The Science Behind Jealousy And How To Overcome It

by Rachel Sanoff

Jealousy can plague us in our careers, our friendships, and our accomplishments, but jealousy especially emerges in sexual and romantic relationships. Helen Fisher, Ph.D., an anthropologist who has famously discussed scientific aspects of love, explains in an essay for O Magazine that jealousy in relationships is unique because it can develop at any time — whether the relationship is strong or weak, good or bad. Even if you are falling out of love with your partner, and even if that partner is now an ex, it is common to feel angry when you see them moving on or becoming interested in another person who isn't you. Jealousy is not always rational and it doesn't discriminate, so what causes this exceptionally strong emotion? What is the science behind jealousy?

While psychologists can link jealous behavior to trauma survival, psychological disorders, and general insecurity, Fisher argues (as do many anthropologists and psychologists) that there is a partial genetic explanation. In the essay, Fisher specifically states that "jealousy evolved for positive reasons." Of course, environmental and social factors play a role as well, but Fisher points to our early human history:

It discouraged desertion by a mate, bolstering the family unit and enabling the survival of the young. At the same time, it has pushed us to abandon philanderers—and many a futile match—in favor of more stable and rewarding partnerships.

Jealousy is present within sexual relationships in the animal kingdom as well, and it often turns violent. Fisher referenced a study by Jane Goodall in which a female chimpanzee presented herself to a male chimpanzee, but he ignored that ladychimp and began interacting with another female. The first female chimpanzee responded by aggressively slapping the male. Fisher described another study where scientists placed a plush bluebird near a female bluebird who had been mating with a specific male. That male bluebird began attacking the plush, and then attacking the female (who had been minding her own damn business).

Things get violent in nature, but jealousy can sometimes have a beneficial effect on human relationships, as witnessing another person's interest in your partner can awaken your own attraction to your significant other. However, this analysis of its evolutionary aspects is not meant to minimize its very dangerous qualities, a fact that Fisher emphasizes. For example, jealousy is often the motivating reason behind domestic violence. The ways in which other studies analyze jealousy can be problematic and outdated, blaming the emotion on heteronormative behavior that no longer applies to much of the population.

Jealousy can destroy your own mental health and your partnerships if you allow it to create problems that don't actually exist. Do you even really have a cause for concern, or are you just insecure? Also, often times, the behavior and habits that jealousy brings out of you are obsessive wastes of your time (i.e. stalking social media, judging other women, texting on your phone all day). How can you overcome these awful feelings?

1. Don't Blame Your Partner For Another Person's Actions

Take a second to breathe before you let your emotions take over. Who initiated the behavior that is upsetting you? If a stranger approached your significant other at a bar, but your partner shut down the interaction or did nothing to encourage it, then why are you jealous? It is futile and unfair to your partner to get angry at them over the actions of a person they have no control over. Getting stressed out over this non-issue is unfair to yourself, too.

2. Figure Out If You Have An Underlying Personal Issue

Anxiety exacerbates feelings of jealousy. Imagine constantly worrying about all of the bad things that your partner could potentially do. Insecurity and facets of insecurity, like body image issues and lack of confidence, cause you to assume that your partner wants someone else or will find someone better than you. When, actually, it is this insecurity that will push your partner away. Perhaps you were in an unhealthy or abusive relationship that is affecting your ability to trust. It is not fair for you to have to live with this anxiety. Consider counseling or some type of self-care treatment to help you conquer these frustrating issues.

3. Communicate With Your Partner

You can't establish boundaries or trust without communicating. You also can't validate your concerns or disprove your worries without airing your feelings. If your partner does not encourage you to have these conversations or your partner makes you feel bad for discussing trust, then they aren't a healthy partner to be in a relationship anyway.

4. Don't Hate On Other Women

This goes out to ladies in relationships with men. Examine your slut-shaming tendencies and competitive attitude towards other women. Why do you assume every woman is out to get you? Why do you assume she is wearing that cute dress for your partner and not for herself? Why do you let the presence of a man decide how you treat another woman? Question whether or not you have a real reason to be jealous.

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