Jealousy, defined as an unpleasant emotion that arises when another person encroaches on something one feels is their own, can be particularly frustrating and difficult to talk about. While it is generally associated with romantically involved partnerships, jealousy can spring up in any type of relationship, causing conflict and emotional distress. Many cultures generally encourage monogamous relationships, and jealousy often stems from concerns or suspicions, (both legitimate or unfounded) that someone in the relationship is no longer faithful. If left unaddressed, jealousy can severely hinder a person’s ability to communicate effectively. Without open conversations, partners may even miscommunicate their personal expectations and intentions about their relationship. Boundaries in a relationship may mean different things to different people, and what may be considered cheating to one person could be harmless flirting to another. Cultural perceptions of infidelity are often gendered, resulting in vast differences between the way unfaithful men are treated compared to their female counterparts. Unabashed expression of sexuality is accepted, even encouraged in men, while women have historically dealt with issues like slut-shaming and misogyny surrounding sexuality. In today’s context, cheating and jealousy are not always easy to define, due to the complexity of each individual’s situation.
Jealousy: The Fear of Comparison
Jealousy is an incredibly complex emotion that is difficult to define. At a minimum, it involves uncomfortable feelings like abandonment, betrayal, loss, anger, and embarrassment. Modern research has drawn connections between the primal nature of jealousy and the attachment system of the brain, a “genetically ingrained circuit” that is crucial to social bonding and very sensitive to outside threats.1 According to a psychologist at the University of Texas, jealousy is a necessary evil that both deters infidelity and encourages the longevity of a relationship by dispelling complacency that long term partnerships often settle into.1
In certain studies, however, intense jealousy has been positively correlated with emotional instability and negatively correlated with agreeableness.1 This means that people who tend to get jealous often exhibit controlling behavior over their partner like getting angry at them for spending time with others, trying to dictate what they wear, controlling where they go or undermining their self-esteem. While it can be very frustrating for a partner to deal with these behaviors, they often stem from an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy. According to recent psychological studies, most people try to convert their discomfort into anger, which fuels their desperation to control the relationship as much as possible.1 Unfortunately, these behaviors can drive a partner away, and do far more harm than good.
How To Overcome Feelings of Jealousy
Psychologists agree that the best way to address disruptive feelings of jealousy is to communicate with a partner and self-reflect on why these feelings are arising in the first place. Without reliable communication, partners may have very little chance of fully comprehending the other person’s perspective. In order to overcome the jealousy that can result from miscommunication, one can do so by carefully put articulating their thoughts in a manner that is non-accusatory and will not set off a defensive response in their partner. If it becomes a very pressing issue that affects the quality of the relationship, couples counseling might also be a good option. In a counseling setting, a professional mediator who will dedicate time to fixing issues can give helpful suggestions and techniques for effective communication and dealing with conflict.
What About in Small Doses?
Fortunately, the research also shows that a little bit of jealousy is good for relationships, especially in the initial stages. At this point, trust has not fully developed, and a moderate amount of jealousy can act as a measure of a commitment. It is often considered an expression of attachment and can be a good indicator of whether or not it is safe for each partner to invest more emotion. When a new partner expresses the importance of faithfulness, it can be reassuring to the security of the relationship.
Infidelity is generally defined as emotionally or physically intimate relations outside of an established monogamous relationship. Often, it is defined differently according to different people; what may be harmless flirting to one person could be a grave act of betrayal to another. Infidelity can have devastating effects on any relationship and can bring about feelings of betrayal, hurt, and distrust in a partner and the future of the relationship. Additionally, stories of infidelity pervade media and culture; even the most respected politicians in history have been caught publicly indulging in forbidden extramarital affairs. Psychologists report that infidelity is incredibly painful to deal with because the commitment and vulnerability that people submit to when entering a relationship is a significant risk especially when that emotional dependence results in betrayal.2
An Evolutionary Psychology Perspective
Evolutionary psychologists have argued that due to its prevalence throughout world history, “infidelity must be viewed as an adaptation,” and something that offers reproductive advantages to both men and women.2 For example, adultery is a way for males to “spread their seed,” and for females, to “poach superior sperm for their offspring.”2 According to researches, human beings evolved three specific brain systems related to mating:
- the sex drive, which is a largely nonselective motivation to seek sex over a wide range of partners,
- romantic love, which focuses “mating energy” on specific partners, and
- the attachment system, which ensures that mating pairs remain with each other for years.
Other researchers argue that as a species, we evolved and lived for a long time with nonpossessive, friendly sexuality and that the current obsession with monogamy and exclusivity emerged with the rising importance of agriculture and private property. This made keeping “legitimate” familial lines of inheritance important, and lead to a patriarchal social stratification that controlled female sexuality and rewarded monogamy.3
Psychological Effects of Cheating
Regardless of the biological reasons behind the prevalence of infidelity, the pain and broken trust it can cause is undeniable. Cheating can severely affect self-esteem, and one partner may be plagued with feelings of inadequacy (“why wasn’t I good enough?”) and a lack of closure. The partner who is cheated on may feel unworthy and unloved, and these feelings can be very difficult to process and move on from. While many therapists and counselors offer their services to couples in these situations, the healing process is very personal, and a day-by-day process.
After Infidelity: Moving On and Processing
Psychologists suggest that if people begin to suspect that their partner is having an affair, rather than snoop and desperately seek information without their partner’s knowledge, they instead attempt to discuss the issue with their partner. If a person has observed behavior that reflects a suspicious pattern, they should give their partner a chance to respond to their concerns and explain the situation. If their partner denies any accounts of cheating, it is that person’s job to evaluate their instinct and make the decision to believe them or not.
If the person’s intuition still pushes them to believe that their partner is cheating, they must make a decision: either attempt to mend the relationship or leave before they experience further heartbreak. This is an important choice that should be evaluated very seriously. A person may want to consider asking for an outsiders’ opinion in order to get a more objective assessment of the situation. If they confirm that their partner is cheating, repeating self-affirming mantras can help a person remember that the goal is to be proud of how they handled the adversity because it is a reflection of their own strength. Many intense feelings may arise, but it is best to process these calmly and rationally, maybe with the help of a therapist or a close friend, rather than give in to primitive and destructive anger that may leave a person feeling worse in the long run.4
Relationships are complicated because humans are complex beings. Personal connections can become unstable and wrought with jealousy, infidelity, and strife, but with the right person, it can be a wonderful celebration of love and companionship. Through effective communication and mutual respect, problems can be successfully navigated and a relationship can be a very fulfilling part of life.
- “Jealousy: Love’s Destroyer.” Psychology Today. N.p., n.d.
- “The Causes of Infidelity: Players Gonna Play?” Psychology Today. N.p., n.d.
- Katie Halper / AlterNet. “Sex at Dawn: 9 Interesting Things We’ve Learned About Sex From Studying Our Ancient Ancestors.” Alternet. N.p., n.d.
- “Why Is Infidelity So Painful?” Psychology Today. N.p., n.d.
Last Updated: 6 February 2017.