How To Know If Jealousy Is Healthy Or Controlling, According To Experts
Plus red flags to watch out for.
Jealousy is common but often misunderstood. Rom-coms flip-flop between portraying jealous partners as possessive to celebrating jealousy as a sign of true love. These mixed messages can make it difficult to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy expressions of jealousy in real life.
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines jealousy as “a negative emotion in which an individual resents a third party for appearing to take away (or being likely to take away) the affections of a loved one.” In a relationship, you may feel like you’re competing with someone (or something) for your partner’s attention. But experts say jealousy is even more complex than that.
“Jealousy itself is not healthy or unhealthy,” says Joli Hamilton, Ph.D., a relationship coach who researches the topic. “Though the APA continues to define jealousy as a ‘negative emotion,’ we can work with jealousy much more effectively if we see it like other big emotions — anger and sadness. Any of these big emotions can feel overwhelming, but they are also normal, natural, and most importantly, temporary.”
It can be difficult to tell the difference between healthy expressions of jealousy and controlling behavior, the latter of which is often a serious red flag. How do you know if someone’s behavior is truly problematic or not? Here’s how to know when jealousy is healthy or controlling, according to experts.
What Is Jealousy?
Jealousy isn't just one thing — it's an umbrella term for a whole set of strong emotions that can come up in a relationship. "Think of jealousy as the lid of a container filled with other emotions," Hamilton tells Elite Daily. "Any given experience of jealousy is made of a unique cocktail of fear, anger, sadness, anxiety, arousal, entitlement, anticipatory grief, and/or shame."
Jealousy can manifest in many ways. Maybe your partner is constantly questioning who you’re texting or gets suspicious when you run into an old friend. Your partner may go through your phone when you’re not looking, constantly check up on you, isolate or guilt-trip you, or even accuse you of infidelity. In other cases, your partner may emotionally withdraw or give the cold shoulder to maintain control.
Jealousy can hit your nervous system like a ton of bricks, similar to other threats to your safety and security. Kathy Labriola, counselor and author of The Jealousy Workbook, explains, "Jealousy is a primal protective reaction when we fear losing something related to our relationship with our beloved."
Is Jealousy Normal Or Healthy?
Short answer: yes! Most people in relationships experience jealousy at one time or another — and some experts trace this back to our childhood. "Researchers can spot jealousy in 6-month-olds," Hamilton says. "By alerting us to a potential threat to our connection with our primary caregiver, jealousy helps us stay safe."
But like many quirks of evolution, jealousy doesn’t always serve us as intended — so it’s important to analyze jealous feelings to determine whether there’s a real threat. "I sometimes liken jealousy to a car alarm that goes off when someone brushes up against the car or even gets too close to it," Labriola explains. "The jealousy alarm goes off because something unusual is going on which could potentially harm your relationship. That causes you to look more closely at the situation and see whether there is any actual threat.”
For example, if your previous partner cheated and your new partner comes home late from work one night, your inner “alarm” may go off, and you may assume they are also cheating. Recognizing the “alarms” and communicating with your partner about them can help you unpack the feeling.
Jealousy isn’t a black-and-white issue, and Hamilton says that context matters. "If you are having bouts of jealousy that are relatively mild, situational, or infrequent, then jealousy is likely nothing to worry about.”
Sometimes, jealousy can simply signal that there is emotional "work" to do. Like the warning light coming on in a car, jealousy may mean you have insecurity to work through, need to set a boundary, or need to have a conversation with your partner about what’s on your mind.
How Can You Tell If Jealousy Is Being Used To Control You?
If your partner is constantly keeping you guessing about their commitment, playing games of “hot and cold,” or intentionally breaking relationship agreements to get a rise out of you, it may be a sign that they’re using jealousy against you. Sometimes, your partner may use it as a tactic to control, gaslight, or maintain a power dynamic.
Unfortunately, popular culture sometimes glamorizes displays of extreme jealousy, making it difficult to tell what’s OK and what’s not. A 2017 study of jealousy in romantic comedies analyzed top-grossing films and found over 200 examples of jealousy across the sample, including a major plot theme: characters who try to make their partners jealous (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, anyone?).
But as Hamilton says, intentionally provoking jealous reactions is a sign that a relationship needs work. She adds that jealousy is sometimes used to keep a partner in a state of doubt and fear — so if you’re constantly on edge or feeling like you have to apologize, it may be a red flag.
Sometimes, extreme forms of jealousy and controlling behavior can signify an unhealthy relationship or abusive dynamic. If you have a gut feeling that you might be in an abusive relationship, acknowledging that question means something might be up — even if you can’t put your finger on exactly what’s bothering you.
This doesn’t mean that a flash of jealousy means you’re in an unhealthy or abusive relationship — but it’s important to trust your gut.
Red Flags That Your Partner’s Jealousy Is Unhealthy
Here are some telltale signs and red flags that a partner’s jealousy might be unhealthy in your relationship, according to Hamilton:
- They monitor your communication, asking about every detail or keeping tabs on you by checking your phone.
- They insist on knowing your location at all times.
- They cut you off from other people, even in seemingly small ways.
- They cut you off from a whole group of people based on their gender, age, or attractiveness.
- They shame or dismiss you when you bring up the topic of jealousy.
- They blame you for their jealous feelings rather than discussing the boundaries of your relationship.
- They hover or helicopter over you in public.
“In my view, the biggest red flag is if you are frequently finding yourself feeling tempted to lie to your partner because you fear their reaction,” Labriola adds. If you notice any of these red flags or feel that it’s not safe to have conversations with your partner about jealousy, it might be time to get support.
These resources can offer guidance:
- National Domestic Violence Hotline
- Love Is Respect
- The Scarleteen Safety Plan
- University counseling services (available to students)
- Counseling through an employee assistance program (check with your HR department)
It may feel overwhelming to take action, but there’s no harm in calling in a coach, therapist, or even a trusted friend. If there is a problem, others can help you identify it and work through it. And if things aren’t as serious as you’d feared, the process can help provide reassurance.
What To Do When You're Feeling Jealous
If you’re feeling jealous, Hamilton suggests two courses of action. “First, calm your own system,” she says. “This is empowering because jealousy is your feeling and you get to soothe your own system.” Once you’ve calmed down, Hamilton suggests asking your partner for reassurance that your relationship is in a good place.
Many people are afraid to ask for reassurance out of fear of seeming insecure. However, Hamilton says, “It’s OK to ask!” There’s nothing wrong with asking for a kind word from your partner now and then — especially if a specific issue has come up. But if you need to make these requests daily, there may be a deeper relationship issue to address.
How To Talk About Jealousy With A Partner
My own book, Tongue Tied, features a list of relationship agreements to negotiate, along with tips for managing difficult conversations with your partner. Pro tip: Set aside dedicated time to talk instead of squeezing in the convo right before work, school, or bedtime. Instead of using the dreaded “we need to talk,” try these conversation starters:
- "Hey, I noticed you seemed jealous when I was texting my friend the other day. Mind if we talk about that?"
- “It feels like you’re mad at me when I like my ex’s TikToks, but you keep saying nothing is wrong. It’s making me feel anxious, and I’d love to clear the air.”
- “I’ve noticed that you won’t snuggle with me after I come home from a night out with my friends, and it’s making me feel bad. Can we discuss what’s going on?”
- “I don’t want to feel like a jealous partner, but when we’re on a date, and you pay more attention to other people than me, it’s really frustrating. Can we talk about that?”
So, how do you know if jealousy is healthy or not? In a healthy relationship, jealousy is an issue that you can work on together, and the process may even leave the relationship stronger than before. And when jealousy has become unhealthy, it’s time for outside support or for the relationship to come to an end.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.
Joli Hamilton, Ph.D., CSE, relationship coach and jealousy researcher