Bride looking enviously at another bride kissing her groom

How Jealousy and Envy Consume Relationships, and 6 Things to Do About It

We all know that we are not supposed to be jealous or envious of others.  We are also supposed not to overeat or drink too much alcohol.  There are lots of things we are not supposed to do that we do anyway.

What’s the difference between envy and jealousy?

Let’s start at the beginning. In intimate relationships, what is the difference between envy and jealousy?

Jealousy is when you get upset that your boyfriend or girlfriend seems to be interested in someone else.

Envy is when you are interested in someone, but that someone is unavailable to you.

That is, in the case of jealousy, you are afraid of losing what you already have—namely, your boyfriend or girlfriend.  In the case of envy, you are afraid you will not be able to acquire what you don’t have but want—namely, a relationship with the unavailable other.

For many people, jealousy and envy are fleeting problems: They come and go.

But some people are chronically jealous or envious.  They are always jealous or envious of someone.

When they are jealous, they watch their significant other for even the slightest sign, or imagined sign, of interest in someone else.

When they are envious, they are continually watching some lucky ducky who has the partner they want for themselves.

Which factors lead someone to feel envious or jealous?

My colleagues Navjot Kaur, Elisabeth Mistur, and I published a study last year (2019) trying to understand the factors that lead up to jealousy and envy.

Why do people feel jealous?

Let’s look at jealousy first. There were three factors that predicted jealousy across a whole range of situations:

1. You perceive a threat to your relationship.

No need to say more, right?

2. Need of your partner.

You feel like you need your partner. If you don’t so much need your partner, then the thought of someone going after your partner, or your partner going after someone else, is not so threatening!

3. Trust of your partner. 

People are more likely to feel jealous if they don’t trust their partner.

Why do people feel envious?

Next up is envy. Which factors influenced whether someone felt envious?

1. Threat.

Threat was again a good predictor. But here the threat was not to an existing relationship, but to your life.  Is your desired way of life threatened by your not being able to be with the partner you desire?

2. Plausibility of the potential partner for a future relationship.

That is, you might be envious of the boyfriend of a famous movie actor or actress because they are in a relationship with the actor.

But you are less envious to the extent you realize that, realistically, you have no chance in hell of ever being with the actor or actress. It’s just not plausible.

3. How much you want the potential partner and how much you care about the potential partner.

These are the factors that best predicts whether you felt any envy. Wanting someone and caring about them are not the same thing. You might want a potential partner because you just have to be with someone that good looking—but you don’t necessarily care about the person or even know them that well.

Or you might care about a potential partner but not want them as much because you realize they are happy with the life they have and are not going to leave it.

How do you deal with jealousy or envy?

That, of course, leaves us with another question. What can you do about jealousy or envy?  Here are six suggestions:

1. Get real. 

For jealousy, do you get upset every time your partner talks to someone of the opposite sex?  Are the threats you perceive real or imagined? Do you need to recalibrate yourself to understand that not every conversational partner of the opposite sex is a threat?  If you can’t get past the jealousy, do you need professional help?

For envy, are you idealizing the potential partner?  Is he or she really as great as you make them out to be, or are you imagining a person whom you wish existed but doesn’t really?

2. Restore trust.

For jealousy, if your problem is that you don’t trust your partner, why don’t you?  Is the problem in your partner or is it in you?  What could you do to bring trust into your relationship?

You don’t want to spend your time with someone on whom you always feel like you have to do surveillance.  This is called a police story in my theory of love as a story.  Police stories rarely end well.

Talk to your partner about how to restore trust. And if you can’t fix the relationship, ask yourself whether it is the right relationship for you.

If the problem is inside you and you can’t fix yourself, get help!

3. Ask yourself whether you really need this person.

For envy, do some reflection. There are so many things we all think, at one time, that we absolutely need, only to realize later that we not only didn’t need the thing but were better off without it.  Some of the things we think we need in life end up being, well, bummers.

There was once this old car I thought I absolutely needed. I was ready to buy it.  We went to Asbury Park, NJ, to buy it.

That’s when we found out that, for our triplets, it would be unsafe. There was no back middle seat harness.

That was the end of the car.  I didn’t need it.  What if we got in an accident and a kid was thrown out of their seat?  I did not need that car.  I thought I did, but I didn’t.

So many things are like that. You think you need them, and then, sooner or later, you realize you don’t need them after all.

4. Distract yourself.

The problem with jealousy and envy is that they can become obsessions.  You start to ruminate.  Then you ruminate some more.  Soon, you can’t think about anything else.  The jealousy or envy consumes you.

What to do?

Think about something else to consume you. What else gets you excited?  Sports? Music? Reading?  Plays? Movies?  Writing poetry or other fiction?  Doing stuff with kids?  Doing volunteer work?  Find something else to occupy you.

Then, any time you think about the object or your jealousy or envy, put it out of your mind—immediately.

If it will help, put a rubber band around your wrist and flick it on your wrist every time you think about your jealousy. Make it hurt just a little.  But get your mind on something else!

There is so much in this world to occupy you. Don’t let yourself be preoccupied by thoughts of people—others or yourself!--who distract you from making the most of your life.

Focus on positive things!

5. Be kind to yourself when you let go.

Be kind to yourself and reward yourself whenever you focus on other things.  Have an ice cream.  Watch a game.  Watch a movie. Read your favorite book.

When you move away in your mind from the object of your jealousy or envy, give yourself a treat for doing so.

6. Think of why you might well regret it if you got what you wished for.

If you are jealous with good reason, do you want to be with someone who arouses your jealousy? If you are envious, what if you got that dream person?  Are they really a dream person?

You know some of the things wrong with them. You really do, even if you don’t much think about them. Focus on them. Ask yourself whether you actually might be lucky you are not with them!

There is no magic potion for jealousy and envy for you to take. But if you follow the suggestions above, the effects may come close!

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