Jealousy, Envy and The Coupledom: What’s Love Got To Do With It?

Envy=2; Jealousy=3: One simple method of distinguishing jealousy from envy is numeric. Jealousy always involves a third participant, real or imagined. Envy only needs two to do the dance. Both emotions can unsettle The Coupledom.

Wikipedia: That green-eyed monster: Aristotle (in Rhetoric) defined envy (φθόνος phthonos) “as the pain caused by the good fortune of others”,[10][11] while Kant defined it as “a reluctance to see our own well-being overshadowed by another’s because the standard we use to see how well off we are is not the intrinsic worth of our own well-being but how it compares with that of others” (in Metaphysics of Morals).

The Berenstain Bears and The Green-Eyed Monster:As Stan and Jan rhymed: “When another bear gets something brand new, The Green-eyed Monster makes you want one, too.”

Aristotle nailed it when he said the “pain caused by the good fortune of others”.  In the clinical setting envy emerges under many guises. If a partner is increasingly successful in his/her career while the mate is status quo, whether it be the traditional configuration of the stay at home mom and the ever advancing dad, or the  popularity of the mom in the community, while dad is relegated to “the husband of” envy can strike anywhere. Though there be no evident competition nor prize to be had,  the envying member of The Coupledom feels less then, diminished by the achievements of their mate. For envy does not follow rules of logic; envy flows from cracks in the self-image, self-esteem, and the very personal history of the envying one.


Envy is at work in the noticeable absence of joy for a partner’s success. Something as simple as cutting them off in the middle of  sharing a tale of achievement and pride to friends. The mate feels envious of their partner’s pleasure and the rapt attention of the listeners. The proverbial “raining on someone’s parade” is a hallmark of envy. On the opening night of an artist’s first ever exhibition, her husband is found lolling in bed, too tired and out of sorts to attend. Rain!  A businessman returns home from across the seas with an attache case full of stories of captured accounts; but rather than shared joy and celebration, he is greeted by a grumpy spouse with piles of bills and complaints. Rain! Is the wife diminished by her husband’s success? Perhaps.  Does she also feel abandoned. Probably.  Is there an antidote to this? Yes. Joy for his triumphs, then requests for his help sorting out the “stuff” of their shared life, and key,  a renewed focus on her own ambitions so that his successes don’t diminish her sense self.

I Envy You: Three short words, eight letters total. But what a punch to the heart of  The Coupledom. I am not beyond such emotions. Are you? No shame needed here. This is a common emotion. To combat the corrosive elements of this feeling, one must first identify it amongst  the rich panoply of internal engines. If left to roam untethered, the fall out can be deadly. A woman in the field of design resorts to hiding her achievements from her envious spouse who is prone to spoiling her pleasure with temper tantrums in the work setting; inappropriate demands for decision making powers, and systematic denigration of  her accomplishments. His envy has never been openly identified by anyone, lest of all himself. Low self-esteem and fear of abandonment often underlie “spoiling” behaviors. The courage to acknowledge one’s envy will open the door to change. Individual therapy as well as couples’ work is indicated. If you or your partner is submerged in a nasty vat of endless envy, get help before the vat overflows and drowns the relationship.

What’s Love Got To Do With Envy? Ironically we fall in love with the person we may end up envying because the very attributes that attracted us may also make us feel “less than”. Choosing someone whom you admire is an aspect of love. However, if old issues of self esteem, competitiveness or newly acquired feelings of  self denial and thwarted ambition, trigger insecurity, resentment or feeling “cheated”, those once appealing attributes become targets of attack. Ugly stuff but better claimed then denied. Just pick oneself up, dust off the detritus left by some sour feelings, and take on the challenge to reinstate one’s own self worth by identifying goals and determining pathways to satisfaction. The Coupledom will be salvaged as well as the self.

Jealousy: The Number 3. Jealousy comes in many colors. Romantic jealousy, hot red, captures that element most common to The Coupledom. But there are other forms of jealousy that are neither sexual nor romantic, yet undermine the security of a partner and the partnership: friendships; children; professional commitment; work buddies, hobbies. All threats to feeling special and preferred, especially when self-esteem, self-confidence, access or proximity are  elements in the mix.

Here are a few definitions from Wikipedia:

“Jealousy is defined as a protective reaction to a perceived threat to a valued relationship, arising from a situation in which the partner’s involvement with an activity and/or another person is contrary to the jealous person’s definition of their relationship.” (Bevan, 2004, page 195)[18]

“Jealousy is triggered by the threat of separation from, or loss of, a romantic partner, when that threat is attributed to the possibility of the partner’s romantic interest in another person.” (Sharpteen & Kirkpatrick, 1997, page 628)[19

Jealousy Starts Young: Children and dogs demonstrate behaviors that clearly result from a perceived threat that someone else, a sister or the household cat, might receive more petting; better positioning in the car; be the recipient of loving glances or extra beefy treats. This is a very human emotion but one that can rage out of control and even lead to murder. Crimes of passion know no bounds, culturally, economically or geographically. Jealousy can kill. Usually it doesn’t, but even when it is not murderous, its tentacles can exude some pretty putrid ooze and stink up a once tender and sweet bond.

Jealousy in The Techno World: Embarking on a new relationship with a special man, a young woman encounters a stumbling block, his former female roommate and family friend, both important to him and close to grandma. Ouch!  She wisely considers her choices: make an issue, demand termination of the friendship, or sit tight for the ride and see if she is really a threat. This young woman sat tight. It worked. She got the man and a new great friend.

A text message from an old beau is discovered by the fiance of a young woman. The tone is flirty, the content a bit dirty. This begins a compulsive scrutiny of the woman’s cell phone, emails and texts. Confronted, the woman minimizes the significance of the text and instead, is outraged at the breach of privacy and lack of trust. Passwords are changed and an unpleasant vigilance descends over The Coupledom. Clinical exploration reveals low self esteem and insecurity on the male’s part and secretiveness on the female’s, a rough combination. But courage and a bold honesty eased  the wounds, deepened a shared understanding and gave rise to a new respect for the other. More work will be needed but something precious has been perserved: love.

Cell phones, emails, texts, Facebook, passwords, tracking devices in cars, all kinds of technology have impacted the relationship world. Discoveries abound of covert messages, sexy sounding voice mails, resurgent old flames; endless fodder for paranoia, insecurity, and legitimate evidence of betrayal. Jealousy has found its venue, replete in state of the art everything. Is this anything new? Probably not….just faster and harder to deny. Where the intent is unclear, the interpretation subjective, the question fastens on to what other more psychological elements are at work here?

The Heart Of The Jealousy Question: Fact or Feeling? Relationships age. If they start off reassuringly hot, equal parts passion and convenience, terrific. Time and complex obligations interfere. Even in the Garden of Eden, without cell phones or even another human presence, paradise short circuited. If you or your mate has a history of betrayal, or have yourselves been inclined to betray, you are likely to suspect your partner. This is called “projection” where the spouse subconsciously disowns his or her wandering eye and instead projects this “desire” onto their partner. Sometimes couples who have an illicit affair, while married to others, carry into their new relationship some element of distrust: “after all, he was cheating on her when he was with me…”. Others may have felt out shined in childhood by siblings or are convinced that they are not worthy of their partner’s love…..or had parents who cheated, and feel it inevitable that they will be betrayed or abandoned. History, insecurity, projections, all can play a role in distorting, exaggerating or even accurately identifying a legitimate rival.

“Oh Jealous Lover, You’re Acting So Strange“: When you or your partner find suspicion knocking at your door, grab your chairs and sit down to work. First do some internal inventory: where is this feeling coming from inside me? My history, my projections, my lack of self worth? Then look outside at the facts; what do I know, what did I see….could someone want to make me doubt my partner? That happens too. A third party who is out to set off alarms, derail trust and perhaps your relationship by feeding unfounded or distorted information. On the other hand, what is my partner’s history? Did I pick someone who has cheated before? And if so, in what way? And if not, why would they now? Does my insecurity steal our joy, rob us of happiness, and insult my partner with hurtful and unfair accusations or restrictions? If so, I need to get help.

What’s Love Got To Do With It? Mucho.When we love, we are vulnerable and the stakes are high. High stakes and vulnerable feelings tumble us down into younger and more regressed states: like 3 a.m. in the morning, when in the darkness and isolation of a sleeping world, unfounded fears rear their ugly heads…so too the investment of emotion can unleash some pretty scary nightmares of the heart. Only in the daylight of true inquiry can we accurately make an assessment. And with the third party of a different kind, providing some guidance, truth and security can emerge.

©jill edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2010

2 Responses to “Jealousy, Envy and The Coupledom: What’s Love Got To Do With It?”

  1. Anne Carpender


    I loved one of the last paragraphs, you talked about “nightmares of the heart” brilliant as usual.

    Your distinction between envy and jealously was enlightening.


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