Envy, Jealousy, and Shame


Relationship, betrayal and jealousyEnvy, jealousy, and shame are inextricably intertwined. They’re primal emotions that frequently overlap. We feel envy and jealousy first in the form of sibling rivalry and oedipal longings. A child innately wants mommy and daddy all to him or herself and feels “excluded” from the marital bond, especially if there have been dysfunctional parenting deficits that have led to shame and emotional abandonment.

Typically, young children of heterosexual parents see their same-sex parent as a rival for their opposite parent’s love and feel both envious and jealous of their same-sex parent. Similarly, an interloper in a marriage may feel both jealous and envious toward the spouse he or she wishes to replace, possibly re-enacting childhood feelings toward his or her parents. Children are frequently envious and jealous of the attention showered on a newborn sibling. The belief that a sibling is favored can create lifelong feelings of shame and inadequacy.


Envy is a feeling of discontent or covetousness in regard to someone’s advantages, possessions, or traits, such as beauty, success, or talent. It’s also a common defense to shame when we feel less than another in some respect. When the defense is working, we’re not aware of feeling inadequate and may even feel superior and disparage the person we envy.

A malignant narcissist might go so far as to sabotage, misappropriate, or defame the envied person, all the while unconscious of feeling inferior. Arrogance and aggression serve as defenses along with envy. Generally, the degree of our devaluation or aggression is commensurate to the extent of underlying shame.

Bill was chronically resentful and envious of his brother’s financial success, but because of unconscious shame, he spent or gave away his money. He was on the road to homelessness to fulfill his father’s shaming curse that he was a failure and would end up on the street.

There are better ways to respond to envy. I may envy my friend Barbara’s new Mercedes, knowing I can’t afford it and feel inferior to her; or, I might have the funds, but feel conflicted about buying one because I feel undeserving of owning it. However, if envy motivated me to copy her, and I ignored my values or true desires, I wouldn’t derive any pleasure from my efforts. In contrast, I can think about my needs, desires, and how to fulfill them. I may be happy for Barbara, or my envy may be fleeting. I might realize that I have competing values or desires and that what suits her isn’t right for me. These are all healthy responses.


Jealousy also stems from feelings of inadequacy, though they are usually more conscious than envy. Whereas envy is the desire to possess what someone else has, jealousy is the fear of losing what we have. We feel vulnerable to losing the attention or feelings of someone close to us. It is defined as mental uneasiness due to suspicion or fear of rivalry, unfaithfulness, etc., and may include envy when our rival has aspects that we desire. By discouraging infidelity, jealousy has historically served to maintain the species, certainty of paternity, and the integrity of the family. But it can be a destructive force in relationships—even lethal. Jealousy is the leading cause of spousal homicides.

Margot’s deep-seated belief that she was inadequate and undeserving of love motivated her to seek male attention and at times intentionally act in ways to make her boyfriend jealous and more eager. Her insecurity also made her jealous. She imagined that he desired other women more than her when it wasn’t in fact the case. Her beliefs reflected toxic or internalized shame common among codependents. It’s caused by emotional abandonment in childhood and leads to problems in intimate relationships. (See “What is Emotional Abandonment”.) Studies show that insecure individuals are more prone to jealousy.

Jill had healthy self-esteem. When her boyfriend lunches with his female friend and work colleagues, she isn’t jealous because she’s secure in their relationship and her own lovability. If he had an affair, she may or may not feel jealous, but she wouldn’t blame herself, because she doesn’t hold the belief that his behavior reflects a deficiency in her. She certainly might fear the loss of her marriage and have feelings about his betrayal of trust. It would be a wake-up call that things unspoken needed to be addressed by both spouses.


Both envy and jealousy involve comparisons that reflect a feeling of insufficiency whether we’re in the position of have or have-not; either, “I’m inferior to X who has what I want,” or “I’m inferior to X who may diminish (or is diminishing) my importance to someone.” Feeling “not enough” is the common thread. Comparisons are a red flag for underlying shame. The greater is the intensity or chronicity of these feelings, the greater shame.

Thus, codependents take rejection hard, because of low self-esteem, toxic shame, and history of emotional abandonment. (See my post about “Break-ups.”) Typically, shame leads to attacking oneself or the object of our pain. While some people blame themselves when rejected, others think, “He or she wasn’t worth my love anyway.”

We may also behave in ways that drive our partner to leave because it validates a belief that we’re unworthy of love. It may be a variation of “I’ll give you a reason to leave” or, “I’ll leave before I’m left.” Either way, it’s a defensive move to prevent getting too attached. It gives us a sense of control over the anticipated inevitable abandonment that would hurt even more. (See “Breaking the Cycle of Abandonment.”)

Safety in Numbers

Envy and jealousy should be examined in the broader context of a relationship among the three actors—even if one is imaginary, such as in Margot’s case. Each person plays a role that serves a function. Despite the pain generated by the three-some—like a three-legged table, it’s more stable than a two-legged one when partners have issues related to intimacy and autonomy because a dyad is more emotionally intense than a triad.

A third person in a close relationship can mediate unresolved intimacy issues by siphoning off some of the couple’s intensity and help maintain the primary relationship. To do this, parents often “triangulate” a child into the role of the problem child or surrogate-spouse, which mediates problems in the marriage. The latter case foments oedipal desires in the child that can cause dysfunction in later adult relationships.

A paramour can provide an ambivalent spouse a sense of independence that allows him or her to stay in the marital relationship. The spouse may feel torn between two loves, but at least he doesn’t feel trapped or that he or she is losing him or herself in the marriage. True intimacy that’s lacking in the marriage can be made up for in the affair, but the marital problems don’t get addressed.

Once an affair is exposed, the homeostasis in the marriage is disrupted. Remorse doesn’t necessarily solve the underlying intimacy/autonomy problems. Sometimes, when jealousy subsides new conflicts arise to recreate distance between the partners. However, when individual autonomy and intimacy are established within the couple, the relationship is stronger, and interest in the third person generally evaporates.

If infidelity leads to divorce, frequently even after the removal of the rival spouse, who mediated the affair, new conflicts arise in the once-illicit relationship that results in its eventual demise. The unfaithful spouse’s continued contact with his or her ex, may simultaneously dilute, yet allow, the relationship with the new partner to survive. The drama of it all also adds an element of excitement, that while stressful, alleviates depression typical of codependency.

Do’s and Don’ts

Here are some suggestions to deal with jealousy and insecurity:

  1. The best insurance against jealousy and envy is to Raise Your Self-Esteem.
  2. For jealousy, improve the intimacy in your relationship.
  3. If you’re suspicious of your mate, journal about any times in prior relationships (including same-sex and family relationships) when you were betrayed or rejected.
  4. If you’re still concerned, tell your partner the behavior that bothers you with an open mind in a non-accusatory manner.
  5. Share your feelings of insecurity, rather than judging him or her.
  6. Respect your partner’s privacy and freedom. Don’t try to control or cross-examine your partner, or sneak into his or her email or phone, which creates new problems and can make your partner distrust you.

This post was inspired by the insightful article by Stenner, P (2013) “Foundation by Exclusion: Jealousy and Envy,” in Bernhard Malkmus and Ian Cooper (Eds) Dialectic and Paradox: configurations of the third in modernity, Oxford: Lang 53-79. See also Buss, D (2000) The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy Is as Necessary as Love and Sex

©Darlene Lancer 2015

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3 years ago

Thank you for this post. It helped explain several issues revolving around jealousy and insecurity I have developed in my marriage. I’m stunned that all of these issues are coming from childhood, I’d love to be able to grow up a bit and have my marriage without childhood issues!

7 years ago

So you’re saying, if a person has a high enough self-esteem, they will be immune to jealousy? What is this claim based on? You define jealousy as “fear of losing what you have”, so how can loving oneself enough, immune one from fear of loss? Sure, If I love myself enough and lose my loved one, I won’t feel bad about myself, but I’d still feel pretty bad, won’t I? So it makes sense to me to fear this even if I think I’m superman.

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
7 years ago
Reply to  Eran

I think I wasn’t clear. A person could have fear of loss, but with good self-esteem, feelings of shame wouldn’t be triggered. Many people are jealous when they needn’t be. In the example of Jill, she isn’t possessive and jealous because she’s secure in herself and in the relationship. If her husband had an affair that would be cause for alarm. She may or may not feel jealous, but she wouldn’t blame herself. She certainly might fear the loss of her marriage. It would be a wake-up call that things unspoken needed to be addressed.

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