Jealousy

Reviewed by Kaye Bewley
Last updated 11th July 2023 | Next update due 10th July 2026

Many of us have felt jealous, but what happens when it becomes overpowering? Here we look at jealousy in more detail and how it can impact mental health.

When jealousy gets more extreme, it can lead to anxiety or depression. It can also be a symptom of certain mental health conditions such as attachment disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). But why do we feel jealousy?


What causes jealousy?

Jealousy can negatively impact a relationship. There can be different root causes of jealousy such as low self-esteem or a fear of abandonment. It ultimately comes from not ‘feeling safe’ in some way. If someone experienced infidelity in a past relationship, they may feel jealous more than others.

Most of us have experienced that slight tinge of jealousy, but it’s when those worries or fears take over, that relationships can become much more difficult.

What is jealousy?

Jealousy can happen to everyone and can range from niggling worries to overwhelming fear. It usually happens when someone anticipates a real or imagined threat to the quality of an important relationship. That relationship can be with a family member, a romantic partner, a friend, a co-worker, or anyone close to you.

Studies show that jealousy consists of three measures: emotional, cognitive, and behavioural. Emotional jealousy is defined as the experience of negative feelings when a relationship is threatened or feels threatened, such as a partner’s romantic involvement with another person. Cognitive jealousy can be experienced as threats or suspicions, such as a partner’s infidelity. While behavioural jealousy can involve acting on these protective instincts, such as checking a partner’s messages. From these measures, jealousy can be rational or irrational. There is also pathological (or morbid) jealousy. This is when jealousy can be highly irrational and usually combined with unacceptable or extreme behaviour; it can also be the result of certain mental health conditions.

If you are worried jealousy is affecting your ability to take part in everyday activities, or you believe it's stopping you from doing things you used to do, speaking with your GP can be a great first step.

Jealousy and evolution

Some evolutionary psychologists believe that jealousy is part of our nature as it propels ‘mate-guarding’. This is when strategies are applied to keep a partner, increasing chances of survival. Additionally, if you are in a relationship with a jealous person, they may present negative or ‘territorial’ traits. 


Signs you may be in a relationship with a jealous person

It can be really difficult to deal with a jealous person. You may find yourself feeling deflated in their company or even feel like you’re walking on eggshells. To make it easier to spot the signs of jealousy in someone else, here are some common red flags:

  • They criticise you often, from what you’ve achieved to the decisions you make.
  • Their compliments are ‘backhanded’ and never appear genuine, somehow making you feel ‘less than’.
  • They are possessive of you and suspicious of the people around you, especially when someone new comes into your life.
  • They always have a bigger or better story to tell, often trying to upstage or belittle your experience.
  • They can be passive-aggressive. This can look like talking about you behind your back, avoiding you, or not communicating directly what is bothering them.

In the article, Don’t feed the green-eyed monster - A reflection on jealousy, Dahlian Kirby says, “Sometimes people see jealousy as a sign that their partner really loves them… This is not a sign of love but evidence of either insecurity or a desire to control, or both. Don’t encourage this reaction, it is not useful or helpful to either of you.”

If you are worried your partner’s behaviour could be abusive, please contact a dedicated support network such as Refuge or Respect.

Therapists who can help with feelings of jealousy

What is the difference between jealousy and envy?

Most of us have heard of the expression "green-eyed monster", but how do we work out the difference between jealousy and envy? Even though jealousy and envy can both come from feelings of insecurity, they are two very different emotions. 

Jealousy is defined as "the fear that someone might take something you consider to be yours". It can bring about feelings of anger or bitterness, manifesting in relationships with other people. 

Envy is the longing to have something that belongs to someone else. It can cause feelings of sadness or regret from underlying thoughts such as ‘others have done better than me’ or ‘I haven’t done enough’. Fortunately, envy can sometimes act as a catalyst for change and can be overcome.

Overcoming envy by building self-esteem

If you are struggling with envious feelings, you could see it as an opportunity to work on your sense of self-worth. You could try some of the following techniques to lessen the perceived gap between what others have and what you have:

  • Identify the fundamental difference between envy and jealousy.
  • Practice self-compassion.
  • Keep a gratitude journal, noting the things you are grateful for in your life.
  • Talk to a therapist about the way you tend to put your own achievements down.

In this video, counsellor Claire Black (MBACP Accredited, MSc) explains more about self-esteem, the benefits of therapy, and how to find the right counsellor for you.


What if it’s me that feels jealous?

Jealousy can show itself physically and emotionally. It may cause you to feel anxious or depressed. Among other physical symptoms, you might be feeling an uncomfortable sensation in the pit of your stomach, struggling with sleep issues, or experiencing a loss of appetite. 

You may also notice what situations or who tends to trigger these jealous feelings. You might feel jealous at work, for example, if someone gets a promotion before you. Or if your partner embarks on a relationship with a friend you feel jealous of. Some people feel retrospective jealousy (jealousy about a partner's past romantic or sexual relationships). This is also called retroactive jealousy. You might even feel jealous within your family setup, such as a sibling being favoured by other family members.

In small measures, it can be a healthy reminder to re-prioritise a relationship, but if it starts to feel intense you may feel anxious and show unhealthy behaviours. It is important that you find constructive ways to manage your jealousy.

How can I stop my jealousy?

It might be that you can't stop jealousy altogether, but there are steps you can take to address these feelings, such as: 

  • Talk with your partner. If you have noticed jealous feelings, being open with your partner can be a good way forward. It is important to calmly explain what is making you feel this way. Relationship counselling offers the chance to speak to a qualified, impartial professional who has the expertise to guide you through your concerns.
  • Practice meditation. Meditation teaches us to be more in the present moment. Jealousy can propel us into worrying about what happened in the past or fearful about what might happen in the future. So by practising meditation regularly, you can be less reactive and more centred.
  • Assess your expectations. It's a good idea to think about your expectations of your relationship with that person. If they do not meet those expectations, it is worth working towards a middle ground, without placing blame or making accusations. 
  • Speak to a counsellor. Couples counselling can be a great way to work through communication barriers, but it can also be worth seeking professional help on a one-to-one basis to help with jealousy.

If you are experiencing morbid jealousy in which your behaviours are extreme and could even be a threat to others, it is important to speak to your GP immediately. 


Does counselling help with jealousy?

Many people find that working with a counsellor or psychotherapist can be helpful. There is no one size fits all approach to treating jealousy so it’s a case of finding the right kind of counsellor or therapy that suits you. Couples counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy, and psychotherapy can all help combat irrational behaviours. A counsellor can offer an impartial and confidential space to work through any self-esteem issues.

In the article, Jealousy in relationships: taming the green-eyed monster, Lyn Reed says, "Good therapy with an effective therapist provides a safe environment and helps to address jealous feelings. It can help regain trust in yourself and your partner and build better communicating skills towards a healthier and happier relationship."

Through counselling, you can explore the root causes of jealousy, identify any triggers, and talk about how jealousy affects your life while working towards a healthier relationship with yourself and others.

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