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.
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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.