Understanding and Coping with Jealousy in Relationships: Insights from Psychological Research

by Gideon Hanekom
March 23, 2024

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This post looks a bit closer at what psychological research suggests about jealousy in relationships to help us understand and cope with it better.

We all know that jealousy in relationships can be a complex and challenging emotion to navigate.

However, psychological research provides valuable insights to help us better understand and cope with those feelings so that we have the best chance of creating a happy and healthy relationship.

By delving into the root causes of jealousy and exploring its impact on relationships, researchers have identified various strategies for managing this emotion that we can learn from and use to our benefit.

Introduction to Jealousy in Relationships

Firstly, it’s helpful to know that jealousy in relationships is a universal emotion experienced by people across different cultures and societies. It’s NOT unique to your situation.

Given the right situation or set of circumstances, we can all succumb to jealousy and behave stupidly as a result.

Jealousy can arise from triggers and manifest in multiple forms, affecting partner dynamics in all relationships. No couple is immune all the time.

Yet, be it as it may, understanding and coping with jealousy is crucial for maintaining a healthy relationship, as unchecked jealousy can lead to destructive behaviours and emotional turmoil.

In other words, just because jealousy is a normal feeling to experience does not mean it can go unchecked and left unattended because it can (and will) wreck things if you allow it.

The Nature of Jealousy

Historical Perspective on Jealousy

Historically, jealousy has been a theme in literature, art, and philosophy, indicating its deep roots in human emotions.

Ancient myths and stories often depict jealousy as a powerful force that can lead to tragic outcomes, highlighting its impact on human relationships and societies (think the movie Troy).

jealousy in relationships

History is literally filled with examples of jealousy gone wrong.

What that mainly underscores is the recognition of jealousy as a significant, impactful emotion long before modern psychological research began to examine its nuances and effects in detail.

In other words, jealousy was and is part and parcel of the human experience.

Modern Psychological Insights

In contemporary psychology, jealousy is understood not just as a single emotion but as a complex emotional state encompassing a range of feelings, including fear, sadness, anger, and humiliation.

It often stems from perceived threats to valued relationships or differences in power dynamics, leading to insecurity or inadequacy.

One critical insight from psychological research is that jealousy can signal deeper issues within a relationship or individuals themselves.

For instance, chronic jealousy may reflect underlying attachment issues, low self-esteem, or unresolved personal traumas.

Individuals who struggle with chronic jealousy often have difficulty forming healthy attachments, which may stem from past experiences of abandonment or neglect.

That can lead to a constant fear of losing their partner, which can cause them to become overly possessive and suspicious.

Additionally, low self-esteem can contribute to feelings of inadequacy and a belief that they are not worthy of love, leading to jealousy as a means of controlling their partner’s attention and affection.

Furthermore, unresolved personal traumas, such as betrayal or infidelity, can also fuel chronic jealousy and make it difficult for individuals to trust and feel secure in their relationships.

Therefore, addressing jealousy effectively often requires tackling these root causes rather than just the symptoms like outbursts or controlling behaviour.

So, in light of the above, let’s briefly look at several common jealousy triggers.

Common Triggers of Jealousy

Emotional Infidelity

Further research into emotional infidelity shows that it’s not just the closeness with another person that triggers jealousy but also the perceived secrecy or exclusion from that connection. Emotional infidelity ultimately challenges the unique bond between partners, leading to feelings of betrayal.

Physical Attractiveness

Social psychology also suggests that concerns over physical attractiveness and the attention it draws are not merely about losing your partner but also about self-esteem and societal standards of beauty. The competitive aspect of maintaining physical allure in a relationship can exacerbate feelings of insecurity, which, of course, is intensified by social media and 24/7 free (or paid-for) access to pornography of all kinds.

Financial Matters

Societal pressures and social comparison play significant roles in financial jealousy. In cultures that highly value financial success, like many groups in South Africa, disparities in earnings between partners can create power imbalances, leading to jealousy and resentment.

Social Media and Technology

As mentioned, recent studies indicate that social media exacerbates jealousy by providing ample opportunities for comparison and surveillance. Moreover, the curated nature of online personas can lead to unrealistic benchmarks for relationships and personal achievements, fueling jealousy.

Past Infidelities and Broken Trust

It goes without saying, but the shadow of past infidelities can loom large in a relationship. Broken trust is a potent trigger for future jealousy, and rebuilding trust requires consistent effort and transparency from both partners. However, escaping the shadow of past infidelity and the mistrust it created can be extremely difficult, and many couples fail to do so (see this post).

How men and women respond differently to infidelity

Men and women react uniquely to cheating.

In an expansive study by Chapman University, researchers delved into how jealousy manifests in relationships, mainly through the lens of sexual and emotional infidelity. Engaging nearly 64,000 Americans, this investigation stands as the most comprehensive exploration into how gender and sexual orientation influence reactions to infidelity among U.S. adults.

The study uncovered notable differences in how heterosexual men and women respond to infidelity.

A majority of heterosexual men (54%) expressed more significant distress over sexual infidelity compared to heterosexual women (35%).

Conversely, emotional infidelity was more troubling for heterosexual women, with 65% indicating it as more upsetting, against 46% of men.

This pattern aligns with evolutionary theories suggesting men are more agitated by sexual infidelity while women are more concerned with emotional betrayal.

Interestingly, no significant differences were found among bisexual, gay, and lesbian participants.

Dr David Frederick, the study’s lead author, highlighted the unique stance of heterosexual men, who significantly differed in their concern for sexual over emotional infidelity.

He also emphasized the lack of research and theory regarding the attitudes of gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals from an evolutionary psychology perspective.

Now, importantly, the repercussions of infidelity are profound, leading to emotional distress, relationship breakdowns, and, in some cases, violence and resource loss. That’s why understanding the primary triggers of jealousy is crucial due to the potential for harmful reactions.

Several theories about jealousy

Evolutionary theory offers insights into why gender differences exist in responses to infidelity.

Men grapple with paternal uncertainty, never being completely sure of their biological relationship with their children, thus possibly heightening their sensitivity to sexual infidelity.

Women, while sure of their maternal connection to their offspring, risk losing their partner’s resources and commitment, making emotional infidelity particularly threatening.

Sociocultural theories, however, suggest that socialization into traditional gender roles contributes to these differences.

Men’s reactions to sexual infidelity might stem from perceived threats to their masculinity and sexual prowess.

In contrast, women, often seen as emotional nurturers within relationships, might find emotional infidelity more damaging to their sense of self.

Dr Frederick noted the rarity of such large-scale studies and aimed to address the debate on gender differences in reactions to infidelity with a diverse and sizable American sample.

The study’s findings, consistent across various demographics, suggest that reactions to infidelity are complex and influenced by a mixture of evolutionary, personal, and environmental factors.

This groundbreaking research offers a nuanced understanding of jealousy in relationships, highlighting the interplay between our evolutionary past, sociocultural conditioning, and personal experiences.

So, as you can see, jealousy is a complex emotion that can arise in various situations, such as relationships, friendships, and even in the workplace, and for multiple reasons.

But at its heart, jealousy is a feeling of insecurity and fear of losing someone or something to another person.

However, it is possible to overcome jealousy and maintain healthy relationships with the right strategies.

In the next section, we will discuss some effective strategies for coping with jealousy and preventing it from negatively affecting your life.

Whether learning to trust oneself or practising gratitude, these techniques can ultimately lead to a more fulfilling and peaceful life.

So, let’s explore some ways to overcome jealousy and create more positive and secure relationships.

Strategies to Overcome Jealousy

As mentioned, jealousy in relationships, while a common emotional response, can erode the fabric of trust and intimacy if left unchecked.

However, with intentional effort and strategies, couples can navigate the murky waters of jealousy, fostering a happier, healthier, and more intimate connection with their partner.

Establishing Trust and Boundaries

At the core of overcoming jealousy lies the dual pillars of trust and boundaries.

Trust is the relationship’s backbone, offering a secure base for partners to grow and explore.

It’s built and maintained through consistent honesty, reliability, and empathy, acting as a powerful antidote to jealousy’s poison.

Meanwhile, clearly defined boundaries, collaboratively set, serve to protect this trust.

And by openly discussing and setting boundaries, couples can create a sense of security and trust, which can help alleviate feelings of jealousy.

For example, if a partner feels uncomfortable with their significant other flirting with others, they can set a boundary for them not to engage in such behaviour.

By respecting these boundaries, couples can avoid situations that may trigger jealousy and strengthen their relationship. It is important for

Embracing Gratitude, Mindfulness, and Communication

Shifting focus through gratitude and mindfulness presents another powerful antidote to jealousy’s often narrow, lacking perspective.

By appreciating the present moment and recognizing the relationship’s positive aspects, couples can minimize the space jealousy often causes in their hearts and minds.

Focusing on abundance rather than absence (i.e., what they have instead of what they could lose) helps cultivate a mindset that cherishes what is rather than what might be missing.

Now, hand in hand with gratitude is the art of communication—open, honest exchanges that allow feelings to be expressed and heard.

Effective communication acts as a bridge over troubled waters, enabling couples to share insecurities, negotiate boundaries, and understand each other’s unique perspectives.

It’s, in essence, about listening actively, speaking with empathy, and fostering a dialogue where vulnerabilities can be shared without fear of judgment.

Nurturing Self-Care and Individuality

Another strategy against jealousy is nurturing self-care and your individuality.

The crucial reason is that self-care is pivotal in maintaining emotional resilience, a bulwark against the storms of jealousy.

It entails caring for one’s physical health, emotional well-being, and personal interests.

Now, that’s essential in today’s digital age; the pervasive influence of social media amplifies the need for self-care, urging individuals and couples to engage in mindful consumption and protect their relationships from the seeds of comparison and insecurity.

Parallel to self-care is the celebration of each partner’s individuality.

Recognizing and valuing the unique qualities each partner brings to the relationship can significantly mitigate feelings of jealousy.

It’s about seeing the beauty in differences and understanding that each person’s uniqueness strengthens the bond.

Additionally, celebrating individuality fosters a sense of mutual admiration and respect, diminishing the urge to compare and allowing love to thrive on a foundation of genuine appreciation.

Dealing with Insecurities

Insecurities, often at the heart of jealousy, require a nuanced approach that also involves self-reflection, open communication, and, when necessary, professional support.

Ultimately, understanding (or understanding better) the roots of one’s insecurities empowers one to confront and work through them constructively. That’s important to know because sometimes feelings of jealousy are more the result of our own baggage than what’s going on outside of us.

That may involve exploring past experiences, challenging negative self-beliefs, and engaging in practices that boost self-esteem and relationship satisfaction.

Conclusion

As we’ve journeyed through the complexities of understanding and coping with jealousy in relationships, it’s clear that this potent emotion, though challenging, is not unbeatable.

By delving into its roots and acknowledging its profound impact on relationships, we’ve uncovered some insights and strategies that pave the way toward healthier, more secure relationships.

Deeply ingrained in our human experience, jealousy stretches across the annals of history, shaping literature, art, and the very fabric of our societies.

Yet, with modern psychological research, we’ve learned to dissect its layers, revealing the multitude of feelings it encompasses and the varied triggers that ignite it.

From the sting of emotional infidelity to the insecurities sparked by societal standards of beauty and success, jealousy’s reach is vast and varied.

However, amidst these challenges lies the power of transformation.

By establishing a foundation of trust and clearly defined boundaries, couples can create a bulwark against the tides of jealousy.

Trust, built on consistency, honesty, and empathy, forms the bedrock of a healthy relationship and offers security and emotional safety.

Boundaries, meanwhile, provide clarity and mutual understanding, reducing the uncertainties that often fuel jealousy.

In tandem with these structural supports, embracing gratitude, mindfulness, and open communication offers a path to refocusing and strengthening relationships.

Gratitude and mindfulness shift our perspective from scarcity to abundance, helping us appreciate our relationships’ present and unique qualities.

Communication, the bridge connecting hearts and minds, allows for expressing vulnerabilities and fears, fostering a deeper understanding and connection between partners.

Also, self-care and celebrating individuality further fortify relationships against the erosive effects of jealousy.

By nurturing our well-being and acknowledging each partner’s unique contributions, we build emotional resilience and a deeper appreciation for the richness of our connections.

In confronting insecurities through self-reflection, dialogue, and sometimes professional guidance, we unlock the door to personal growth and healthier relationships.

In conclusion, while jealousy is a universal challenge, it is not an insurmountable one.

Through understanding its nature and applying thoughtful, intentional strategies, we can mitigate its impact and nurture relationships that are not only resilient but also deeply fulfilling.

About the author 

Gideon Hanekom

Gideon Hanekom is the creator of TheRelationshipGuy.com, a renowned relationship blog that ranks among the top 50 relationship blogs in 2024. The website shares valuable insights on creating healthy relationships life. Gideon holds a Master's degree in theological studies and transitioned into professional counseling more than a decade ago. In addition, he since completed post-graduate studies in Psychology at Massey University. With over seventeen years of marriage to his wife and two children, Gideon brings both professional and personal experience to his relationship advice. His articles have been featured on respected platforms such as Marriage.com and The Good Men Project.

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