Why do we get jealous?
Jealousy means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For me, the noun immediately calls forth the chorus to “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers. But for most folks, the association is more intimate (think: scorned lovers; best friends-turned-enemies). At best, it amounts to a bit of friendly competition. At worst, it wrecks marriages or threatens families. But how, exactly, do we explain our propensity towards envy, to begin with?
Well, for starters, a definition might be helpful. According to ye olde Merriam Webster, to feel jealous is to “show an unhappy or angry desire to have what someone else has.” Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors’ wife, or whatever. Naturally, that kind of commandment exists in the first place as a counter to our deeply human impulse in that very direction—whether we’re talking about spouses, job titles, cars, social circles. And, even in a biblical era, jealousy and romance have always been deeply intertwined.
Psychologically speaking, at a top-level, vulnerability is a key part of the whole envy experience. If you have a potent fear or insecurity that’s particularly prevalent—be it about your viability as a partner, or your appearance, or your intelligence—it can be easy to assume your partner will prefer other folks who possess whichever qualities you feel you lack. At the heart of the sentiment is a fear that you’re not enough—and it manifests as a belief that other people might be more suitable to your person than you are.
Naturally, like with all important psychological phenomena, there’s a link to trauma here as well. If you maintained a tenuous relationship with a parent as a child, you might be all the more inclined to require extra reassurance about your partner’s affections—and it’s not just about your parents. Past romances, friendships, or otherwise relationships can certainly play a pivotal role in the ways you interact with present tense partners. If you’ve often felt like you’re fighting to earn other people’s time, energy, or affection, it would make sense that you’d feel inherently jealous of anyone who denies you such things from your partner. At the bottom, it’s about safety.
Lastly, for folks predisposed towards anxiety, paranoia, or rumination, jealousy can arrive as a natural way of thinking. If you’re prone to cyclical, obsessive thoughts, it’s highly possible that you might imagine your partner, say, at work. And in doing so, you might fill in mental details or dwell on far-off possibilities about the ways they could be filling their time in your absence. That kind of repetitive, overactive thinking about a romantic figure in your life certainly translates quickly to jealousy.
It’s important to note, though, that there is a tenderness inherent here, too. An impulse towards jealousy is grounded in a desire to protect your romantic dynamic as is. Your deep-cut affection for a person, and for the life you’ve built together can make you territorial—and thus, jealous. And while that sentiment, itself, can be dangerous, it is born out of love.