Jealousy can easily take over our relationships, make us angry, agitated, and depressed, and hijack our emotions. Sexual jealousy can be so powerful that it can even lead people to break up their romantic relationships. So, if something can be so destructive, why do we feel jealous? Why are we the cause of our own suffering? Do we want to suffer?
No, we don’t want to suffer. But acting on our jealous feelings can lead to our suffering and to our partner’s suffering. How does it make sense?
Jealousy: Rooted in Our Evolution?
There are many factors that contribute to jealousy. One is that jealousy is adaptive from an evolutionary perspective. Two theories are relevant when explaining the cause of jealousy: the first is parental investment theory that proposes that it will not be adaptive to the survival of our genes if we expend most of our efforts to taking care of someone else’s genes. Women know without a doubt that they are the mother of their children, but men are unsure. This is what accounts for the fact that research shows that men are more jealous about sexual infidelity while women are more jealous about emotional closeness with a competitor.
The second theory that is especially relevant to jealousy between siblings and friends is the model of limited resources. Throughout evolutionary history people lived close to starvation. Thus, any competitors in the family (or friends) would compete for the limited resources available. So, jealousy is a competitive emotion that has evolved—and persists to this day.
There are other factors that contribute to greater jealousy. A second factor is a history of abandonment, loss or betrayal. For example, one man traced his jealousy to learning that his father had cheated on his mother for many years—and everyone else knew about it except him. How could he trust anyone after that? Another woman described a history of relationships with men who cheated on her—so she had an expectation of betrayal.
A third factor at play is attachment style. Fear of abandonment can often lead to more jealous feelings. In contrast, people who avoid closeness—people who value autonomy—are the least jealous, because they don’t rely on closeness and the relationship has less value to them.
A fourth factor is the investment you have in the relationship. Often, in the first few months of courtship with someone, you have less invested and you are less jealous. As the relationship develops, you become more vulnerable to jealousy, because you have more to lose. Relationships that are shorter lived, ones that are superficial or have less meaning, are ones where you will be less prone to jealousy. In fact, one woman indicated to me that she has pursued only superficial relationships because of her fear of betrayal. If the man doesn’t matter to her, the betrayal won’t matter to her.
Where Jealousy and Uncertainty in the Relationship Converge
A fifth factor is the uncertainty about the relationship. For example, long-term relationships (that have more invested) are less prone to jealousy. For example, couples have greater uncertainty with geographic distance or where one partner is involved with someone else (e.g., someone who is married). Other forms of uncertainty include differences between partners in level of commitment, differences in expectations of monogamy, and differences in values of appropriate behavior.
A sixth factor is your perception that you have no desirable alternatives for a partner if this relationship ends. You think that this relationship is essential to your happiness. If you think you have good alternatives, you are less prone to jealousy. One alternative can be a good support system—not just a good partner. If you have friends and family who you can rely on, you are less prone to the fear of losing the relationship.
Seventh, although some people claim that jealousy is a result of low self-esteem, the research on this is mixed—some studies show low self-esteem is related to more jealousy, while other studies show no relationship between the two. In fact, in my clinical practice I have found times when jealousy can sometimes be the result of high self-esteem. Your jealousy is signaling an imbalance in the relationship, and you won’t let someone treat you this way.
An eighth factor is the style of thinking that we use when we get jealous. I call this the Jealousy Hijack. Our thinking becomes focused on threat, jumps to conclusions (“My partner will leave me”), engages us in mind reading (“He is interested in her”), and discounts our positives (“Our relationship is not important”). Our unrealistic assumptions of perfect romance, complete transparency, and freedom from conflicts will contribute to rules for relationships that are often impossible for us to live up to.
A ninth factor that adds to our jealousy is how we cope with these feelings. Jealousy can lead to behaviors that make things worse. In my book The Jealousy Cure, I describe how jealous partners engage in interrogation, checking, stalking, threatening, criticizing the competition or withdrawing from their partner. These “coping” strategies often backfire—driving the partner away, threatening the relationship, and—ironically—adding to the jealousy.
Ultimately, jealousy is about the two people who are feeling connected to each other. There are techniques that partners can use to talk about jealousy, come up with a mutual plan for coping with your differences, and build trust. There are strategies you can use to avoid getting carried away by the intensity of your feelings in the moment, which then lead to ruminating and worrying about everything between you falling apart.
To learn more about how to steer away from jealousy coming between you and your partner, check out The Jealousy Cure.
Robert Leahy, PhD, is author or editor of twenty-six books, including The Jealousy Cure. He has led or been heavily involved with many national and regional cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) organizations.