Jealousy and Compersion in Relationships
Jealousy comes up in all types of relationships, sexual and otherwise. A kid can experience jealousy when their mother is talking to someone else. Jealousy can come up when a colleague gets a raise and you don’t. An artist can feel jealous when someone they know catches a big break.
It’s a normal experience that’s supported by our entertainment and culture—often seen as an inevitable component of love. Sometimes even as a virtue.
But what do we mean when we talk about jealousy? And what is its role in relationships?
Short answer: depends on the relationship.
What is jealousy?
Let’s start with the basics. Jealousy is an emotion evolved to protect us from perceived deprivation of something that’s ours.
When we feel like we’re losing something dear, jealousy screams—this is life and death!—and we better take action to protect the future.
So it kickstarts our central nervous system (CNS) into fight or flight mode. Elevated heart-rate, raised blood-pressure, tunnel vision, the works…
On top of that, jealousy is a complex emotion that can activate other emotions:
For people with trauma in particular, all that emotional connectivity of jealousy can trigger anxiety, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, hypervigilance, and other PTSD symptoms.
But whether or not there’s a history of trauma, jealousy can inspire any of us to behave in a regrettable way that hurts ourselves and/or others.
So first let’s separate the emotion from the behavior.
Why do we get jealous in relationships?
There’s nothing wrong with experiencing the emotion of jealousy. Or any emotion, for that matter. Negative, uncomfortable emotions play an important role in guiding us through life.
If we think in terms of evolution, the purpose of jealousy is to protect us from losing something we need. Or more specifically from having something of ours taken by another.
When we were living under the stars, it could launch us into fight/flight mode and save us from raiders and pillagers.
But when it comes to relationships—whether mono or poly—that defensive primal emotion can get in the way of empathetic, loving, effective discourse.
We feel jealous in relationships when our partner does something we perceive as disloyalty, abandonment, and/or betrayal.
The key word there is perceive. Our insecurities buzz around in our heads telling us we better WATCH OUT, that everything’s too quiet, that something doesn’t smell right…
Whether or not those insecurities are based on facts, they can balloon quickly into catastrophic assumptions that make us view our partner differently, watching for clues. If those buzzing thoughts aren’t brought to the surface and addressed together, they’ll just keep reverberating through your mental echo chamber, building to a fever pitch.
Thoughtlessly acting on jealous emotions can cause all sorts of problems. And even if you don’t act upon it in the heat of the moment, unaddressed jealousy can build up to resentment, disconnection, and worse.
Where does relationship jealousy come from?
Jealousy comes from a story we tell ourselves (and our culture tells us) that someone is coming for those parts of us we hold most dear—which we’re taught includes our intimate partners—and we must protect ourselves at all costs.
Our institutions support the idea that you become your relationship, leaving a measure of individuality behind. So if someone else “takes” your partner, they’re taking away part of you. The perceived threat of that is enough to drive people mad.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Monogamy developed out of a desire to pass down possessions and land through inheritance—so knowing exactly who the father was became important in terms of lineage.
That naturally gave rise to possessiveness in sexual relationships and steered our cultural understanding of family away from the tribal mindset and into the nuclear structure we know today.
What you think about that construct is a matter of personal choice. But the fact is, we learn relationship jealousy through cultural narratives and community norms.
How you decide to behave within that emotional awareness is the important question.
When jealousy is toxic
Because of the deep primal emotional connectivity and most people’s inexperience understanding and managing their emotions, unfettered jealousy and possessiveness can lead to really bad situations.
In our culture we give jealousy power by equating it to love:
“If you don’t act jealous, that means you don’t care and don’t love me.”
We give it power by identifying proudly as the super-jealous type, prone to fits of rage at any perceived infidelity:
“I love you so much, I’ll fight anyone who tries to come between us!”
And by weaponizing the emotion to achieve a result:
“I’ll do something to make him jealous—then he’ll remember how much he loves me.”
And beyond that, beyond the typical relationship spats, beyond the jealous bar fights, it can get much worse.
Jealousy accounts for 12% of homicides by intimate partners. Plus a whole lot more non-deadly domestic violence. And uncountable instances of controlling behavior and emotional abuse.
So what’s the flipside? What does it mean to have a healthy relationship with the emotion of jealousy?
How to deal with jealousy in a relationship
Like any emotion, jealousy can build slowly—or it can flare up without warning, triggered by something subconscious.
And like any emotion; with practice you can learn to recognize the experience, observe it in yourself, and then decide whether or not to act upon it.
Your thoughts come first, triggering feelings, which lead to actions (or cascade into darker thoughts triggering deeper feelings in a downward spiral).
Learning to recognize that chain-reaction lets you notice the distance between feelings and thoughts, a space where you can choose to take a beat and engage your thinking mind, so your next behavior can be thoughtful and intentional, instead of reactionary and harmful.
Start by asking yourself:
What am I feeling?
Why am I feeling this way?
What would happen if I reacted the way my feelings tell me to?
What might I need to feel better about this situation?
You may not be able to choose how you feel—but you can choose what you think. And eventually those chosen, intentional thoughts can guide your emotions back into a more comfortable track.
But jealousy should never be suppressed. Even if you choose not to act in a given moment—at some point when you’ve cooled down, those feelings should be brought out into the open calmly and discussed.
One goal of such a conversation is to examine jealousy for the root cause—beyond just the triggering event—so it doesn’t fester with assumptions and lead to resentment.
I have a client couple who are married and monogamous. It came up in a recent session that A. has been feeling jealous about B’s close friend for a long time, without ever bringing it up.
B. was surprised by the revelation and asked why it never came up.
A. explained that it felt important not to get in the way of B’s friendship—but admitted that suppressing it often led to fights sometimes days later when the emotion bubbled up again out of the blue.
Through our discussion we figured out that A. had some unspoken expectations for reassurances from B. that the friend wasn’t coming between them—and making assumptions when those reassurances never came.
While B. never gave it a thought because there was nothing between them.
A. explained what kind of reassurances would be helpful, and B. was happy to provide. And going forward, they agreed to discuss whatever feelings A. had about the time B. spent with the friend.
Like many painful emotions, jealousy can be a signal about something internal or external that needs to be addressed. But blowing up about it won’t help; and suppressing it won’t make it go away.
Talking about jealousy can be painful for all parties, depending on attachment styles—which is why it’s an easy topic to avoid. But in relationship coaching we lean into difficult topics, helping people untangle jealousy together, focusing on empathy, curiosity, and communication.