Exploring the feeling of jealousy

Most people know what jealousy feels like. But science has not given this feeling much attention. There is an almost total lack of research on jealousy in clinical psychology, says researcher Johan Åhlén, who has now started an exploratory study on the subject.

Picture of a man looking at the woman's phone over her shoulder and getting jealous.
Problematic jealousy and control behaviour go hand in hand. Photo: Getty Images.

Text: Cecilia Odlind, first published in Swedish in the magazine Medicinsk Vetenskap no 4/2020.

Sitting at dinner with friends and telling them that you have felt depressed or anxious lately may feel okay for most people. But to say that you have felt very jealous is not nearly as socially accepted.

“It would certainly be quite uncomfortable if this subject comes up. I think it is still a very shameful feeling,” says Johan Åhlén, psychologist and researcher at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet.

He has just started a study to map the prevalence of jealous thoughts and jealous behaviour. Jealousy can be hard for both those who are jealous and those who are subjected to jealousy. In this study, the researchers have focused on those who themselves experience jealousy. Johan Åhlén has studied the subject before the work began.

“It is interesting that many people have searched for the word jealousy on the internet. On internet fora such as Flashback there are many threads on the subject. And the vast majority of us have experienced these feelings. But there are no diagnostic manuals and there is very little research that has looked at whether jealousy can lead to problems, and to what extent,” he says.

Paranoid jealousy

While there is a diagnosis called Othello syndrome, a form of paranoid jealousy that involves delusions, this is an extreme form that is very rare. Johan Åhlén and his colleagues are more interested in the more common problematic jealousy, which is admittedly milder but can probably still cause significant psychological suffering.

“This is a bit of a black hole in terms of treatment and research,” he says.

By jealous thoughts, the researchers mean anxiety or suspicion that a person is unfaithful or will fall in love with someone else. It can also be about intrusive thoughts or inner images of infidelity or of the partner together with their former sexual or romantic partner.

Portrait of Johan Åhlen with black round glasses.
Johan Åhlen. Photo: Ulf Sirborn.

“Our preliminary data show that few people do not report any jealousy at all. It is also much more common to have such thoughts than to have jealous behaviour. It is probably only when the thoughts become much too disturbing or intrusive that it turns into a behaviour,” he says.

Problematic jealous behaviour can involve investigation, such as calling or texting the person to double-check what they are doing or going through their phone, computer and social media. It can also be about control, for example asking or prohibiting the person from meeting or arranging things with certain friends or former partners or commenting on what they look like or what they are wearing. Another behaviour may be to accuse or question the person about infidelity or interest in someone else.

“Jealous thoughts can be intrusive and frightening and resemble both obsessive-compulsive disorder and feelings of strong anxiety, so-called generalised anxiety disorder or GAD,” says Johan Åhlén.

No answers

Because of the lack of research on the subject, there are no answers to most questions: What affects the degree of jealousy? For example, is it affected by how strong feelings you have for your partner? Does it matter what kind of relationship you live in, for example if it is open? Is jealousy different in men and women?

Johan Åhlén's research group also wants to look into and find out if there is a need for psychological treatment.

“We don't know how many people have such big problems with this that they need treatment. To what extent have people sought help and how do they feel about psychological treatment?

There is currently no evidence-based treatment for problematic jealousy. This means that if you wish to seek help, it is not obvious where you can turn.

“There are doubtless good psychologists who can help you, but there is probably also a risk that you can end up with a rogue actor. And the fact is that even licensed psychologists/psychotherapists lack scientific evidence on how best to treat this,” says Johan Åhlén.

Do we medicalise jealousy?

Is there a risk that we will medicalise a common feeling that certainly can be difficult but which is a natural part of life?

“All emotions are in some way a natural part of life, but emotions can lead to great problems for the individual, whether it be fear, anger, depression or jealousy. I have a little difficulty in how the word medicalisation is used today in some media, where it is suggested that people (often young people) seek help for ‘normal’ feelings. Although there are certainly such examples, there is nothing for which there is scientific evidence; rather it is people who seem to seek help for real problems.”

Jealousy is a stigmatised emotion that most people would probably want to avoid completely. But could there be any benefits to jealousy?

“Yes, there may be a point in discovering if a partner is on the way out of the relationship. In small doses, jealousy might also make you try to do your best. A certain amount of anxiety may be a good thing in this way.” 

Advice: How jealousy can be treated

(Given the lack of scientifically evaluated treatment)

  • Reduce control behaviour. Checking where the partner has been or what they have done can certainly provide short-term anxiety relief. But this can easily become a behaviour that must be perpetuated in order to keep anxiety in check.
  • Practise accepting uncertainty. Being in a relationship means that you risk being hurt and left behind and it is good to practice being able to accept this.
  • Focus on positive goals. Find ways to strengthen the relationship and bring in joy instead of suspicion.
  • Treatment may also need to include couples therapy, or elements that address problematic alcohol use or anger, depending on the situation.

Source: Johan Åhlén