Jealousy: Is it About You or Me?

Very often in relationships, jealous feelings about a loved one paying attention to another person impacts the quality of the attachment we have in that relationship. Jealousy is a complex emotion that is often accompanied by other powerful feelings of fear, abandonment, loss, sorrow, anger, betrayal, or humiliation. Ultimately, jealousy activates the attachment system in our psyches and to that extent is an extremely powerful emotion. Classic signs of jealousy such as fear of losing our lover, lack of trust, or anger at a real or imagined emotional investment in another person, so often can lead to efforts to control a loved one. My clinical practice has shown me that those efforts to limit our partnerís involvements outside of the relationship, to control our partner, is often the sine qua non of a relationship heading for dissolution.

Jealousy has a first cousin, envy, but they are not the same thing. Jealousy tends to develop when you are in a relationship and at some point feel threatened that someone might be taking something away from you that you believe is truly yours. In this threat, your rival may or may not engender feelings of envy. But you can feel jealous irregardless of the attributes you believe the other party possesses. In contrast, envy comes from a belief that someone has something that you donít have, something that you believe is more desirable than that which you posses.

If I were to say only one thing about jealousy, I would want to emphasize that it says so much more about ourselves than anything having to do with our partner or a perceived threat. So often, when jealousy arrives at our doorstep, we blame our discomfort on our partner involving themselves with, or showing attention to, someone else. But we need to be clear with ourselves that these jealous feelings say much more about the insecurity we have within ourselves, and in the worst case, makes us prone to unrealistic perceptions of threat with resultant false accusations. And yet, jealous feelings do not have to be destructive if first, they are shared with our partners, and following this, serve as a guide for us to look within ourselves in an effort to soothe and repair our own feelings of insecurity. Jealous feelings can serve as a barometer we can use to measure our level of insecurity.

Many psychologists have believed that our inclination to feel jealous is strongly influenced by two factors. The first of these is our emotional stability, which is the extent to which we are able to manage strong feelings such as anger, anxiety, and depression without disruption to our life. A second factor is that of agreeableness, i.e., a tendency to be kind, cooperative, and compassionate. This too diminishes oneís proclivity for jealousy. The agreeable and emotionally stable person is less likely to feel jealous.

Another factor to consider when jealous feelings emerge has to do with “mate value” in the relationship. This refers to any discrepancy one feels in regard to oneís own versus your partnerís desirability. If such a discrepancy is felt, e.g., if you feel that your partner is much more attractive than yourself, you are more likely to be plagued with jealous feelings. At such a time, we may come to the realization that we will not be able to replace our partner with someone of equal value in the event of losing that person. This situation leaves us feeling “hyper-alert” and will likely activate jealous feelings. If we feel that a discrepancy exists in one particular area of the relationship, but that we have an equivalent amount to offer our partner in another area, then there is balance. The total perceived value of your partnership is what is most important.

Psychologist, Steven Stosney, Ph.D., who appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show a number of years ago, said that “the formula for jealousy is an insecure person times an insecure relationship”, and he added that “insecure people tend to destabilize relationships and then make them insecure”. Feeling insecure lends itself to perceptions that you have less value and therefore less importance within the relationship. In contrast, feeling secure fosters deep feelings of attachment and mitigates jealous feelings.

When we can see the destructive impact of jealousy, we more easily see jealousy as a blaming phenomenon. When jealous feelings emerge it is so important to look inside ourselves for our own feelings of insecurity and not resort to finger pointing which ultimately results in three fingers pointing back at us. And yet, jealousy must not shatter ourself regard and self esteem but rather signal ourselves to do some work, internal work, to feel better about ourselves. When we want to control our partner, we need to remember that this will always introduce toxicity into the relationship. Our efforts to control our partners reflect far more than our fears about losing something of value, and far more about our own need for power and control in the relationship.

A little jealousy, particularly early in a relationship, can be useful because it signals to us the desirability of the other person. Fear of losing something perceived to be valuable often gives us feedback about how much we value the other person. To never feel any fear of losing a relationship suggests that there is less value in that relationship. Ultimately, we all want deep love and healthy feelings of attachment. The fear of losing that love when we die or our partner dies, is normal and natural. Jealousy, on the other hand, does not only reflect this fear of losing love but more saliently, and not-so-consciously, it reflects feelings of insecurity that we have within ourselves.

June 2009

Dr. Alan Tepp currently practices in the areas of child psychology, adolescent psychology, adult psychology, couples and marital therapy, and forensic psychology, serving Northern Westchester and the surrounding areas with offices in Mt. Kisco NY, Fishkill, NY and Ridgefield, CT. To learn more, contact Dr. Tepp today to see how he can help you or a family member.