Everyone has dealt with being jealous at least once in their romantic lives. It’s not a great feeling, to be honest. Not only is it uncomfortable to have the emotional experience of jealousy—and worry about the state of your relationship—but it also feels a bit shameful to be jealous in the first place. Like, if you were more confident, more good looking, more (insert adjective here) you would never actually feel jealous in the first place, right?
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Not necessarily. Jealousy is normal human emotion and with all the avenues for connection and reconnection these days, it’s easier than ever for those feelings of envy to slip right into your partnership. To better understand what it means to feel jealous—and to help you recover from a moment of resentment—let’s get schooled on the three dimensions of jealousy.
First, to define jealousy itself. You may have felt it, but actually breaking down the word can give some further insight into what envy is all about. Jealousy is typically sparked by feelings of fear, insecurity and concern over something you lack or a perceived danger. It’s not an emotion to immediately push away or try to discount because feelings of jealousy are trying to tell us that something we care about is being threatened.
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When you feel jealous of someone flirting with your partner, for instance, your brain thinks that your relationship is in danger. (And it very well may be.)
Jealousy is complex because it can be coupled with other emotions like anger, feelings of inadequacy or lack of confidence, embarrassment and resentment. These emotions create a potent cocktail that can make even the most even-keeled people feel like they’re about to explode emotionally.
Understanding the Three Dimensions of Jealousy
Jealousy is complicated and, luckily, lots of scientific research has gone into understanding how it all works. One of the more famous papers about jealousy was published in 1989 by Canadian researchers Susan M. Pfeiffer and Paul T. P. Wong, who wrote about what they called the multidimensional jealousy scale (MJS). The MJS outlines three dimensions of jealousy, as follows: cognitive jealousy, emotional jealousy and behavioral jealousy.
Here’s how Pfiffer and Wong defined these three dimensions:
Cognitive jealousy refers to how often a person has suspicions and worries about their partner’s interest in another person or interest from other people. So, if you’re constantly worried that every person who pays attention to your partner is secretly trying to steal them away—or you think your partner may be a little too friendly with other people—you’re dealing with this dimension of jealousy.
Emotional jealousy is all about how upset you get when you’re in a jealousy-evoking situation. Some people don’t care (or are even turned on by) their partner flirting with someone else.
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Others would see their partners linger with a chatty bartender a little too long and lose their minds. There’s definitely a spectrum of how people are able to deal with and react to feelings of jealousy.
Behavioral jealousy refers to what you actually do when you feel jealous feelings. Do you engage in detective work to find out if your partner is cheating with that aforementioned bartender? Do you give your partner the cold shoulder—and go into self-protective mode—when you suspect that there may be someone else in the picture? Do you sneakily go through your partner’s phone or laptop when they’re not around? All of these things are part of behavioral jealousy.
Overcoming Each Type of Jealousy
While it’s not realistic to think that you can fully get over ever being jealous again, forever, there are some things you can do to safeguard your heart, and your relationship, from the clutches of envy. Jealousy can lead to your partner thinking you don’t trust them, as well as fights about each other’s reactions to envy-inducing situations. You can protect yourself by doing some work, both on your own and with your partner, to curb those jealous feelings.
Overcoming cognitive jealousy
Do you consider yourself a jealous person? Does your partner? It’s important to talk about these things and really connect over what makes each of you jealous and how you’d like to handle these feelings when they come up. Talk to your partner about how much reassurance you need when they are away from you, like when they’re going out on the town with friends or taking a solo trip. Understand what it will take for each of you to feel comfortable without feeling trapped or restricted.
Another important thing to do together? Set appropriate boundaries for what’s okay and not okay when it comes to, for instance, hanging out with your exes or being physical with friends. (As in, are you okay with your partner giving other people kisses on the cheek or is that something that needs to stop now that you’re together?)
Overcoming emotional jealousy
To help ease how upset, anxious or shut-down you get when you feel jealous you may want to do some self work to understand what your jealousy triggers are and why. Writing down what makes you feel envious and trying to make sense of it will help you feel less triggered in the moment.
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If you’ve been cheated on or dealt with other types of breaches of trust in the past, you may want to work with a therapist to go deeper and heal from these emotional wounds.
Overcoming behavioral jealousy
For this kind of jealousy you need to be honest with yourself about how you react when you feel jealous. Are your reactions rational? Are they learned patterns of behavior? And, most importantly, are your behaviors actually helping you and your relationship—or are they doing more harm than good? Typically, sleuthing around to figure out if your partner is cheating will only come back to bite you.
Work on breaking these toxic behavioral patterns by being more vulnerable with your partner and sharing your fears. Or, if your partner is unresponsive or gives you reason to be jealous constantly then perhaps it’s time to find a new relationship that’s safer for your heart.
Is Jealousy Healthy in a Relationship—or Harmful?
While a little bit of jealousy can be fun, especially in the early, flirty stages of a relationship, constant feelings of envy can bring a romantic connection to its knees. At some point, jealousy calls into question trust, loyalty and feelings of safety in the relationship. Without these foundational elements, your bond can’t last. Work with your partner to be open about and overcome jealous feelings. You’ll become closer and more committed in the process.
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