Psychology of jealousy: Why do we feel it?

Jealousy can appear in any relationship, even when two people wouldn’t consider themselves jealous types. Most people associate this emotion with attention given to another…
Psychology of jealousy: Why do we feel it?

Is your jealousy tearing your relationship apart?(Shutterstock)

Jealousy can appear in any relationship, even when two people wouldn’t consider themselves jealous types. Most people associate this emotion with attention given to another person, but the reality is that jealousy can occur anytime a partner focuses on something–person, item, or activity–more frequently than their significant other.

But what is the root of jealousy? For years, most people assumed it meant someone lacked confidence in themselves; they weren’t attractive enough or smart enough to warrant their loved one’s attention, so they constantly felt threatened that person would leave to find someone “better.” But jealousy is not unique to humans, and this means it can’t purely be related to self-esteem issues.

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In July, 2014, a study was released on jealousy in dogs. Researchers from University of California, San Diego, found the majority of dogs showed jealous behaviors when their owners interacted with a realistic-looking dog toy. These canines did everything from become vocal and constantly push/nudge their owners to actively placing themselves between the owner and the toy or even showing aggression toward the toy. Similar behaviors, nipping aside, have been noted in human infants who witness their mothers interacting with realistic dolls.

“These results lend support to the hypothesis that jealousy has some ‘primordial’ form that exists in human infants and in at least one other social species besides humans,” wrote study authors.

So what causes jealousy?

Jealousy in relationships

Jealousy is something commonly witnessed among species that form close bonds. (Shutterstock)

According to Psychology Today’s Jennifer Verdolin, Ph.D, jealousy is something commonly witnessed among species that form close bonds. Jealous behavior is often seen among wild animals is regards to food or to a mate–things needed for survival. In the animal kingdom, jealousy means someone is trying to take something you have that is needed. Among titi monkeys, for example, mates are relied on heavily to shared the burden of raising offspring and finding food. If one mate is stolen by a challenger, the health and life of the other monkey is suddenly in jeopardy.

Similarly, certain animals display jealous behaviors when it comes to sibling rivalry, and this is because the more offspring there are, the more the parents’ resource are spread out. Some species commonly have siblings kill one another just so they don’t have to share survival supplies.

Verdolin points out that, in the animal world, jealousy is functional and serves a purpose typically related to survival. In humans, however, jealousy seems to be far more complex and reliant on perception, rather than actual reality. Though it can be argued that people become jealous for the same instinctual reasons–taking away a mate can be devastating physically and emotionally–the treats responsible for a jealous reaction aren’t always legitimate.

This, perhaps, is the defining difference between the jealousy someone feels when a significant other is truly spending more time with another person, versus the jealousy someone expresses when their partner nonchalantly looks at or engages a person of the opposite sex. One threat is more likely to be real, while one probably has no basis in reality.

What is morbid jealousy?

Morbid jealousy is the phrase used to describe a range of irrational thoughts and emotions, together with associated unacceptable or extreme behavior. It is centered on a preoccupation that the partner is being unfaithful even when there is no evidence of the transgression. A study published in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment states: “Healthy people become jealous only in response to firm evidence, are prepared to modify their beliefs and reactions as new information becomes available, and perceive a single rival. In contrast, morbidly jealous individuals interpret conclusive evidence of infidelity from irrelevant occurrences, refuse to change their beliefs even in the face of conflicting information, and tend to accuse the partner of infidelity with many others.”

Morbid jealousy is considered the symptom of a pathological disorder, and some experts suggest it may indicate the early stages of schizophrenia. Morbid jealousy generally manifests as delusions, and in this “purest” form, individuals express those delusions coherently, thoughtfully and plausibly, in contrast to the bizarre associations characteristically made in schizophrenia.

“Affective disorders complete the functional illnesses associated with delusions of infidelity. Depression, with accompanying subjective feelings of inadequacy and failure, may give rise to delusional jealousy or it may follow its onset. It may be difficult to decide whether depression is primary or secondary,” write researchers in Advances. “Organic brain disorders may give rise to delusions of infidelity. In their series, Mullen & Maack (1985) found that almost 15 percent of individuals with morbid jealousy had an organic psychosyndrome with which the jealousy appeared associated. Cobb (1979) recorded that morbid jealousy may be present with all types of cerebral insult or injury.”

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All in all, morbid jealousy can develop as a result of complex psychological issues, and may be present in less severe forms in people who suffer from self-esteem issues, depression, paranoia, or other disorders affecting personal image.

Jealousy is a natural emotion and can serve as the body’s early warning system when a relationship is in trouble; however, excessive jealousy is rarely warranted and often indicates an individual should seek professional help.