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How understanding jealousy could lead to a better relationship

Jennifer Qian for NPR

Jealousy is such a complex emotion.

One minute, you and your partner are doing just fine, walking down the street, having a laugh. Then, it hits you: maybe you're set off by the wayward glance of an attractive stranger or an invitation to hang out with that hilarious coworker they won't stop talking about.

Spikes of rage, fear, possessiveness, sadness — we all experience romantic jealousy differently, but the common denominator is the feeling of that inner alarm bell going off.

"That's my clue that I am imagining that I'm going to lose my influence over this person who I care about," says research psychologist Joli Hamilton. "I'm imagining that there will be less love, less attention, less something."

When mishandled, the consequences can be serious. Feelings of jealousy can lead to anything from internal strife to unnecessary arguments to domestic violence and beyond.

But cultivated correctly, jealousy can also be a powerful tool for change and even a "beautiful opportunity" to "deepen our awareness of what we want, who we care about and who we are," says Hamilton.

Read on for tips for unlocking jealousy's power, or listen to the episode at the top of the page.

Readers' note: All of the tips we're sharing assume a baseline of relationships built on mutual trust and respect — everyone is entitled to feel safe with a partner, and jealousy is never an excuse for violence or abuse in any form.

Jealousy, explained

Jealousy and envy are often confused, says change strategist and coach Jacqueline Misla.

Envy, that infamous green-eyed monster, is a reaction to something that you wish you had, like when thinking someone else has a better career or body or house than you do.

Jealousy, on the other hand, "is a reaction to losing something or someone that you have," says Misla, or even the perception of an interruption or a loss to a valued relationship.

That seemingly knee-jerk reaction stems from a number of places. Jealousy has been documented in infants as early as six months old, so there's a biological component at work, says Hamilton. But there's a big cultural aspect to jealousy as well.

"We are surrounded by stories that give weight to jealousy, that give it a certain importance [...] We're told that we shouldn't want it in our life," says Hamilton. "But also, if you look at all our romcoms and all of our songs and our everything, it's also proof that we are loved appropriately or enough."

And these feelings are only further complicated by our long history of ownership in relationships.

"As a woman of color, I think one of the things that I've had to explore in my own ancestry and history is that ownership is not just something that we talk about now in terms of relationships," says Misla. "Being territorial, ownership was actually very real. ...Women were the property of men, and people of color were owned by other folks."

The bottom line here is that it's completely natural to feel jealous — it's what you do with those feelings that matter. Accepting jealousy as another part of the everyday emotional spectrum, rather than glamorizing it or trying to ignore it, is the key to using it for good.

Jealousy often sparks from our own insecurities. Find the root cause of your feelings and self soothe where you can

Misla and Hamilton agree that while the result of jealousy is usually external friction, the cause is almost always an internal feeling of insecurity, scarcity or fear and is oftentimes a product of previous experiences.

Maybe when you were growing up, your parents' relationship left you with trust issues, or maybe an ex was unfaithful in the past. Whatever your situation, everyone has their soft spots — even in relationships where jealousy is openly addressed or even expected.

Misla, who is in two non-monogamous relationships, says it's important to ask yourself what your jealousy is trying to tell you about your wants and needs.

"When I've experienced jealousy, my wife has been out with somebody, and they've been doing walks in Central Park, and they're on rooftop bars having drinks," says Misla, "And I had to dissect, oh, I want to go to a rooftop bar. I want to take a walk through Central Park!"

Instead of starting a fight over something unrelated, Misla realized she could meet that need to go out on her own or with other friends and then could ask her for date night in a healthy way.

"That's an opportunity then for me to have dialogue and say, hey, I'm wondering if we can build in more date nights, I'm wondering if we can actually have a night that feels extravagant once a month so that we both feel special," Misla says.

Only give your jealousy the appropriate time and space it needs

There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to jealousy, but it's important to note that when your inner jealousy monster arises, your best self isn't usually online.

Sometimes you just need a deep breath and a moment to let the feelings pass. Sometimes you need to scream-sing in the car. And sometimes you might feel like you really need to let your partner know what's going on inside your head — Hamilton says to proceed with caution on this last one.

"It's never too early to bring it to your partner, but it is essential that you remember that the jealousy you're feeling is yours to deal with and is not theirs," Hamilton says.

Being aware of and verbalizing our feelings is important, emphasizes Hamilton, but projecting those feelings onto a partner or holding a relationship hostage by our own sensitivities before calibrating for reality is "impractical" and "disempowering."

Hanging your happiness solely on your partner's specific actions or reactions — instead of working together to create fair relationship boundaries — creates an unstable foundation.

So if you need to loop in your partner, try to find space to de-escalate tension and fulfill your needs in lighthearted ways, says Misla.

If it's time for a change, don't make demands — problem-solve together

Hamilton says jealousy in relationships requires change when it starts curtailing your actions or those of your partners or when unhealthy patterns arise.

Maybe texting is a sticking point. If your partner asks you not to text a certain person, that might be a red flag. If it's a whole gender, there could be serious control issues at work.

Hamilton says often people are tempted to agree to completely impractical relationship boundaries to pacify their partners, but that is "at best a very cheap Band-Aid" that does "very little meeting of the feeling where it actually is."

So instead of setting unrealistic boundaries, take the time to talk through your feelings and your needs and then work together to create a game plan. Can you agree to a daily check-in text? Can you meet each other's friends? Set up a no-phone policy after a certain time of day? There might not always be a perfect middle ground, but you can work together to get to a space where everyone feels safe and heard.

And if any of that feels too big to manage on your own, Hamilton says turning to a trusted and neutral third party, like a therapist, is a great idea.

Practice compersion to loosen jealousy's grip

Compersion is commonly understood as the opposite of jealousy and is most often associated with non-monogamous relationships. It more specifically refers to feeling joy — instead of threat — when your partner is interacting romantically with someone else.

If that seems like a wild idea to you, Hamilton says it might not be as far away as you think.

"It's not the most intuitive emotion for most of us when it comes to romance, so I like to ask people to think about times that they've witnessed a puppy being happy or a little child, that's an easy place to see ourselves be compersive," says Hamilton. "We want to nurture the feeling of joy for others' joy because that's always pleasant."

Of course, that doesn't mean it's easy. Misla's been working at it with her wife for years.

"When there are parts of me that are feeling empty and disconnected from her, it's much harder for me to fully experience compersion," says Misla. "When I am feeling full in myself, full in our relationship, then joy just spills over and can become my joy."

And this wisdom doesn't just apply to non-monogamous relationships. Making space for celebrating your partner's wins and finding happiness in their happiness might not take your jealousy away, but you might be surprised by how much it can lighten your load.

The podcast portion of this episode was produced by Clare Marie Schneider.

We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at

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Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit

Andee Tagle (she/her) is an associate producer and now-and-then host for NPR's Life Kit podcast.
Clare Marie Schneider is an associate producer for Life Kit.
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