Sex + Dating

Jealousy Can Wreck Any Relationship. Here's How to Stop It.

We've all experienced uncomfortable bouts of jealousy: sibling rivalry, competition among friends, or the sinking feeling as you scroll through photo after photo on Facebook or Instagram of everyone's perfect little lives filled with babies, engagements, and successes. Hell, I even felt jealous the other day watching a co-worker inhale a burrito while I was stuck with a lowly salad.

But jealousy within a relationship is the absolute worst for all its ugly suspicion, anxiety, and feelings of inferiority. These sensibilities are toxic to the people we love and, maybe worse, to ourselves. What is it that makes you question whether the relationship your SO has with that coworker you always hear about is really platonic? Why do we want to look through other people's cellphones or emails? And how do we address and overcome these unwanted jealous feelings before turning into Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction?

I interviewed three experts in the psychiatric field to find out. Here is what they had to say:  

Where does jealousy come from?

Jealousy usually comes from feelings of insecurity. We don't feel good about ourselves, so we worry that other people have the same low opinion of us. Sometimes this comes from past experiences, like being told that you weren't worthy. -- Vanessa Marin, sex therapist

Jealousy is predicated on a lack of trust. Why isn't there trust? You may not have had solid relationships in the past. Maybe you were even cheated on before. -- Henry B. Hartman, PhD, clinical psychologist

I think jealousy has its roots in the fact that some people know that they themselves cannot be trusted. In this case, the jealousy does not stem from the actions of a significant other but from their own current desires or past actions. They would cheat, therefore everyone would cheat. And if everyone cheats, then they must make sure those they love do not cheat. They become jealous and controlling. -- Diane Urban, PhD, licensed NYS psychologist, college professor

Can jealousy be a red flag that something IS wrong? As my mom says, "Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean someone isn't really out to get you."

I think it's important to note that it's pretty much impossible to never feel jealousy. We all have a natural tendency to compare ourselves to others, and to worry about losing the people we love. It's definitely an uncomfortable feeling to feel, but it's also part of being human. That being said, I do think that jealousy can sometimes be a hint that something is amiss. I'm a big believer in listening to your gut. -- Vanessa Marin

If we are generally trusting and secure but suddenly feel jealous, we definitely have to question why that is the case. Trust does not mean we ignore evidence, it simply means we evaluate evidence critically. We seek evidence that confirms our trust (all the things the person has done in the past that created trust in the first place) and evidence that disconfirms the trust (what is causing our concern now?) Both types of evidence are crucial to a successful relationship... I worked with a couple where the husband traveled a great deal. The wife worked part time and was home with the kids. Her friends would often say to her, “Do you really think he is being faithful while he is away? No way! Men can’t go that long without sex!” The wife would respond, “Of course he’s faithful. I’m worth coming home to.” This reflects her trust in the world, her own ability to be faithful, and her confidence that she is lovable. Her friends’ comments reflect the opposite. -- Dr. Urban

Can jealousy be a sign of caring too much?

I think we say that but it is not the case. Jealousy is more likely a sign of anxiety that we will lose someone we care about because they will not continue to find us attractive physically or emotionally. It always upsets me when people see jealousy as a sign of love. They see it as proof that the jealous person cares about them. That is simply not the case. Love is built on trust; it can never be built on the doubts that fuel jealousy. Even when it is couched in phrases like “I trust you. I just don’t trust other men, or I just don’t trust your friends.” The subtext is “I don’t trust you to handle those things.” It’s a very poor foundation for a relationship. -- Dr. Urban

Is jealousy OK in moderation? I know some people who like to make their partners a little jealous to get their attention. Some partners get turned on when their significant others flirt with other people.

I don't think couples should play games with each other by purposefully flirting or trying to make their partners jealous (unless they explicitly give each other permission to), but at the same time, there's something incredibly alluring about seeing other people's attraction to your partner. It just revs you up and keeps the fires burning between the two of you. -- Vanessa Marin

Jealousy can be used to motivate or manipulate partners into getting what they want. Game-playing is not a good foundation for a relationship. -- Dr. Hartman

For me, jealousy is not an effective tool. If our goal is getting more attention from our partner, then we can do that by making our needs more clear to them or by more effectively meeting theirs so they feel more inclined to meet ours. If we are turned on by jealousy (and the anger it can generate), we have to question why danger is so arousing. People often tell me that make-up sex is the best. Psychologically that is because it involves two kinds of reward: positive (the sex itself) and negative (the end of the anxiety that the anger/argument caused). If the reward for jealousy is great sex, you will get more jealousy. That is a dangerous game to play. To me, sex based on love and affection is the best sex. If the reward for treating each other with kindness, respect, caring, and love is great sex then we will get more kindness, respect, caring, and love. Those are the things worth having in a relationship. -- Dr. Urban

What questions can we ask ourselves in order to overcome jealousy?

"Where are these feelings coming from?" Is there a reason you're feeling jealous, or is it coming seemingly out of nowhere? "What does this jealousy need from me?" Sometimes all you need to do to battle your jealousy is to acknowledge what you're feeling. Try engaging in some self-care behaviors to help yourself settle down. These are different for everyone, but examples could be journaling, going on a walk or run, taking a bath, meditating, calling a friend to vent, or going to therapy. -- Vanessa Marin

“Is your significant other really doing anything wrong?” Some people exhibit jealous behaviors and project these feelings because they are not happy in the relationship. If they really want out they can create a scenario that will inevitably make this happen... “Am I typically a jealous person?” Contrary to people who are experiencing jealousy for the first time, there are others who are chronically jealous. They have destroyed relationships in the past. These people need to recognize this about themselves and come to term with the fact that what they are feeling is their own issue having nothing to do with their partner’s behavior. -- Dr. Hartman

“Is this about me or about them?” That may seem simple but sometimes it is so much easier to make an accusation about someone else than to look into ourselves. This question asks us if the jealousy comes from our insecurities or their actions or both. -- Dr. Urban

What if I accidentally saw a text that was suspicious? Or my hypothetical boyfriend ALWAYS talks about that woman at the office? How do I stop fixating and let it go? That Jessica is always writing on his Facebook timeline. WHO the F is Jessica?

Ask yourself “What evidence do I have to the contrary?” This idea of disconfirming evidence can be crucial. If a person has been faithful and trustworthy and we have one piece of evidence to disconfirm that, is that really sufficient cause for jealousy? We can also ask ourselves if we would want to be judged on one piece of evidence. Does one action completely define us? -- Dr. Urban

So... don't snoop around in your SO's email, texts, phone records, etc.?

Don't! Nothing productive ever comes out of it. If you don't find anything, you'll feel horribly guilty for snooping. If you do, you'll have to deal with the pain of finding out. -- Vanessa Marin

Don’t do it!! Not only does this represent a lack of trust (and if you don’t trust anyway, then why should a person behave in a trustworthy way?) it also can lead to partial evidence that is misinterpreted. If my husband saw the hundreds of emails I have received from men saying, “Are you free on Friday at 10?” he might think he had ample evidence of my unfaithfulness when really all he had was evidence of my private practice schedule and client requests for time slots. -- Dr. Urban

If we can't snoop, what can we do to decrease jealous impulses?

I think it is very helpful to say positive affirmations like, “I am a good person and I deserve to be loved.” If we are worthy of love, why would our significant others be doing things that require jealousy? -- Dr. Urban

Can we confront our significant others? Should we?

I think this comes down to whether you have a good reason to believe something is going on. If you're a naturally jealous person, and there hasn't been any specific trigger for your jealousy, it's best to try to process those feelings and let them go. But if you saw something that didn't seem right (like your partner trying to hide their texts), or have a gut feeling that something is off, it's worth checking in with your partner. -- Vanessa Marin

You can’t just ignore jealousy. There may be something wrong and this could be a symptom of other problems in the relationship. If you don’t address it you can also drive your partner away with your jealous behavior. If they seek comfort in a different relationship it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy -- Dr. Hartman

Since I believe the best relationships are built on trust, and since I think confirming and disconfirming evidence is so important, I think feelings of jealousy must be addressed. Check by asking the other person. I am not advocating confrontation, which often leads to accusations and anger. I am advocating making clear statements of our concerns and feelings. “I have to admit I felt a little jealous when...” The way our significant other responds, the changes in behavior that follow, provide the confirming and disconfirming evidence we need to determine if the relationship is a healthy one or not. -- Dr. Urban

What's the best way to address our feelings in a non-accusatory way?

I know this will sound like a cliché, but starting a sentence with the word “I” can be so helpful. I know I’m pretty sick of hearing people interpret that as “I feel” and believing that they can say anything after that. Saying, “I feel like you are a liar and cheater” is not helpful. Saying, “I didn’t do anything wrong but you...” is not helpful. Acknowledging why we feel vulnerable and trusting our significant other with that is helpful. Saying, “I needed you to act this way because I was nervous at the party and afraid the cool people would ignore me” is helpful because then your significant other can address the source of your jealousy and help jealousy be avoided in the future. -- Dr. Urban

What advice would you give to someone who has a jealous significant other?

You need to be really careful that it doesn't cross the line into controlling or abusive behavior. A lot of people use jealousy as an excuse to exert control over their partners. Being jealous doesn't mean your partner loves you or is trying to protect you. If your partner tries to get you to change your behaviors, you should seriously consider ending the relationship. -- Vanessa Marin

If it’s an open relationship, do something about it as a couple. Identify the issue to modify the behavior. -- Dr. Hartman

Get some couples therapy. Get out if the jealousy continues. -- Dr. Urban

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Lauren Boldt is a Thrillist contributor living in NYC. She vows never to snoop on a boyfriend’s phone and is actively seeking help for her food envy issues. Follow her on Twitter: @Life_of_LaurenB.