What Causes Jealousy?

A jealous woman regards a flirting coupleIn 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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  • Bea

    Bea

    December 16th, 2012 at 9:46 AM

    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

    W.N

    December 16th, 2012 at 2:24 PM

    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

    Chelsea Robertson

    December 17th, 2012 at 4:03 AM

    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

    keel

    December 17th, 2012 at 8:56 AM

    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

    steve

    December 17th, 2012 at 9:05 AM

    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

    nicole

    December 17th, 2012 at 9:47 AM

    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

    CMarie

    December 17th, 2012 at 10:23 AM

    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!

  • JR

    JR

    May 19th, 2015 at 8:33 PM

    Sorry to here you’ve had so many bad relationships. All we can do is more on and hope for better

  • kelleykelley

    kelleykelley

    February 16th, 2014 at 1:36 PM

    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.

  • Brenda

    Brenda

    December 17th, 2014 at 11:54 PM

    I think there is a big difference between jealousy and disrespect. For example: If my partner/boyfriend/husband is flirting with a beautiful girl and she is not responding to those advances or instigating, and it’s all him and I get mad at her – that’s jealousy.

    In the same scenario, if my partner/boyfriend/husband is responding to her flirting and advances and she knows he is with me – that’s disrespect and I believe I have every right to let them both know boundaries have been crossed and that kind of behavior will not be tolerated – at least not by me.

  • Lisa

    Lisa

    June 13th, 2018 at 4:14 PM

    I’m with you on that one Brenda. If more people were to stop flirting if they are in a relationship or marriage, things would be so much better. I wish more men and women would stick to what they really need and want. If a person wants to flirt around, date a lot of different people, then they should say so. If what they need or want is a one on one relationship, then the flirting and dating of others needs to end.

  • Carol P.

    Carol P.

    July 12th, 2015 at 5:53 PM

    So the above comment is so me, I just in a new relationship in which he is wonderful , tentative, complimentary, affectionest, and great lover. So after a great date I end up saying something stupid and messing it up because of my self esteem I am sure, and I am a worrier and scared I will loose him . Of course o understand why he would wAlk away. So the big question is what can I do about getting myself straighten out don’t want to loose this person.

  • Dorothy

    Dorothy

    September 30th, 2015 at 11:13 PM

    The problem of sibling jealousy is especially serious when it goes unrecognized. If children work out their sibling rivalries during childhood, they enjoy much healthier sibling relationships as adults. One problem facing younger children with a very extensive birth order difference, e.g, a decade or more, may be unrecognized sibling jealousy. The older child naturally enjoys greater privileges and autonomy, and is sometimes recognized and praised by the parents for accomplishments the younger sibling can’t achieve at so junior a stage in life. A younger sibling in that situation may hold unacknowledged hostilities that fester during adulthood. I have observed this problem in a family and it is really sad.

  • gretchen

    gretchen

    January 7th, 2016 at 5:50 AM

    I pesonally don’t understand jealousy. I think my experiences as a child, being raised in poverty yet exposed to wealthy, accomplished relatives, working for wealthy folks, being pretty but never being told by my mother, being smart but feeling stupid due to learning issues, emotional distress, I had to learn acceptance, detachment and iindependence at a young age, but did not lose my compassion for others or objectivity. I wanted to learn right action…when I see someone has something I might want, I assess that they have earned it by prioritizing, work, inheritance, etc…It is not my life, its theirs. To be jealous is to believe that you are not capable of rearranging priorities, accepting your past losses or things you cannot control. When you can accept your lifeas a process, a journey in all its pain and suffering, there is no loss. The present always hold an opportunity to change something. Jealousy is a waste of time and a big fat excuse to do nothing.

  • Janet

    Janet

    September 20th, 2018 at 11:45 AM

    I was never a jealous person, my now husband while we were dating was talking to his ex behind my back texting her that he missed her talking to other women at 12 am.
    Since we got married things have changed I don’t think he talks to other women like that anymore but that left me feeling very jealous and insecure I’m trying to work though it but I do think I need professional help, because I get sad if he doesn’t respond to me the way I want him too.
    I know how it feels to be loved and I’m not feeling it😪
    If you can direct in the right direction for help I would appreciate it
    Thank you

  • The GoodTherapy Team

    The GoodTherapy Team

    September 20th, 2018 at 12:00 PM

    Hi Janet,

    If you would like to consult with a mental health professional, you can start finding therapists in your area by entering your city or ZIP code into the search field on this page: https://www.goodtherapy.org/find-therapist.html.

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. You may click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. If you need help finding a therapist, you are welcome to call us. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time and our phone number is 888-563-2112.

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  • Amol J.

    Amol J.

    September 26th, 2018 at 10:56 PM

    At the root of jealousy lies fear of loss. Like many jealous partners, Kevin feared loss of their relationship, loss of self-respect, even loss of ‘face’ fearing how his friends would see him if he were to be ‘made a fool of’. Fear makes for feelings of insecurity.
    When fear lessens, so does jealous. More than feelings of fear, jealousy also leads to a smorgasbord of other emotions such as anger, hate of love ‘rivals’, disgust (sometimes self-disgust), and hopelessness.

  • Patricia E.

    Patricia E.

    January 30th, 2019 at 11:26 AM

    Sometimes feelings of jealousy are perfectly justified especially if the person you feel threatened by is constantly gloating about what they can do and what you can’t and they won’t even let you have the satisfaction of detaching from your spouse just because they are the mother/father of your spouse. Sometimes jealousy is provoked just to stir up trouble and add more fuel to the fire. That’s the kind of crap that is uncalled for. I know because I am having to tolerate it from certain people

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