Envy and jealousy are not interchangeable

You and your partner have been arguing all day. At a dinner party that evening, you observe another couple happily talking, laughing and clearly enjoying each other’s company. You think to yourself, “why can’t that be us? I wish we could be that happy.” You are envious.

In another scenario, you’ve been noticing that your partner is starting to prefer going out more often with the guys and less often with you. When you try to make plans, he comes up with excuses, but he always seems to have time for his friends. You are jealous.

Envy and jealousy are not interchangeable words and emotions. In the dinner party scenario, the arguing couple wants what they don’t have – a happy relationship. Envy is something somebody else has that you don’t, and you want it, too. It can be a strong relationship, a good job, a sense of humor, an outgoing personality, or a desired attribute you perceive you don’t have but want to have.

In the second scenario, you feel threatened by the third person. Jealousy involves three parties. You want your partner to spend more time with you and less time with his friends. You’re afraid he prefers your friends over you, you feel insecure about your relationship, you feel betrayed, you resent his friends, and you may even be angry about the situation. These are all signs of jealousy.

Let’s take a closer look at these two emotions to further understand them, distinguish between them, and learn how they can impact your life.

  • Jealousy is the fear of losing what you already have, while envy occurs when you want something someone else has.
  • Jealousy involves three parties. Envy involves two people.
  • Jealousy often is associated with romantic relationships. Envy most often involves personal possessions or a person’s qualities, physical traits, achievements or social status.
  • Jealousy often is expressed as a sense of betrayal. This is not true with envy.
  • Jealousy doesn’t necessarily involve feelings of inferiority. Envy often is a result of feeling inferior.
  • Jealousy often involves the fear of what may happen in the future. Envy is more focused on the present (what someone has now that you want).

To clarify, jealousy and envy are not necessarily negative emotions. It is human nature and natural to feel jealous or envious from time to time. But it becomes problematic when people act out their jealousy or envy and become consumed with it.

What can you do to manage these emotions so they will not negatively interfere with your life and your relationships?

First, when working with clients, I try to help them unravel what the desire is behind their feelings, understand the dynamics behind them, and what their history is involving these feelings. Is something missing in their life or their relationship?

Often, in sessions with couples, I hear one partner say, “I miss our relationship.” They are afraid they have lost their relationship and don’t know how to get it back. Lack of communication, stress from everyday life or living in survivor mode all can contribute to their feelings of jealousy.

I suggest they take a step back and look through the window of their relationship to try and see it more clearly. Assess your relationship. One partner may think her feelings are less valid than her partner’s, or each person feels the other person has stopped listening. They have stopped connecting and communicating, which allows distrust, fear and feelings of betrayal to seep in. In a healthy relationship, these issues wouldn’t be a problem.

Here is some additional information that may help those dealing with jealousy:

  • Understand this complex emotion. It can include fear, loss, anger, envy, sorrow, betrayal and insecurity. Think through these emotions and how they are connected to your jealousy.
  • Learn to question your jealousy every time it emerges. For example, ask yourself, “am I jealous or am I angry?” This will help you begin taking positive steps to manage your emotions more constructively.
  • Consider this: is your relationship built on trust, respect and love? The goal is to choose trust instead of distrust when it comes to people you love.
  • Open up about your feelings of jealousy. This can go a long way in building a stronger relationship.
  • Avoid passing blame on the other person. This person did not cause your feelings. You alone are responsible for your behavior.
  • Listen, even if you disagree.

Envy and jealousy are normal emotions. It is okay to feel them, but it is not okay to shame them or push them down and try to ignore them. Talk about these feelings. Start working on re-establishing (or establishing) an open, honest relationship. Spend some quality time together. All relationships are ever-changing and ever-evolving; that is why communication is so important.

If you are still struggling with feelings of jealousy or envy, or you feel you are in an insecure relationship and don’t know where to turn, consider seeking professional help. The Center for Relationship and Sexual Health is comprised of a team of experts who can guide you through this difficult time.