The green-eyed Monster has been hiding in plain sight for thousands of years in ancient mythology (think Hera and Zeus); the plots of plays, poems, movies, and novels; as well as the lurid headlines of crimes committed by one enraged or betrayed lover or spouse. What is jealousy?  An intense emotional response to the real or imagined threat to losing a valued romantic relationship.

Both men and women experience jealousy, even though psychologists continue to debate whether they’re triggered by different situations; it’s been argued by some that men’s jealousy is a reaction to possible sexual infidelity while women respond to threats of emotional infidelity. The jury is still out on the question.

Jealousy can be consciously triggered, of course—the woman whispering in your husband’s ear or the dude who’s casually draping his arm across your girlfriend’s shoulder at a bar can be impetus enough—but we can also be triggered into feeling jealous unconsciously too. In a study done several years ago, Adam Pazda and his colleagues discovered that women were more likely to display jealousy and go into mate-guarding mode if a woman wearing a red dress was present. A green or white dress didn’t evoke the same response,

Jealousy is considered a negative emotion and, generally, being a jealous person isn’t considered a positive trait; it’s associated with insecurity, low self-esteem, and lack of trust. The theory is that jealousy isn’t one single emotion but a blend of many, including anger and pain.

But is jealousy ever a good thing?  Here’s where it gets interesting. What if jealousy can alert you to a relationship threat and motivate you to take on proactive behaviors that can improve the closeness of the relationship? What if that flash of jealousy reminds you of all the good things about your partner and the relationship that you’ve pretty much started to take for granted?

The two kinds of jealousy: suspicious and reactive

We’ve probably either run into the suspicious type of jealousy or heard about it anecdotally: the man or woman who sees potential rivals lurking on every street corner, at every party, even though nothing has happened. That was the case for Tim’s ex:

Her wild over-reactions drove me crazy and we fought constantly about whether I was about to be unfaithful to you which I actually wasn’t.  She went nuts if she thought I was looking at another woman. But when, after a company dinner, she spent hours screaming at me because I said the boss’ wife seemed smart and together, I finally had it.  I was done.

This type of jealousy has everything to do with the person experiencing it—revealing his or her anxiety and lack of trust in people—and very little to do with the actions or inclinations of  his or her partner or the real status of the  relationship. It’s fueled by other emotions.

Reactive jealousy is something else: an emotional response to something that’s actually taken place. Needless to say, the intensity of the emotional response in a reactive situation will accurately reflect the closeness of the relationship under siege as well as its importance. The more you love and value the romantic partner and the connection, the more jealous you’ll be. In that sense, this kind of jealousy can actually function as a wake-up call which allows you to recognize precisely how important the relationship is to you.

That was the case for Elise, now celebrating thirty years of marriage:

When my kids were young, my husband traveled a lot on business to conventions and I never wanted to go along. Too much of a hassle getting babysitters and all, and I relish my routines. Besides, unlike my husband, I’m shy and hate to mingle. There was a big event in Las Vegas he always wanted me to go to and I always said no, even when the kids were teenagers and didn’t need me around. Well, guess what? One year he met someone there, and started an affair. I was furious and jealous and freaked and threw him out. But it was a turning point for me when I realized that I’d been taking him for granted. We did therapy and here we are, a decade later.

Of course, what turned the tide in this marriage was Elise’s recognition of the part she’d played, on the one hand, and her husband’s willingness to make amends for his misstep, on the other.

The dark side of suspicious jealousy

Is your close person always on the prowl for clues or hints that you’re cheating on him or her? Or do you feel the need to go through your partner’s cell phone, emails,  texts, or credit card receipts?  Do worst scenarios come into your mind when he or she doesn’t pick up your call? Are you threatened by his or her going off on his or her own—on a business trip, to a college reunion, or any place else that, in your view, might pose a temptation?

People with an anxious/preoccupied style of insecure attachment often do these things because of their internal models of relationship. Ironically, while they understand their behaviors as proactive—trying to protect themselves from betrayal, testifying to the closeness of the relationship—studies show that this kind of jealousy often becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Far less benignly, this kind of jealousy can also become a part of a controlling or abusive partner’s agenda, especially when it’s infused with paranoia or rage.

The jealousy paradox

Not feeling any jealousy at all might be a signal that you’re just not too into the person you’re with, rather than the equanimity and trust you’re ascribing to the absence of this feeling.  While it may produce the thrill of passionate reconciliation and can easily be mistaken for love rather than possessiveness or control, suspicious jealousy is never a good thing. And while we might hate owning up to being jealous, reactive jealousy may be a boon in the long run.

As always, knowing what you’re feeling and why is the key.


Photograph by Geralt. Copyright free.

Pazda, Adam, Pavol Prokop, and Andrew J. Elliot, “Red and Romantic Rivalry” Viewing Another Woman in Red Increases Perceptions of Sexual Receptivity, Derogation, and Intentions to Mate- Guard,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2014, vol. 40 (10), pp.1260-1269..

Harris, Christine, “The Evolution of Jealousy,” American Scientist, 2004, vol. 92, pp. 62-71.

Attridge, Mark,” Jealousy and Relationship Closeness Exploring the Good (Reactive) and the Bad (Suspicious) Side of Romantic Jealousy,” 2013, Sage Open, January-March, vol. 3, issue 1, pp. 1-16,

.Bringle, Robert G.” Psychosocial Aspects of Jealousy: A Transactional Model,” pp. 103-131 in The Psychology of Jealousy and Envy, edited by Peter Salovey. New York: The Guildford Press, 1991.