Why Do We Get Jealous?

Why Do We Get Jealous?

What is jealousy and how do we overcome feelings of jealousy in relationships?

Jealousy is sometimes described as a complex emotion—an experience in which multiple emotions may be present, and the thoughts that accompany those emotions are relevant, too (Harmon-Jones et al., 2009). Therefore, jealousy is the experience of some flavors of fear and/or anger as one thinks about the possibility of losing something valuable.

Is Jealousy Bad?

Some psychologists have expressed concern that we as a culture have started to pathologize jealousy (Mullen, 1991). Specifically, they have noted that some people interpret any expression of jealousy as representing a troubling degree of insecurity or immaturity in the person having the feeling. For example, if a person feels jealous when they see their partner engaged in animated conversation with someone else across the room at a party, the inclination might be to tell them to work on their self-confidence or to stop wanting to control their partner – both responses that invalidate the feeling of jealousy.

While jealousy can certainly get out of hand and be a contributor to mental health issues and conflicts between people, it is also a part of our daily lives. The fact of the matter is that all emotions, including jealousy, have an adaptive function – we experience them because they help us take action to meet our needs.

Causes of Jealousy

Why do we get jealous? A prominent psychologist created a list of reasons that we might become jealous to an unhealthy degree (Ellis, 1996), which are summarized here:

Insecurity and dependency. If we only feel good about ourselves when we are partnered with people, we may become jealous anytime that relationship seems threatened. This kind of neediness around love can lead to incessant checking that we are still loved and valued – which may try a partner’s patience and ultimately decrease feelings of love.

Difficulty tolerating frustration. We often do not get what we want in life, and some of us are better at tolerating those disappointments than others. Jealousy may result from our struggles to manage our disappointment. Having a hard time regulating our jealous emotions may also mean that we act on those emotions in unhealthy or hurtful ways, such as voicing inappropriate anger at a partner’s interactions with other people.

Experiences from our past. In childhood, we may have learned that relationships are unpredictable or that loss is common and out of our control. You can think of how children may grow resentful when their divorced parents start to date again. Or we may have these experiences in adulthood, such as when a partner is unfaithful or even passes away unexpectedly. All of these experiences could lead us to feel protective of our relationships with others to the point of jealousy.

Obsessive-compulsive tendencies. For a few of us, our relationships will become the subject of obsessive tendencies we possess. We may become conditioned to think that we need reassurance from our partners to feel okay.

“If you’re jealous of someone else it simply means you have not come to a true acceptance and appreciation of yourself.”
― Rasheed Ogunlaru

Jealousy in Relationships

Why do we get so jealous in romantic relationships? Our romantic partners are typically also our reproductive partners, so we have a strong evolutionary drive to ensure that they will remain faithful to us (Harris, 2003). Perhaps this is why situations that evoke threat to our romantic relationships seem to be some of the most powerful jealousy-inducing contexts (Salovey & Rodin, 1986).

The more solid our relationships are, the less jealousy we are likely to feel, although sometimes being especially close to our partners can make us feel even more protective of the special bond we have (Knobloch et al., 2001). Unfortunately, strong feelings of jealousy can also even be an explanation – but never an excuse! – for intimate partner violence, or aggression toward one’s romantic partner (Puente & Cohen, 2003).

How to Overcome Jealousy

How does one cope with jealousy or even overcome it entirely? Cognitive therapy approaches offer ways to try to change our thinking in jealous moments (Dolan & Bishay, 1996; Ellis, 1996).

First, we can identify and challenge irrational beliefs that may underlie our jealous reactions. If your best friend makes a new friend and starts spending lots of time with them, you may need to dispute statements that pop into your head like, “They must not like me anymore.” Do you have any evidence that they have stopped liking you? Or are you still spending time together but not as much as you used to?

Second, we can try to reframe the situation. What are some other ways to look at your best friend’s new friendship? Perhaps you could say to yourself, “I am afraid of losing time with my friend, but I do want them to be able to have as much fun with other people as possible, just the way I want that for myself.”

Third, you can explore what it would mean if your jealous thoughts turned out to be true. If your best friend was truly not interested in spending time with you anymore, would you never have a friend again? Or would you be sad but eventually start spending more time with other people, too?

In Sum

Let’s let jealousy be a signal that something matters to us, and hopefully a reminder that we can take effective action to be more certain that we will remain connected with the things that matter to us (Harmon-Jones et al., 2009).


● Dolan, M., & Bishay, N. (1996). The effectiveness of cognitive therapy in the treatment of non-psychotic morbid jealousy. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 168(5), 588-593.

● Ellis, A. (1996). The treatment of morbid jealousy: A rational emotive behavior therapy approach. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 10(1), 23-33.

● Harris, C. R. (2003). A review of sex differences in sexual jealousy, including self-report data, psychophysiological responses, interpersonal violence, and morbid jealousy. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 7(2), 102-128.

● Harmon-Jones, E., Peterson, C. K., & Harris, C. R. (2009). Jealousy: novel methods and neural correlates. Emotion, 9(1), 113-117.

● Knobloch, L. K., Solomon, D. H., & Cruz, M. G. (2001). The role of relationship development and attachment in the experience of romantic jealousy. Personal Relationships, 8(2), 205-224.

● Mullen, P. E. (1991). Jealousy: the pathology of passion. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 158(5), 593-601.

● Puente, S., & Cohen, D. (2003). Jealousy and the meaning (or nonmeaning) of violence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(4), 449-460.

● Salovey, P., & Rodin, J. (1984). Some antecedents and consequences of social-comparison jealousy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47, 780 –792