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When Is Jealousy Irrational?

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
"Jealousy is an emotion based upon loss or the fear of loss such as a relationship or friendship. Often, the individual experiences negative thoughts and feelings of insecurity."

All emotions are normal. An emotion in and of itself is not irrational. However, what we decide based upon our emotions can be irrational and lead to destructive behavior. Although certain behaviors related to an emotion can create problems, the emotion itself may have some validity. The purpose of emotions is to provide us with information. Once we have the information, we may then choose appropriate action. However, as with any information, emotions may be misunderstood. How we make sense of an emotion may not always lead to the accurate meaning of the emotion.

Therefore, our chosen actions may not resolve the problem the emotion brought to our attention, or may even create additional difficulties. For example, let's look at the emotion of anger. Let's imagine a situation where a person is excluded from some event such as not being invited to a wedding. In that situation, it may be normal for the person to be hurt and angry. "How could she not invite me? I've always been there for her." Thus, the information the anger provides is that the friend feels rejected and left out of an important event. If the person recognizes this information, he may decide to respond by contacting his friend and communicating how he feels: "I don't understand why I wasn't included." In which case it is possible he might find out that the slight was unintentional, or there was a reasonable explanation, or maybe his friend has a problem with him that she hasn't addressed. No matter what the situation, it gives him an opportunity to confront the situation and try to resolve the problem. However, what if he misinterprets the anger: "She's always leaving me out. She doesn't really care about me" and convinces himself to reject her in turn. What if he decides to go as far as writing a scathing letter about how ungrateful and inconsiderate she is and sends it to her right before her wedding?

The first reaction to anger was based on rationally interpreting the anger and responding reasonably. However, the second response was an irrational interpretation which may lead to damaging the relationship beyond repair. In this article, we will examine the emotion of jealousy similarly and identify when it is irrational. In addition, we will look at other meanings of the emotion of jealousy and how to determine what the feeling is indicating. Finally, we will examine the causes of irrational jealousy and focus on methods of learning how to handle jealousy when it is irrational.

What is Jealousy?

Jealousy has long intrigued and devastated humankind. If you examine classics of literature or even the Bible you will find numerous tales of jealousy and revenge. Early in the 1900's researchers were examining jealousy in college students. One reviewer of this research stated,"...jealousy is a fundamental instinct that bears strong resemblance to anger, fear and grief and shows relationship to the proprietary instinct. It is a safeguard against the social instinct, and mutual aid forms a strong off-set to jealousy (Withey, 1907)." In other words, jealousy is a basic instinct related to the need to possess especially within relationships and that the more people try to help one another rather than compete, the less jealousy is experienced.

Jealousy is an emotion based upon loss or the fear of loss such as a relationship or friendship. Other emotions such as anxiety, anger, grief, or sadness are typically present. Often, the individual experiences negative thoughts and feelings of insecurity. Although very similar, jealousy and envy are not considered the same emotion. Jealousy relates to the loss of something the person already possesses whereas envy is the desire for something the person does not possess. However, it can be argued that in some circumstances jealousy and envy may be virtually identical.

For instance, if a person was passed over for a promotion, she may feel envious towards the co-worker who received the promotion. Since she didn't lose something she already possessed (her job), it wouldn't be considered jealousy. However, we could state that she did lose something in her possession such as her sense of adequacy or competence that the promotion represented. In which case the feelings towards the co-worker could be considered jealousy. Therefore, even though scientific research makes a distinction between jealousy and envy, I think for the purposes of this article we will use both terms because many of the issues we cover will be very similar, if not identical.

When is Jealousy a Normal Emotion?

As stated previously, all emotions are normal. Jealousy is a normal emotion. Imagine that a woman just found out that her husband decided to leave her for another woman. Naturally, she may feel jealous of the other woman. In this instance, the jealousy she experiences is part of the grieving process for her. Her anger and jealousy is directed at the object of her husband's attentions.

Or, for instance, many adolescent girls experience intense emotions in their friendships such that if a friend chooses to spend more time with another friend they may experience rejection, loss, and jealousy. Unfortunately, if they do not have assistance developing methods of resolving this issue, they are likely to permanently destroy the friendship due to the resentment and jealousy. However, in fact, this normal jealousy is an important experience in learning to develop emotionally mature relationships. Most adolescents eventually learn that the situation is not truly rejection and that they haven't lost the friendship. They learn that another person may have room for more than one close friendship. However, some individuals do not learn this lesson and will continue to develop emotionally immature relationships into adulthood.

As you may notice from these examples, the common feature of normal jealousy is that the intensity decreases over time and that it lasts only a short while. Such is true of most normal emotions. Now, certainly the length will vary depending upon the circumstances, but eventually the person resolves the emotion and psychologically moves on. However, with irrational jealousy the individual can remain stuck in the emotional experience for an indeterminate amount of time. In fact, without specific efforts to change, it may never change.

What is the Purpose of Normal Jealousy?

1) Motivation to Improve. As with any emotion, normal jealousy tells us to examine a situation or ourselves more closely. It may help us to become more aware of our own insecurities so that we can address them.

2) Motivation to Resolve a Problem. Or, it may tell us that someone is treating us in a way that is hurtful. For example, every time a woman is out with her husband, he is checking out other women and flirting with them. The woman may find that she is jealous of the other women. But if she examines the situation, the jealousy may be telling her that she is hurt that her husband isn't wanting to give her attention and that he's not concerned about her emotions. This recognition gives her the opportunity to discuss her feelings with him and hopefully resolve the problem.

3) A Warning. Another purpose of jealousy can be to warn us about a potential loss. Throughout the history of humanity, it has been necessary to develop social relationships so as to survive. In that framework, it makes sense that people would develop jealousy as a way of warning them to protect their resources to improve chances for survival. As with many evolutionary behaviors, jealousy may not be as necessary for survival but it is still a thriving force within our social groups.

In terms of warning, if we look at the above situation again, the woman's jealousy may have been trying to communicate the possibility that her husband might leave her. However, we have to be careful with this interpretation because without additional evidence it could easily become irrational jealousy. Therefore, it may be advisable for her to check out her emotions with him,"I fear that you might leave me when you give other women so much attention." His response may give her an idea as to the accuracy of this emotional warning.

What is Irrational Jealousy?

Irrational jealousy, also referred to as morbid jealousy in the psychological literature is when the jealousy isn't based upon evidence or if the person's jealousy is out of proportion to the situation. In addition, it is more than a fleeting emotion. Usually, the person not only dwells on the jealousy, but will also engage in some sort of negative behavior.

For example, a man who believes that his wife is flirting with every man she talks with when she is just engaging in normal interaction may be experiencing irrational jealousy. He not only constantly thinks, or obsesses, about her interactions with other men, but also questions her excessively about every detail of her day. At first, she may reassure him and tries to not talk to other men but eventually finds that no amount of reassurance changes the situation. She is likely to become angry and resentful which could cause that which he fears--her leaving him.

Another example (although this is really about envy) is someone who obsessively focuses on her neighbor's life and negatively compares herself to the neighbor. However, she may also view the neighbor as undeserving of her good fortune and engages in negative gossip with other neighbors which is a form of retribution, a behavior often seen with jealousy or envy.

What are the Problem Behaviors that Occur with Irrational Jealousy?

1) Violence. The behavior of greatest concern is the potential for violence. Generally, it has been understood that much violence against women has been due to jealousy. However, actual research evidence of the mechanism of jealousy and violence has been difficult to obtain.

DeSteno et.al.(2006) showed that jealousy can create aggression. As it is difficult to directly create jealousy and aggression in the research lab, not many experiments have been conducted to research how jealousy leads to aggression. However, researchers DeSteno et.al.(2006) developed a creative method of using hot sauce as the tool of aggression and giving the spurned partner an opportunity to inflict retribution on the other without anyone knowing. As a result, they clearly demonstrated that rejected individuals were more likely to aggress against the person who rejected them.

They also showed that the aggression depended upon a decrease in self-esteem which caused increased feelings of jealousy. In other words, it is important to note, that those who did not experience a decrease in self-esteem were not likely to aggress nor were those who experienced a decrease in self-esteem but no jealous feelings.

2) Stalking. Related to the issue of violence is stalking behavior which is an attempt to possess someone whether through trying to convince the other of his/her devotion or through more direct methods of control. As indicated in Stalking: Perspectives On Victims and Perpetrators (2002) the need for control is a core feature of stalking behavior. In addition, the individual is likely to experience a pattern of anxious attachment with feelings of anger and jealousy.

3) Retribution. Another form of aggression against someone is retribution. However, retribution doesn't have to be direct violence but can be more subtle passive-aggressive behavior such as the gossip example. In fact, these days with the social-networking sites retribution has become too easy because people are able to post hurtful comments about others that may have remained more private in previous decades. Retribution often causes situations to escalate rather than be resolved. Imagine a situation where a husband has irrational jealousy about his wife, has the password to her Facebook page and posts negative comments in her name to her male friends.

4) Obsessive Talking or Questioning. A very common behavior associated with jealousy is obsessive talking about the object of the jealousy or questioning someone excessively to determine if their irrational beliefs are accurate. The problem with this questioning is that there isn't a way to prove that something didn't happen. Therefore, the questioning just continues because the person is never reassured.

5) Distrust. Another consequence of jealousy is distrust which is an unpleasant state and not conducive to the development of healthy relationships.

Causes of Irrational Jealousy

1) Fear of Loss. The most common feature of irrational jealousy is the fear of loss. This loss can take many forms but generally falls into the categories of loss of power, loss of self-worth, or loss of sense of self. Loss of power may be a person who perceives his rival as having more financial influence. I remember years ago Ted Turner stating that all the top multi-billionnaires were afraid of making substantial charitable contributions because of fear of losing their standing among who is the most wealthy in the world. He suggested that they all agree to giving away the same amount so that their standing would remain the same. That way they could be philanthropists and do good works without having to sacrifice their influential power.

Or perhaps they viewed their place on the records as a measure of self-worth which is another type of loss of which people are afraid. And finally, the third type of loss is that of sense of self. An example of this may be a man who views himself as the provider for his family and is fearful of losing his wife and family.

2) Inadequacy. Individuals who view themselves inadequate in comparison to someone else or some personal standard are more likely to experience jealousy or envy. Researchers from Northeastern University (DeSteno et.al., 2006) found that threatened self-esteem is a primary contributor to irrational jealousy. Individual's whose self-esteem is based upon an external source such as a relationship may be more susceptible to irrational jealousy because external sources of self-esteem are more difficult to protect. Whereas those who have self-esteem that is based upon love and acceptance of themselves are less vulnerable to loss of self-esteem and, as a consequence, less likely to be jealous.

3) Fear of Feeling. Although none of us enjoy unpleasant feelings, many people with irrational jealousy are particularly fearful of feeling rejection or betrayal and take extreme measures to try to avoid these feelings. Unfortunately for them, their jealous behaviors may often create what they are trying to avoid. The fear or sensitization to feelings may arise from previous experiences such as rejection in childhood or a previous spouse who betrayed them.

4) Delusions. In a small subset of people with jealousy problems, the cause may be based in delusions. As such, it indicates the individual may have a serious mental illness such as paranoid schizophrenia. One primary way of determining the difference between irrational jealousy and paranoia is that the person with delusions firmly believes the reality of that belief. Whereas an individual with irrational jealousy is more likely to say,"I know I'm being unreasonable and that it's creating problems but I just can't help myself--it's how I feel."

5) Obsessions. In another subset of people, the cause may be obsessional beliefs with a basis in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder(OCD) or, even more likely, Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder(OCPD). In these individuals, the above causes of jealousy such as fear of loss, inadequacy, and fear of feeling may be presented but they are wrapped in a layer of obsessions. These individuals are still connected with reality but may have what is known as "overvalued ideation" which means they may have increased difficulty recognizing the irrationality of their jealous ideas.

What Can be Done About Irrational Jealousy?

The approach to dealing with irrational jealousy depends upon the underlying cause:

1) Mental illness. If the jealousy is delusional it is necessary to have psychiatric assistance and medication to control the delusions. Individuals with OCD or OCPD need, at a minimum Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and may also benefit from medication.

2) Inadequacy. For problems of inadequacy, the individual needs to address the self-esteem issues. For some people, this is fairly straight-forward as they recognize the low self-esteem. In which case, using the cognitive-behavioral tools of learning to challenge irrational thinking can be effective (see How Do We Change Irrational Thinking and Understanding and Using the Cognitive Diary). For others it may be more difficult as they do not recognize the self-esteem problems and may insist that they feel good about themselves. They may need to do more work towards developing greater insight into themselves.

3) Fear of Feeling. Individuals who are afraid of feeling taking extreme measures to avoid feeling bad need to learn how to address grief. They may benefit from grief counseling as well as CBT to address the irrational fear of feeling. It is likely that they have had past grief experiences that have been unresolved.

For instance, a woman may have had a previous husband who was unfaithful and now has excessive jealousy regarding her present husband even though he has given her no reason to be jealous. She may not have adequately dealt with her previous grief and it is being expressed in her current relationship through the jealousy.

4) Fear of Loss. The issue of fear of loss is addressed in a similar manner as to the fear of feeling. The main difference is that the fear of loss is future- oriented as if the person is grieving something that hasn't occurred yet. It also can have its roots in previous grief experiences. Thus, addressing the irrational beliefs and learning to deal with grief is important.


Davis, K.E. (Ed); Frieze, I.H. (Ed); Maiuro, R.D. (Ed), (2002). Stalking: Perspectives on victims and perpetrators, (pp. 237-264). New York, NY, US: Springer Publishing Co.

DeSteno, D., Valdesolo, P, and Bartlett, M.Y. (2006). Jealousy and the threatened self: getting to the heart of the green-eyed monster. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 626-641.

Withey, D.L. (1907). Psychological Literature, 141-142. Review of: Gesell, A.L. (1906). Jealousy, American Journal of Psychology, 17, 437-496.

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