve December 17th, 2012 at 9:05 AM #5

    Oooohhhh that green eied monster is a beast isn’t it? i have lost so many friends cuz they are so jealous of me. I can’t help it if their boyfriends would rather be with me. Maybe if they weren’t so jealous their boyfriends would stay with them and not come talk to me.

  • nicole December 17th, 2012 at 9:47 AM #6

    I dont think jealousy by itself is something bad.its a natural thing after all.but how we act on it determines the outcome.the suggested ways presented here for preventing jealousy, in my opinion, are just ways in which we can handle it better.there is no such thing as being able to PREVENT jealousy.

    so lets resolve to handle it better and not let it get the better of us.we would then have rules over our jealousy and hence that defeats the negative aspect of it!

  • CMarie December 17th, 2012 at 10:23 AM #7

    I have been dealing with jealousy from both females & males since I was about 15 because of my innocence & inside & out beauty. I know I was dealing with it earlier in my life because I grew up with money, so everyone thought my life was better than theirs. If they only knew domestic violence & sexual abuse was happening behind our beautiful expensive closed door. Abuse knows no limits such as income, etc. They would call me “the spoiled brat princess”, which would hurt me so bad because only I knew what it was so far from the truth. Jealous people are mean & dangerous! I am so glad I don’t have a jealous bone in my body unless a woman is hitting on my man right in front of my face. Then she better run. Sorry, I have PTSD & violence addiction among other horrible conditions I wouldn’t wish on anyone all due to those who were suppose to love me. Jealous people will harm you. When I was a 16 year old runaway due to my father’s affair, this girl was so jealous of me she was going to smash a bottle over my face to cut it all up. I had no clue until she & her BF starting fighting with us(me, my BF, & her’s) leaving her behind. That’s when he told me in the car he had to get me out of there before she followed thru with her plan to harm my face. He said he started the fight to save me. He left the next day & I never seen him again, so I know he wasn’t lying. I never did anything to her. He said she was so jealous of my innocence & beauty. Jealous ppl are insecure. My own daughter is jealous of me because I don’t look my age. When I gained weight due to medication she told me she was glad I was fat & finally looking my age as she was tired of everyone telling me how good I looked thinking we were sisters & my granddau was my dau. I told her she should be ashamed of herself for saying she was glad her mother was “fat”. She’s also jealous I have no stretch marks as her body looks like a road map. Its not my problem she didn’t take care of her body when she planned her pregnancy at 17 knowing our home was up for sale for both of us to attend college, but she rather be a follower thank a leader like her mother getting pregnant like all her loser friends thinking having kids is so cute & a game. She knew the meds were causing all kinds of health issues, but she was glad. Real nice, huh? Then her jealousy got worse when I went off the pills losing the weight looking better than ever. Next is my 2nd narcissistic husband, who was jealous of me. He was beautiful on the outside, but ugly on the inside. He looked just like Clint, but couldn’t hold a candle to him. He beat me like I was a man not his soft loving wife. He cheated with nasty skanks because as a narcissist he had to have a woman less equal to him in the looks department, submissive, & passive, which was not me. They can all kiss it & I do not feel sorry for them as I was the one being abused by all of them!

  • kelleykelley February 16th, 2014 at 1:36 PM #8

    Dear cmarie, a big internet hug to you. What a terrible story. However you sound narcissistic as well, certainly in relation to your daughter. I was so sad for her, reading her mother saying such self centred, hateful things about her. Please get some help.

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