The Psychology of Jealousy

practical psychology logo
Published by:
Practical Psychology

I have felt moments of jealousy in all of my significant relationships. In my first relationship, my partner met this cutie in film school who shared the same interests as him, and they would connect on work stuff that I didn’t understand. Although my partner was very committed to me, and I never thought he would cheat, I remember being unable to eat or focus on work when I knew they were hanging out.

Sometimes I would tag along to their hangs - not because I cared about what they were doing, but so that I could control my imagination, which would otherwise go wild picturing them making sweet love.

I would even work out to look as fit as her. I knew that my feelings were silly and illogical, but it was tough to think clearly when the green-eyed monster was in control. This article will explore what we know about jealousy and some tips and tricks to deal with this bitch of an emotion.

What is Jealousy?

Jealousy is a natural reaction to a real or threatened loss. In relationships, jealousy is often related to a third party taking away or appearing to take away our loved ones. Several emotions often go hand in hand with jealousy, including anger, anxiety, hostility, and bitterness. 

Jealousy is one of the most intense emotions out there, causing a kick-start the body’s stress response. When in a state of jealousy, a ton of stress hormones are released, causing an increased heart rate and spiked blood pressure. While we are in this state, we are less able to think logically and use our newer, more complex parts of the brain because the older, more emotional part of the brain has taken command.

I once heard someone describe jealousy as similar to an alarm going off in your home. Unfortunately, while you are in the thick of it, the alarm is too loud for you to analyze or figure out what is wrong. So the first step has to be finding a way to turn the fucking alarm off. Similarly, the first step of working on jealousy has to be calming down the fight or flight response that your body is experiencing.  Have you ever tried going through your to-do list while an alarm is going off?  Trust me, it doesn’t work! 

There is evidence of the alarm-like intensity of jealousy. A study found that women in the thick of jealousy had trouble finding objects that were plainly in their line of sight. The higher the intensity of their jealousy, the harder it was for them to see what was right in front of them! In other words, jealousy becomes so all-encompassing that you are unable to think, let alone thoughtfully analyze the root of your emotions. 

It makes sense that jealousy is the leading cause of domestic violence and homicide, given its ability to take over the thoughtful logical part of the brain. Folks often get lower sentences for committing “a crime of passion” because there is an understanding that we may engage in actions we would never otherwise do during intense jealousy.  The consequence of jealousy, can be anything from murder to showing up to your partners “work dinner” uninvited to assess the sexual chemistry between your partner and their client.

There's even something called Retroactive Jealousy, where you have negative feelings towards a partner's old ex's. Jealousy is a complex emotion.

Why do we experience jealousy?

Jealousy evolved to encourage folks to protect relationships that would help us survive. There is some interesting gendered research to support this claim. For example, a study published by the Archives of Sexual Behavior surveyed almost 64,000 folks about whether they were more worried about emotional or sexual infidelity. The results showed that men were significantly more worried about sexual infidelity, and women were significantly more anxious about emotional infidelity.  

These sex differences in jealousy make sense when looking at our evolutionary past. There was no test to find out who the paternal father was; a baby would pop out. As a result, if a woman was sexually unfaithful, the father may put their time and resources into a child that is not their own, which is a significant evolutionary no no.  

For women, it was a different story. Men used to provide a lot of the food and resources necessary for children and mothers to survive. If a man became emotionally invested in another woman, this increased the chances that he may no longer want to provide for his romantic partner and their children.

However, if a man had a one-time sexual experience with a stranger or sex worker, there wasn’t a real threat that he would stop providing resources. If anything, he would bring home extra bacon to assuage his guilt. As a result, when looking at jealousy through an evolutionary lens, it makes sense that women would be more emotionally jealous, and men would be more sexually jealous.

There are many holes in this logic when we take a modern look at this dynamic. First, we can now identify who the father of a baby is. Second, many women are entirely self-sufficient and make more money than men. Third, we are also more educated in understanding the diversity of sexual preference - we aren’t all straight, and people of all sexual orientations experience jealousy!

Regardless of all this, vestiges of our evolutionary past often stick around even when it is no longer adaptive. Perhaps, the gendered nature of our jealousy may be an example of this.

Relax the Monster

So what do you do when the jealousy alarm is blasting? Find a way to slow down your heart rate and get out of your head and into your body. Try taking deep and slow controlled breaths. Meditate. Work out. Call a friend. Take a bath. The first step is to engage in self-care so you can work to get your heart rate down and your mind calmer.  

Is there a logic to your feelings?

There is a considerable difference between our partner cheating on us and our partner having some attractive friends. Once you have relaxed from that fight or flight, it is helpful to analyze if the jealousy you are experiencing makes sense or is illogical.

There can be some logic to experiencing jealousy. It can be our body telling us that something is wrong. Perhaps our partner is indeed cheating on us, and jealousy is our body’s way of telling us to watch out. Maybe we rely on our partner financially, and jealousy is our body’s way of saying we may lose our security soon.

However, jealousy is often not adaptive, and the anguish you are experiencing may be illogical. For example, in my experience with my first partner, there was no actual threat in my relationship, but the green-eyed monster was nonetheless showing his ugly face. 

If you are experiencing jealousy, ask yourself if it is a genuine threat or not. It is often hard to tell because, as we saw, jealousy can make it harder for us to analyze a situation logically. Once you have calmed down the monster, spend some time considering the facts and assessing if this is a real or perceived threat or something in the middle.

Analyze the root of your feelings 

If you conclude that the jealousy is unfounded, it is helpful to get to the root of the jealousy you are experiencing. Jealousy is not a stand-alone feeling - it is related to several other factors. For example, is there an unmet need in your relationship? Are you not feeling confident in your body? Do you not trust your partner? Did you have too much coffee? Do you have some codependency issues to work through? Do you have a fear of abandonment? 

Many folks experience jealousy because they are not feeling confident in another part of their life. Think about how you feel at work, in your body, and in your relationship. Is there another factor that is making you particularly vulnerable right now? Are there other changes you can make in your life to make you feel more generally confident? You may notice that making some other life changes will lead you to become less jealous.

Analyze your Thoughts

We already know that jealousy clouds your emotions, so it is imperative to take the time to critically analyze the thoughts that led you to your jealous state. For example, say the situation that started the alarm was, “I’m jealous because my partner chose to go out with his work friends (who happen to be attractive) instead of staying home and watching a movie with me.” It is easy for this to spiral into thinking your partner doesn’t enjoy spending time with you, doesn’t think you’re attractive, and is obviously sleeping with that sexy coworker.  

Especially when we are in a state of jealousy, it is easy for our thoughts to spiral out of control. Spend time parsing out the facts with your assumptions about the facts. The only truth is that your partner is going out with friends; therefore, this is not a rejection.  

Bring in the larger context. For example, does your partner choose to hang out with you most days, and this is their one time going out and socializing this week? Does your partner feel like going out and know that it will be more relaxing and low-key if they hang with you? Even if your partner is attracted to one of his coworkers, do you think spending one night hanging with them will make him want to leave you and start dating them? You can be your therapist here and look for holes in your logic that may be causing extra anxiety. 

When you are experiencing jealousy, examine all of your assumptions. Are they true? Do you sincerely believe them? Have you talked to your partner about them? When you explore the assumptions underlying jealousy, you will often learn that many don’t have much merit.

Talk to your partner

When you are experiencing jealousy, it is important to express this to your partner. However, this requires some tact. Jealousy should not be expressed through 27 texts when your partner is just hanging out with a friend. Instead, it should be discussed once you turn off the alarm and analyze your feelings.

 If you are experiencing unfounded jealousy, it is helpful to tell your partner what you feel jealous about and let them know how you are working on it. If there is something small, they could do to help build your confidence, express that. For example, if your partner doesn’t answer their phone when they are out with friends, and that causes anxiety, perhaps you can explore a middle ground where they check in every couple of hours.  

If it turns out that your partner may have done something to produce jealousy, this is a slightly different conversation. Monogamy is often implied but not discussed. It is helpful to discuss boundaries. What do you expect from a partner? Are you open to consensually exploring non-monogamy? If not, what does monogamy mean to you? We are often operating on different definitions of what behavior is acceptable or not acceptable in a relationship, so defining boundaries is imperative.  

We cannot always control how we feel, but we can control how we act. If we find ourselves becoming jealous in situations where it is unfounded, we should work on ourselves instead of trying to control our partners. There is no way you can watch your partner 24/7. If they want to cheat on you, they can do it. Instead, spend time analyzing the root of your feelings, working on confidence, and discussing boundaries with your partner.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2023, January). The Psychology of Jealousy. Retrieved from

About The Author

Photo of author