Jealousy, like all other emotions, has a variety of flavours and degrees. It is often experienced as a negative feeling that comes up when our relationship with someone we care for is threatened by a third person. I will refer to the third person as a ‘rival’. Jealousy may be experienced in any area of our lives, be it with our friends, family, work, or intimate partners. It’s also worth noting that the person’s awareness of their jealousy varies in degrees (Salovey, 1991). 

I could get jealous if the friend who I regularly study with, one day studies with someone else. This might make me think I’m not as good, fun, or smart as the rival study-buddy, all because my studying relationship with that friend was supporting my beliefs about myself of being a good, fun, and smart study-buddy. It’s interesting that we only get jealous when the attention which is threatened, comes from a relationship which is supporting how we see ourselves.

In a romantic relationship our partner’s attention and affection is supporting more significant beliefs about ourselves than our study-buddy’s attention does (for example, believing I am loveable). This shows us how jealousy threatens those beliefs about ourselves and can shake us to the core.

Jealousy can both encourage a couple to put more energy into restoring their bond, as well as have serious and dangerous consequences for the individuals involved. Across the globe, morbid jealousy is a common motivator in domestic violence and can even lead to murder.

While each and every experience of jealousy is unique due to factors such as cultural norms and personality styles, here are three essential elements of jealousy (Salovey, 1991):

  • Fearing the loss of a significant relationship to the rival.
  • Insecurity
  • Anger for the betrayal. This anger is a way of processing the intense pain of betrayal.

How can Jealousy be tackled in therapy?

In therapy, the elements mentioned above could be explored with the client and make space for more awareness about the experience of jealousy.

The person who is constantly worried that their partner will or is cheating on them, is likely to have changed how they interact with their surroundings because they’re so frequently distressed by negative thoughts and feelings. This also means that the person has started to find it more difficult to communicate with their partner efficiently. Therefore, some work in therapy may revolve around remembering to be present, feeling in touch with one’s body and surroundings in order not to continuously spiral in distressing thoughts fueled by jealousy. This is not only a temporary tool to relieve some distress, since being more present in our bodies and environment allows us to adapt accordingly to each unfolding moment.

The paradoxical theory of change states that change happens in people when they become what they are in that present moment – which means accepting all the thoughts and feelings, which are both positive, negative, and in between. The acceptance of what is in the present moment, gives the time and space for a therapeutic exploration of how the person is stuck in a state of dread of abandonment as well as reevaluating certain fixed beliefs and insecurities (Pinto, 2013).

          Some understand jealousy as our need to be needed, which is a perfectly normal human need. However, this becomes problematic when what supports our self-worth relies on our partner, and so an essential theme in therapy would also be to build self-support.

PS. There are a variety of psychotherapies with different modalities and ways of approaching issues. My views and writing are supported by my studies in Gestalt Therapy.

Amber Tabone practices Gestalt Psychotherapy with individuals and couples at Willingness. While currently reading for a Master’s in Psychotherapy, she has developed an interest in working with relationships, gender, and sexuality thanks to her experience with families and domestic violence issues.