Even though jealousy evokes negative connotations, it can definitely lead to positive outcomes. First and foremost, envy is a natural human emotion! Don’t berate yourself for feeling it. Second, jealousy can be healthy, as long as it’s dealt with in a thoughtful way. Jealousy in relationships can be especially tricky, so take a deep breath before tackling this complex emotion. The good news is, if you’re feeling jealous in your relationship, it’s not time to break up.
Before we really dig into it, it’s worth taking some advice from Maya Bialik, founder of The Same Page, an app that provides a place for people to make meaningful connections around what they're reading (romantic or platonic). She says people experience envy in completely different ways. “In some relationships, a little jealousy is a natural thing and stays at that, while in others, it can lead to toxic dynamics,” Bialik says. Don’t compare yourself—or your partnership—with anyone else.
Is jealousy healthy in a relationship?
When we think about healthy relationships, we envision mutual trust, respect, communication and compassion. Dr. Leela Magavi, M.D., of Community Psychiatry, says when we worry about losing our partners, these positive emotions can balloon into fear. This fear often morphs into jealousy, which is actually kind of sweet when you think about it. It means we want a commitment.
“Mild jealousy can be healthy,” says Dr. Magavi. “It reiterates the fact that an individual cares about his or her partner, values them and does not want to lose them.”
We may become jealous of the attention our partners give to others because we want to be the only apple of their eye. This is healthy when it clarifies and solidifies the definition of your relationship with your partner.
If, however, this type of jealousy leads to constant fights between you and your partner, it’s time to slow down and check in with yourself. Again, this can be a good thing—for real! Dr. Magavi says being envious may mean you’ve got to spend some time thinking about whether there is something making you feel inadequate or less deserving of love.
“In this case, journaling a timeline of life events, which made them feel unloved may help them identify the trigger. Healing from past trauma in therapy, practicing self-compassion and interacting with uplifting individuals may help combat debilitating feelings of jealousy,” Dr. Magavi says.
Ryan and Alex, the real-life couple behind Duo Life, build on this sentiment by addressing the jealousy we may feel directly towards our partner. Formerly engineers, this husband-and-wife team now coaches couples on nutrition, fitness and living their happiest lives together. Alex says coveting your partner’s skills or achievements signals areas in which you probably want to improve yourself.
“Ask yourself why and what you're really jealous of,” Alex says. “Harness that to fuel positive change… Whether you need to improve in a skill or increase your self-confidence, recognizing jealousy as a signal instead of the end of a relationship will help propel you to become a better partner.”
Finally, a little jealousy can be a nice reminder that the two of you are absolute catches. When a stranger flirts with you, but you only have eyes for your partner, it can remind them how lucky they are.
Signs of healthy jealousy
Healthy jealousy results in growth. This may look like one partner coming to terms with insecurities and devising a plan to deal with them. It may look like both partners talking more openly about emotions or simply better understanding each other.
1. Acknowledging it
Ryan and Alex say healthy jealousy is acknowledged jealousy, plain and simple. This can definitely include sharing your feelings with your partner, but it really begins within you, the person experiencing it. If you’re envious and refuse to acknowledge it, there’s not much your partner can do to help.
2. Openly talking about it
Dr. Magavi says a partner willing to discuss their feelings in an honest way is demonstrating healthy jealousy. For example, phrases like, “I felt jealous when the girl at the party was talking with you. I felt like she was flirting, and it made me feel uncomfortable,” and “I’m so happy to hear that you are excelling at work, but right now, I am feeling insecure about my own performance and the way others perceive me,” are healthy expressions of jealousy. Keeping details hidden doesn’t count! Embrace vulnerability.
This also applies to folks whose partners are the ones feeling jealous. If they bring up an uncomfortable flirting incident and have a reason to be jealous, be upfront about it. Not the most fun conversation, but a necessary one if you want the relationship to thrive.
3. Understanding reasons behind it
While this may be a lengthier process, at least beginning to try to understand why feelings of jealousy pop up is a huge step towards growth. Again, this could look like journaling to dissect jealous episodes or speaking with a therapist about past trauma that could be informing current emotions.
4. Taking responsibility
“How you respond to your own jealousy will either make or break your sanity in the relationship,” says Alex. “All you can control are your feelings — your partner may be oblivious — so you may be making yourself unnecessarily suffer.” Take responsibility for your feelings by addressing them and actively pursuing ways to iron them out (which, again, involves open and honest communication with your partner).
Responsibility may also look like making sacrifices here and there. “Perhaps it's as simple as one partner skipping drinks after their club volleyball practice if a certain person there makes you uncomfortable,” says Alex.
Signs of unhealthy jealousy
Unhealthy jealousy can tear both romantic and platonic relationships apart. It’s worth noting the word “jealous” stems from the Latin “zelous,” which means fiery or passionate. When jealousy turns into a fervent obsession is when things can start to go very wrong. The worst thing you can do is ignore your feelings altogether. They are natural, but letting them simmer will only lead to anger, resentment and distrust.
1. Paranoia and suspicion
“Unhealthy jealousy results in impulsive comments and actions related to distrust such as, ‘I know why you didn’t text me back right away. I’m sure you’re texting that other guy instead,’ or ‘Your Snapchat score keeps increasing. I know you are sending nudes to your coworker,’” says Dr. Magavi. Accusations based on pure speculation and no evidence are symptoms of distrust and often lead to paranoia if they aren’t dealt with.
“If you are spending a significant amount of time in your day obsessing over your jealous thoughts and placing unrealistic expectations on your partner, it is a big signal that your jealousy has wandered too far into the toxic zone,” says Dr. Rashmi Parmar, M.D., also with Community Psychiatry.
2. Depression or self-harm
Dr. Magavi has seen severe jealousy turn into depression and even suicidal thoughts. “I have evaluated men and women who have experienced thoughts about hurting themselves or ending their life due to feelings of jealousy,” she says. This is serious stuff and requires professional mental health and medical attention.
If your partner is experiencing jealousy-induced depression, please know that it isn’t your responsibility alone to solve the problem. If you are experiencing depression or thoughts of self-harm, please know that there are resources and people ready and willing to help you through it, free of judgment!
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255.
3. Passive-aggressive behavior
Expressing a negative emotion indirectly is passive aggression. Examples include snide comments, sarcasm, constant complaints or refusing to discuss important topics earnestly. Meeting honesty with passive aggression is a defense mechanism meant to side-step around real issues. Jealousy can be uncomfortable! That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to face.
4. Controlling behavior
When one partner controls (or tries to control) the other partner, harmful jealousy is at play. Controlling behavior takes many forms. It could look like invading your partner’s privacy by reading their personal emails; it might sound like your partner forbidding you from going certain places or wearing specific clothing. This is a form of abuse and is not acceptable. Often, intense jealousy can lead to this type of unhealthy behavior.
“Feeling over possessive about your partner, not letting them meet other people or their friends freely, monitoring their activities and whereabouts frequently, jumping to negative conclusions if they don't respond to your text or call are some of the warning signs of unhealthy jealousy,” adds Dr. Parmar.
What to do if your partner is feeling jealous
If your partner has expressed feelings of jealousy, either toward you or someone else you have a relationship with, don’t freak out or tell them these feelings are wrong. Again, since envy signals a person feels threatened or scared, open communication and empathy are key.
“If your partner is feeling jealous, the compassionate approach is to take their feelings seriously,” says Bialik. “Together, unpack why they are feeling this way, and figure out what each party can do to improve the situation. If both partners want what's best for each other and the relationship, following the thread of jealousy can be a useful way to work on the relationship.”
Bialik adds, “At the same time, it is delicate emotional territory so if trying to talk it out doesn't lead to a resolution that is satisfying to both parties, it's a good idea to seek the professional opinion of a couple's therapist to help sort out what's going on.”
Learning your partner’s love language is another way to make sure you’re demonstrating your affection in the most impactful way. Sometimes, all it takes are extra words of affirmation or small acts of service to reiterate how devoted you are to each other.