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What your jealous feelings are telling you (and what you should do about them)

A degree of jealousy can be useful. A lot of it can be toxic and destructive.
Image: Young woman Spy on Boyfriend Cell Phone
Jealousy gets triggered because you feel your relationship might be at risk.Emilija Manevska / Getty Images

At one time or another, we’ve probably all felt the twinge of the green-eyed monster. Is my boyfriend’s banter with his attractive, known-each-other-since-kindergarten best friend more than that of “just friends”? Does my boss think more of the other junior associate than of me? Why did my best friend invite her to the movies, but not me?

Jealousy is the emotion we feel when we feel fearful of losing someone or a relationship that is very important to us, Robin Stern, PhD, associate director for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, tells NBC News BETTER.

Maybe we start to fear a relationship is becoming less sacred in the other person’s eyes. Maybe we fear that someone else is going to take away a connection we have with someone else, says Stern, who is also a licensed psychoanalyst who has treated individuals and couples for 30 years. “It’s that ‘I might lose you in some way’ feeling.”

Jealousy is often used somewhat interchangeably with the word “envy.” Stern says the two are different in that envy is about things or a situation or position (someone else has something you want); whereas jealousy is about people (you perceive someone else’s closeness with a friend or lover to be threatening your relationships with that person). You might be envious of a neighbor’s new car or a colleague’s promotion, whereas you feel jealous if you find out your best friend confided in another friend instead of you.

Sometimes feeling a twinge of jealousy is a sign there’s something you need to work on in a relationship or some aspect of that relationship isn’t going how you want it to be going. But, unchecked, consuming jealousy can be toxic and destroy relationships. That’s why we need to know how to recognize it and respond in a productive way, Stern and others say.

Jealousy is hard-wired in all of us.

Baland Jalal, neuroscientist at Cambridge University School of Clinical Medicine

Jealousy isn’t necessarily a problem, but it might be a sign of a problem within one of your relationships

From an evolutionary perspective, the purpose of jealousy has always been to motivate us into action to help secure our survival and the survival of our offspring, Baland Jalal, a neuroscientist at Cambridge University School of Clinical Medicine, says. (Jalal co-authored a paper reviewing the current understanding of the evolutionary basis of jealousy and envy that was published in 2017 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.)

Our friends and our mates help us survive, reproduce, and do what we want to do in our day-to-day lives. Feeling jealous is a signal that someone else might be putting a relationship you have and rely on at risk — and you may need to do something about it to either save that relationship or find what you’re getting out of that relationship somewhere else.

“Jealousy is hard-wired in all of us,” Jalal says.

It can be useful if you recognize the feeling and respond in a way that helps you address a problem or something you are struggling with in a relationship, Stern says.

Let’s say your partner has been spending more time at the office with colleagues. You’re picking up there’s something wrong between you two. Maybe there’s a reason for you to be jealous, or maybe you’re feeling the way you do because those longer hours your partner spends at the office cut into the time you and your partner used to spend doing a hobby together (and losing that time is taking a toll on you and your partner’s closeness).

Recognizing and acknowledging those feelings will help you take steps to actually identify what’s wrong or causing you to feel upset – and it might help you and your partner address it, Stern explains.

But excessive jealousy can be distressing and destructive — for everyone involved

A degree of jealousy can be a useful reminder that you shouldn’t take a loved one or friend for granted, explains Daniel Freeman, PhD, professor of clinical psychology at University of Oxford, who has researched mental health topics including delusions and paranoia. “And for some people, a mildly jealous partner is a partner who cares.”

Jealousy becomes toxic for relationships, however, if left unchecked, Freeman adds. Trust is a key component of any healthy, successful relationship. Jealousy breeds suspicion, doubt, and mistrust, which can snowball into pretty intense emotions and behaviors, he says. We may become preoccupied with the fear of betrayal. We might start checking up on our friend or partner constantly, trying to “catch them.” We might become possessive of that person.

“What began as a partnership of equals can degenerate into an unhappy relationship of guard and jailer,” Freeman says.

Sometimes feeling a twinge of jealousy is a sign there’s something you need to work on in a relationship or some aspect of that relationship isn’t going how you want it to be going.

It happens because the emotion centers of the brain (the ones that make us feel jealous) are wired separately from the reasoning centers of the brain, Jalal explains. And that means our emotions can override rationality and logic.

“For example: I know it’s silly for me to feel jealous of my partner spending time with a member of the opposite sex on the job, but I can’t seem to help myself,” Jalal says.

At one point in our evolutionary history, being triggered by jealousy in an extreme way may have been important for our survival. But today, that type of aggressive response is a sort of maladaptive one, Jalal notes. It causes stress and usually isn’t the best way of addressing the problem.

7 better ways to handle jealous feelings

What should you do to better address twinges of jealousy in a productive way when they do show up? Here are a few steps to try.

1. Pay attention to what you’re telling yourself

Take a step back and think about what you’re telling yourself about the situation, Stern says. You’re at the movies and you see your best friend there with another friend. Does it really warrant you being jealous of the person your best friend invited instead of you? Is it a sign your friend doesn’t want to hang out with you? Or is it just that your friend knew you didn’t want to see that movie?

“The things that you tell yourself will often drive the emotions you feel,” Stern says.

2. Turn the focus inward

Jealousy gets triggered because you feel your relationship might be at risk. Rather than assuming someone else is instigating that threat, stay in your own relationship, Stern says. Maybe your friend is spending more time with another friend because you’ve been busier, and it’s a sign you need to make more time for that friend.

Focusing on your relationship with that person helps you address whatever might be wrong, rather than cycling into a downward spiral of blame and hurt feelings.

The things that you tell yourself will often drive the emotions you feel.

Robin Stern, associate director for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence

3. Decide if your jealousy is being driven by your own insecurities

Jealous fears about a partner often have roots in negative views about ourselves, Freeman notes. Do you get jealous of a partner spending time socializing with others because you actually think your relationship is in jeopardy? Or are you insecure about not having your own hobbies outside of the relationship like he does?

Resting all of your self-worth on one relationship can breed insecurity, Freeman says. “If your self-esteem is low, give it a boost. Make sure you have interests and activities outside of your relationship.”

4. If there is a problem, talk about it

All relationships benefit from mutually agreed upon rules when it comes to trust and faithfulness. And in a relationship you value, it’s a good idea to talk about these things, Freeman says. Opening that conversation, especially when you feel distance or feel someone pulling away, can be very helpful.

5. But think about what you want out of a conversation before you have one

If you are going to talk about it, what you say and how you say it matters, Stern says. Before you start the conversation, think about what you want from it, she says. “If I’m telling someone I’m jealous, do I want them to fix it? Do I want them to tell me I shouldn’t be jealous?”

Or maybe something else is triggering your jealousy — like you feeling like you’re becoming more distant with that person lately — and you ultimately want to talk about that.

6. Decide if it’s better to opt for trust

Sometimes it’s helpful to talk about why you’re feeling jealous or act on small suspicions. But sometimes someone constantly checking up or being overly suspicious can itself cue mistrust. Has this person given you a reason to mistrust them?

Ultimately we may never know the other person’s motivation to act in the way that triggered your jealousy, Freeman says. “We’ll often save ourselves — and our relationship — a huge amount of anxiety, stress, and misery if we opt for trust.”

7. And stay calm

Remember, jealousy activates us. Thoughtful conversations about why someone in a relationship is feeling jealous and what might help mitigate those jealous pangs can be helpful. Heated conversations where someone is accusing someone else of neglecting the other person can spiral really quickly, Stern says.

Try to have that conversation before the situation snowballs and you’re really upset, she suggests. Tell your partner you want to talk about what you’re feeling, so our jealousy doesn’t go unchecked and doesn’t cycle into something toxic. “Think about it as a conversation, not a confrontation.”


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