scrabble letters spelling jealous on a wooden table

[Jealousy] has to do with love, and desire that has gone elsewhere, while I want it here with me…

Esther Perel

Jealousy is one of those emotions that we are not so open to acknowledge, even within ourselves. It often comes with a negative, and sometimes even destructive connotation. Frequently depicted in movies and shows, jealousy is believed to bring out the darkest, if not the worst, in us. We tend to fear and therefore resist it; or we act on it and be consumed by it.

But is jealousy truly as malevolent as it seems? Could there be any valuable lessons to learn from experiencing jealousy? After all, emotions are messengers, and jealousy is sure to be one of them—but only if we allow it to be an opportunity instead of an obstacle.

Before we proceed, however, I want to make it clear that our discussion will focus solely on jealousy within intimate relationships. Cases involving pathological jealousy such as delusion, obsession, and possessiveness, or other mental health symptoms, as well as instances of domestic violence will be excluded. These specific forms of jealousy require professional support and even legal intervention, which goes beyond the scope of what we can cover in this article.


The Definition and Types of Jealousy

In her book Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown defines that jealousy is “when we fear losing a relationship or a valued part of a relationship that we already have.” It often arises with other feelings such as feeling threatened, alarmed, angry, and yet fearful of a potential loss of something we deem as important. It is then not surprising that, from an evolutionary standpoint, jealousy acts as an adaptive mechanism for mate retention, ensuring investment in offspring and facilitating reproduction (Melissa N, 2010).

There are two main types of jealousy. The first one is suspicious jealousy: “primarily thoughts, behaviors, and feelings that are usually experienced in the absence of any major jealousy-evoking events.” The second one is reactive jealousy: “a direct response to actual transgressions that threaten the stability of the relationship” (Mark A, 2013), such as emotional and/or sexual affairs.

What Causes Jealousy?

Reactive jealousy is a more self-explanatory response when we discover our partner has crossed “the line.” But it is also crucial to discuss and establish these “lines” with our partner, preferably beforehand. When our partner engages in interactions that make us uncomfortable, it is an opportunity for more open and honest communication. We could inquire about why they say certain things or behave in ways that may potentially impact our relationship. Sometimes they may not even realize it. Are there aspects of boundaries, commitment, or expectations that we overlooked when starting our relationship? Is there a misinterpretation of who our partner is? Or, is it a wake-up call that we might have taken something for granted?

Suspicious jealousy, on the other hand, is often more complex and can be linked to our internal perceptions of ourselves, our partner, and the relationship. Some triggers for suspicious jealousy may include:

  • Insecurity and/or uncertainty about the relationship’s current status or future
  • Lack of commitment and trust in the partner due to personal struggles such as past trauma of infidelity or abandonment issues
  • Low self-esteem or a poor sense of self-worth
  • An anxious attachment style
  • Feelings of being unlovable
  • Discontentment with our own life, or perceiving that our “rival” has something we believe we lack, leading to a sense of inadequacy (MasterClass, 2023)

The list above is not exhaustive, but it implies that jealousy can serve as a mirror for introspection, prompting us to reflect on who we are and where we come from. We all are relational beings and feeling jealous is inevitable. However, the way we deal with it is always the more significant part—how we make it an opportunity for personal growth and, hopefully, for strengthening the connection between ourselves and our partner.

Here are two ways to start transforming jealousy into a healthier and more constructive force, instead of a stereotypically detrimental and toxic one (Nicola F, 2021; MasterClass, 2023):

  1. First and foremost, it is okay and even normal for us to feel jealous. If there is no concrete evidence of a threat, however, it is better for us to start by looking inward. Examine the root causes that ignite your jealousy, such as your sense of self or the lingering wounds from your past. Talk to a professional for additional support if necessary.
  2. Regardless of whether the jealousy is suspicious or reactive, make sure we still have a conversation with our partner. Honesty and openness are the keys. Share your feelings and explore whether they signify any unmet needs, such as desire for a stronger commitment, more attention from your partner, adjustments in expectations, or re-agreement on boundaries. Discuss how to foster more trust and understanding moving forward.

Jealousy does not have to be our enemy. By deconstructing it, understanding its origins, and using it as a chance to fortify our relationships, jealousy is just like one of our many emotional allies. It guides us in seeing who we are and what we need in our relationships, whether we end up staying in the same one or not.

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