When jealousy in a romantic relationship hits, it wells up inside of us, a unique mix of sadness, competition, and anger. Although these seem like negative feelings, jealousy in a relationship is not necessarily a bad thing. Here's what jealousy means, what healthy jealousy can look like, what causes it, and how to deal.
Is jealousy healthy in a relationship?
Too much of anything can be unhealthy, but a little jealousy is not bad or unhealthy from time to time. Jealousy is a normal human emotion, and like all our emotions, they're here to tell us something about ourselves and what we need. Emotions need to be released. In a relationship, jealousy can just mean there's something you need to communicate to your partner about your insecurities, needs, boundaries, and desires.
Part of the reason jealousy causes us to feel so uncomfortable is that we typically think of it as a toxic and unhealthy emotion—something to rid ourselves of ASAP. So we add on a layer of self-blame or even a layer of fatality (i.e., if there's jealousy in the relationship, it must be doomed). Yet thinking this way is precisely what makes jealousy feel insurmountable, even though negative emotions are a totally normal thing to feel.
The lack of communication can be destructive to your relationship though, which is why talking through your jealousy is key to keeping it from becoming toxic. It's important to deal with jealousy in a relationship openly, because in excess and in secrecy is where it festers.
What healthy jealousy can look like.
1. Someone is giving flirtatious vibes to your partner.
Say you're at a party, standing with your partner. Someone comes up and starts talking to them. A lot. The person is giving your partner focused, intense eye contact and enthusiastically asking questions. (Remember, flirting doesn't have to be explicitly sexual.) You're left in the shadow of the conversation and feel jealous as a result. Perhaps you feel that the person is sexually interested in your partner and that your partner's response could be sending the wrong message. Perhaps you wish, on some level, that the other person was giving you attention instead of your partner. This is totally natural.
So what to do about it? Well, if you can, in the context of the conversation, pipe in! Odds are, your partner will pick up on your hope to shift gears. If not, wait it out, and explain how you're feeling once the other person has left. Plain and simple, admit to your jealousy: "Hey, I felt kind of jealous when X came up to us at the party. I felt like they were giving you a lot of attention, and I felt left out." From there, you can hash it out and clarify expectations.
2. Your partner is giving flirtatious vibes to someone else.
This situation may feel a little more uncomfortable, as it's more likely to produce other feelings such as inadequacy. But this situation is similar to the above. Sure, you don't want to assume your partner is up to no good, but you're entitled to feel what you feel. If they're with another person at a party and you feel threatened, you can feel free to try to include yourself. If that feels forced or uncomfortable, simply bring it up to your partner after the conversation has ended.
3. Your partner is bragging when you're in a rough place.
Hearing anyone brag about their successes can be really annoying, but in the context of our relationships, we usually want to be there as a sounding board for some bragging. We want to feel happy for our partners when they succeed. That said, there are extenuating circumstances. Maybe you had a bad day at work. Maybe you're experiencing a bout of depression. Maybe you're sick. Regardless of why you're not feeling your best, hearing your partner succeeding when you feel subpar can produce jealousy.
Rather than probing the jealousy (as it is likely somewhat irrational), simply tell your partner you're not feeling your best. You may even say something like, "Listen: I'm super happy for you about X. But I'm just having a rough time right now. Do you mind if we talk about it later?" You can be happy and reassuring and also honest.
4. Your partner succeeded in something you are both pursuing.
Couples often pursue particular activities together. You and your partner may decide to take up yoga. But what happens when they get praise for their handstand in yoga class? You may feel jealous. And that's OK.
After class (to keep with this example), you may casually say to your partner: "Ha. I felt kind of jealous in yoga when the teacher complimented you. Want to help me with my handstand?" You aren't being competitive or trying to outperform them. You're just being honest, and that will bring you closer.
5. Someone mentions something about your partner that you were unaware of.
When you're in a relationship, you often quickly start to feel like every detail of your partner's life is a part of yours. Perhaps they always text you during the day to tell you what they ate for lunch or what their co-worker said to them in the bathroom. Sometimes, you even feel like you deserve to know everything about your partner's life. (Sometimes this can morph into codependency, which is actually not so healthy.)
So it can feel painful when we learn from someone else something about our partner that we were unaware of—even if it's totally nonthreatening. Say you are with your mutual friend, and he tells you about your partner's insane talent at painting. I had no idea she painted! you think. You may feel jealous: Why does our friend know about her painting hobby and I don't?
Again, it may be quite irrational. But still be honest: Very straightforwardly ask her why she didn't tell you, and tell her it made you feel jealous or bad. She'll either have a reason, or she won't—but she probably didn't intend to hurt you.
6. Your partner treats another activity like a second relationship.
It's possible to feel like your partner is cheating on you with something other than a person. If they get really into a particular form of exercise, a particular hobby, or other activity and spend all of their time doing it, you may feel left in the dust.
This doesn't mean you don't want them to pursue their new thing—but you're allowed to feel jealous. Tell them! Maybe they had no idea and will invite you on their next run, or to their next spin class. When we communicate our needs, we often find out that other people had no idea we were even feeling a particular way. We can't assume others can read our minds.
7. Your partner goes on a trip or has an experience that you aren't a part of.
Experiences—particularly those involving travel—can make us feel transported, renewed, reborn even. That's why it's especially hard to deal with those times in your relationship when your partner has an experience, interaction, or trip that is transformative, and we aren't present.
Tell your partner, "I'm so happy you had so much fun. At the same time, I felt kind of jealous that I was totally not a part of it." You may suggest doing a special activity or going on a trip together.
8. Your partner treats their friend(s) with tremendous attention.
I've had friends tell me, "I have a ton of guy friends, and it always makes my boyfriend jealous." It's probably nothing for their boyfriends to worry about, but let's give the guys a break: It makes sense.
Of course you'll be a secondary (or tertiary) concern at times, and that's fine. But voicing your jealousy to your partner will only make them that much more sensitive and attentive to your feelings, even if there are those moments when they're getting drinks with friends.
9. Your partner makes comments about other people's attractiveness to you.
Enough said. Some people are OK with this kind of gesture. In some relationships, partners openly communicate about past relationships and sexual encounters, and even "check people out" together.
But this is a pretty normal reason to feel jealous. You want to feel like the center of your partner's sexual attention. Say something, kindly but firmly: "It makes me feel jealous when you say things about other guys' attractiveness in front of me." Easy enough, right?
10. You feel like your partner doesn't appreciate you.
If you don't feel appreciated, your mind will likely start to see all of the ways that your partner appreciates other people and things. This is a serious issue in your relationship and something you definitely need to raise with your partner. Of course, feeling amorphously unappreciated in your relationship is probably more difficult to talk about than a specific action. But it's arguably more urgent.
Open and honest communication is key. Start the conversation with something you appreciate about your partner, then what made you feel jealous—or whichever feeling—and what could be done differently in the future. This can help your partner remain less defensive and provide a road map as to how your partner can support you better in the future. It's also important to explore your underlying feelings of worth, value, and acceptance of being loved.
The bottom line.
You should always feel appreciated in your relationship. Feeling appreciated will ensure that jealousy is not a constant. The way we communicate about these feelings is key.
Charlotte Lieberman is a New York-based journalist who received a bachelor's degree in English from Harvard University. Her articles have been featured in The New York Times, The Harvard Business Review, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Guernica, Elle.com, and BOMB among other publications. Along with non-fiction, she writes poetry and her work has appeared in The Boston Review, The Colorado Review, The Harvard Advocate, Free Verse, Nat.Brut, and The Denver Quarterly. Charlotte primarily writes about evolutionary and behavioral psychology, mental health, and the confusing journey of self-acceptance.