The Psychology of Jealousy

Joe Duncan

The Science of Human Jealousy and How it Shapes Our Lives

Most people have experienced a jealous partner at least once in their lives. We’ve all been there, no doubt, whether we were the one who’s brain felt a tinge of jealousy strike them, unconsciously and as a visceral response to a real-world scenario, or whether we were the partner who’s significant other insisted on our fidelity, be it emotional, physical, sexual, or other. Some partners have demanded that they have the right to intrude into our phones and analyze the contents of our devices, being privy to the most intimate aspects of our lives with others. These types of behaviors are quite unhealthy, and reinforcing them isn’t a very good idea.

While this story focuses on relationship jealousy, the concepts discussed are quite universal and can account for familial jealousy, jealousy in friendships, jealousy of coworkers, and much more. This story seeks to be in-depth and cover the important underpinnings of the psychology of human jealousy.

If we live long enough and date enough, human jealousy will touch our lives in some way or another, leading many to question why jealousy in relationships is so ubiquitous and pervasive. Is human jealousy natural?

In today’s cultural climate which is permissive of a vastly different array of relationship styles and types, ranging from the most rigorous monogamy to the often languid world of the polyamorous and so-called swingers, this debate has taken the center stage in the hearts and minds of many.

People in poly relationships tend to hold the idea that jealousy isn’t natural but culturally instilled into us at a very young age, and there is some merit to this line of thinking, while people in monogamous arrangements tend to think that the pervasiveness of jealousy stands as a testament to its innate part of the human condition. There is also merit to this notion. Whichever side of the fence you tend to fall on, jealousy is always personal and personally experienced.

When asked whether or not we believe that human jealousy is natural or universal, the best reply we can give is, “Which kind of jealousy?”

Jealousy in relationships presents in many different ways and isn’t a universal feeling, let alone a universal symptom of a universal cause, there are different lines of thinking, different rationales, and different senses of fear which cause these different expressions. Some jealousy is natural, other jealousy is nurture, but it’s almost always a combination of both.

The Different Types of Jealousy

Jealousy presents in many different ways, ranging from a momentary mild discomfort to some, to a built-in and pathological paranoia for others, and highlighting these differences is vital in our attempt to understand jealousy.

Psychologist Seth Meyers Psy.D. tells us to observe jealous behavior when we see it and try to discern which type of behavior it is, is it an isolated instance or part of a larger pathological pattern of behavior?

Reasons for feeling jealousy typically include the following, but aren’t limited to:

  • Sense of inadequacy
  • Insecurity
  • Possessiveness
  • Entitlement, perceived or real
  • Obsessive, racing, or anxious thoughts
  • Paranoia

Further complicating the issue is the fact that jealousy can be either justified or unjustified — if someone commits to us in a relationship, we expect them to uphold that commitment, and if they don’t, future perceptions of small flirtations are often reasonable. Sometimes people are jealous because their partners are dishonest. A little in-depth about each of the types of jealousy, their roots, and possible solutions.


A sense of inadequacy is often a type of jealousy that isn’t relationship-dependent; people who feel inadequate don’t present their sense of personal impotence in relationships alone, suggesting that this has much to do with a person’s reflections of themselves more than sexual possessiveness. People who have a sense of inadequacy are often very silent about their jealousy, they keep it to themselves and silently use it to reaffirm the preexisting beliefs they have about themselves, but not always. Feelings of inadequacy almost entirely take place inside the individual themselves.

  • A sense of inadequacy, so long as it’s not pathological, as is the case with learned helplessness, is easily overcome by walking our partners through the problems that they have and helping them to start small with goals in order to build self-esteem and a sense of empowerment. Communication is key. Positive reinforcement and support in achieving goals are vital to building self-esteem, but acceptance itself isn’t enough and might be counterproductive when employed alone, because a person who feels inadequate isn’t likely to see themselves as adequate just because we tell them they are, and I’ve found that people often respond better to a more hands-on approach to building self-esteem.

According to practicing psychotherapist Kristina Randal Ph.D., a gnawing sense of inadequacy can be overcome and feelings of adequacy are things that we can train ourselves to do, especially with the help of supportive others.

And Jeremy Sherman Ph.D. seems to be of the impression that a positive assertion of our own self-worth can go a long way in dealing with inadequacy and is very contagious, saying:

“This universal need to keep inadequacy at bay deserves more attention than it gets. In business they say, follow the money. In social life, I say, follow the self-affirmation. It is the currency of a hidden economy that drives a lot of what we do. I say, pay attention to affirmationomics — the supply and demand for affirmation, and even brave some reflection on how affirmationomics drives your own behavior.”

Affirming our victories, establishing and achieving goals, not becoming overwhelmed, and asserting ourselves in the world are all great ways to overcome the inadequacy from which jealousy manifests.


Conversely, while a sense of inadequacy is a perceived and often real internal threat to the relationship, insecurity is the perception of an external threat that might through a relationship off course. I personally loosely view insecurity as inadequacy turned outward. Where inadequacy is often an amplification of one’s shortcomings, insecurity is an amplification of the perceived achievements of others, giving a person a sense of inability to potentially keep their partner in the endless stream of potential mates that our world presents us with. This type of jealousy is often roused by the near-constant barrage of sexually-charged media that our eyes and minds are subjected to.

  • Since the threat to the insecure person is external, they might feel as if they’re trying their best and actually doing quite well, yet still have an unreasonable fear that an external threat could jeopardize the very relationship they hold most dearly. Insecure people often feel a deep sense of injustice and are much more likely to blame others than themselves, as would be with the case of inadequacy. Inadequacy is usually deeply rooted in childhood trauma and insecurity is deeply rooted in real-world events. Embracing optimism is a massive step in the right direction for overcoming jealousy which stems from insecurity because optimism directly reduces the perception of the strength of external threats by its very nature.
  • Often times, reassurance will work quite well with someone who experiences insecurity in the face of a competitive dating world, when we remind them that we love them and chose them for a reason. Sometimes perceived external threats are founded in our real experiences when we see someone we perceive as more attractive than us flirting with our partners. Expressing a realistic perspective about the perceived and often magnified desirable traits of others can go a very long way.

Insecurity is not absolute, says Psy.D. Seth Meyers, meaning that someone may be absolutely secure financially, sexually, professionally, and in their friendships, yet exhibit extremely destructive jealous behaviors in their love lives.

Possessiveness and Entitlement

Possessiveness can be pathological or situational, and though it’s usually not sensible, it definitely can be, and it’s generally the less reasonable side of entitlement. It should be no secret that entitlement is often innate in people, especially when it comes to love and dating, and entitlement makes perfect sense when the title of “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” or whatever else we call our spouse, a title which is bestowed upon us by that person themselves.

Some people will tell you everything wonderful under the sun about their love, attraction, and dedication to you, then flirt with everyone else they come into contact with — in this case, the person on the receiving end has every right to feel betrayed, to feel that their en-title-ment has been threatened, an entitlement which was bestowed upon them in the form of a promise. Sometimes people feel entitled at the outset of a relationship without obtaining a verbal agreement, and this should usually serve as a huge red flag.

We are never entitled to anything from another person that they didn’t agree to.

Yet, still many are pathologically possessive, so it’s important to honestly analyze our own contributions to our partner’s sense of jealousy as well as looking for a pattern of possessiveness in jealousy. Abusive, narcissistic, and antisocial types are most often pathologically possessive, and it’s important that we distinguish the causes of possessiveness. For people who exhibit traits of possessiveness in relationships, their possessiveness is almost always the cause of their relationships ending.

Some possessiveness is about a perceived threat while other possessiveness is about total control and domination, and when we’re on the receiving end of possessive behaviors, it’s important that we determine which is the more likely cause. A good question to ask ourselves is whether or not the possessiveness fits into a larger scheme of controlling behaviors or not, if it is, in fact, absolute. Pervasive possessiveness is a sign of a deeper pathological problem at work, while possessiveness in one or two areas may hint at a person’s sense of personal insecurity, a sense of insecurity that can often be overcome.

  • A curious footnote here is that sometimes a pathologically jealous and possessive person can end up dating a pathological instigator in a toxic firestorm of tragedy the ancient Greeks couldn’t even come up with. These people often end up on daytime talk shows. In these cases, two deeply troubling patterns of behavior collide and prove themselves justified.
  • Another curious footnote is that people who tend to be possessive often instigate the possessiveness in others. Many times, but not always, these are all the exact same people upholding double-standards, expecting devout loyalty while flaunting their indiscretions visibly, and in my experience, people who observe possessiveness as a red flag are much less likely to be possessive themselves, while people who justify possessiveness and other forms of jealousy as just the facts of life, innate in our human nature, are more likely to fall into patterns of jealousy and instigation.

The rule of thumb is this: if we’re always behaving with a devout loyalty to our partner in mind and they still exhibit a continuing pattern of possessive jealousy, it’s safe to say the problem is much deeper than what laypersons can solve, and we should analyze why we subscribe to that pattern and engage with it as we do.

These people likely need professional help, and the same goes with paranoid people, though there are materials online for those who wish to help people suffering from deep paranoia supposing we want to.

We should never have to tip-toe around someone’s accusations of dishonesty when we’ve been nothing but forthcoming and honest in both words and actions.


To answer the question, “Is human jealousy natural?” it’s safe to say both yes and no. Just because we’re naturally predisposed to certain behavior types doesn’t mean we can’t unlearn our inclinations and consciously do otherwise.

In the end, much like human violence and other expressions of human sexuality — jealousy is often an expression of both — some aspects of jealousy and jealous traits are innate in the human conditions, and if epigenetics, which is the study of the changes of modulations which affect gene expression throughout the life of an organism, has taught us anything, it’s that what was formerly perceived as “innate” is much more nuanced and flexible than we assume. The RS3–334 gene plays a role in monogamy, as my story The Monogamy Gene tells of, but this gene doesn’t directly cause monogamous or non-monogamous behavior, and it’s up to the environment to activate it.

Science aside, our best approach to the world of jealousy should be one in which we carefully watch for red flags, such as people who justify infidelity or controlling behaviors, or people who think fighting is perfectly natural and acceptable. To me, these are huge red flags.

From here, we can try to identify which types of jealousy people are exhibiting and from there we can decide if fostering an environment to help them overcome their struggles with jealousy is something that’s both safe and within our abilities.

Some people can’t be helped. Some people can be helped. This story seeks to clarify this important distinction so that we may more clearly approach the jealousy within ourselves and those around us. With that, I will close with the telling words of Seth Meyers Psy.D.

“We feel jealous in such moments because of our sense that a cherished connection we have with another person is threatened, and our fear that a loved one may find someone else to replace us. While most people experience jealousy on a very occasional and mild basis, others feel it to a pathological degree. For such extremely jealous individuals, their jealousy almost always leads to the end of relationships.”

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