Sexual jealousy is a common experience among couples and is a well-honed evolutionary trait that serves to both strengthen relationships also well as act to destroy them. Sexual jealousy is a constellation of negative emotions elicited as a response to the potential loss of a relationship to another suitor. Sexual jealousy evolved in tandem with romantic love in order to protect ones evolutionary interests. New research has shown that social animals such as dogs may experience sexual jealousy. Sexual jealousy can often be taken to extremes in the forms of the Othello syndrome, morbid jealousy, psychotic jealousy, pathological jealousy, conjugal paranoia, and erotic jealousy syndrome. Despite the existence of these extremes, well justified jealousy is often miss-diagnosed as pathological.

What is Sexual Jealousy?

Sexual jealousy is a negative emotional reaction to a specific situation involving the potential infidelity of ones partner to another. Sexual jealousy is often confused with envy though they are different in their cause and experience. Envy involves a negative emotional reaction to a person who enjoys something the subject desires. It is an experience of insecurity about one’s social status when someone of greater status and means is encountered. Sexual jealousy, on the other hand is a reaction to the true or potential loss of a relationship that can have far reaching consequences if the sexual jealousy turns out to be true. Sexual jealousy is experienced and expressed in multiple ways varying from anger and violent aggression to fear, grief, and depression.

The personality of a jealous person and the specific situation elicit these wide responses. Sexual jealousy is the negative emotional response caused by the perceived sexual attraction between a current or potential romantic partner and a third person. This attraction does not have to be real for sexual jealousy to occur. Sexual jealousy can be felt as a threat to the subjects self-esteem, the relationship, or both (Buunk & Hupka, 1987). Men have been found to be more impacted by sexual infidelity, due to the potential for cuckoldry; while women are more impacted by the possibility of emotional infidelity, due to the potential for a man abandoning them for another.

The Evolution of Sexual Jealousy and Romantic Love

Sexual jealousy and romantic love are intertwined and both have evolved out of necessity in humans as the foundations of romantic commitment. Romantic love acts as an irrational positive motivation to enter a relationship, while sexual jealousy protects a relationship once formed from interlopers. Men and women have different values when it comes to choosing mates. Women choose men based on “qualities such as ambition, industriousness, intelligence, dependability, creativity, exciting personality, and sense of humor – characteristics that augur well for a man’s success in acquiring resources and achieving status,” while men chose women based on “qualities linked with fertility, such as youth, health, and physical appearance” (David M., 2000, p. 10-11).

Despite all the rational reasons men and women use for choosing a mate, one experience above all others is used to determine a mate: Love. Love has a mythical status as irrational, blind, yet long-lasting, this is why in a “study of 10,041 individuals from 37 different cultures, men and women rated love as the single most important quality in selecting a spouse” (p. 10). Love’s irrationality has a rational reason: “If a partner chooses you for rational reasons, he or she might leave you for the same rational reasons: finding someone slightly more desirable on all of the “rational” criteria” (p. 11). Love’s blindness to rationality exists to ensure a partners commitment in a world of changing conditions. In a world where a couple will experience wealth, poverty, sickness, health, and the threat of infidelity, it is far more convincing for a partner to say “I love you and I don’t know why” than to give a litany of rational reasons for staying in a relationship. Love’s irrationality is what gives romantic love its perceived staying power.

Where romantic love helps start a relationship and keep it harmonious, sexual jealousy acts as a watchman to protect a relationship from interlopers. Sexual jealousy evolved to protect the bond of love from competition. Men care more about sexual infidelity while women care more about emotional infidelity. This is due to uncertain paternity on the side of the man, and potential loss of emotional investment and therefore physical support on the part of women. David Buss (2000) argues “Sexual jealousy is no less basic than fear or rage, its expression no less important than fight or flight.” Sexual jealousy is often used as a barometer for the depth of a person’s love for another and an accurate one at that. In a longitudinal study conducted by Eugene Mathes (1986) unmarried couples were tested for sexual jealousy. After seven years they were connected and a quarter of the couples were married while the rest had broken up. What’s interesting is the sexual jealousy score of the married couples was significantly higher than that of the couple who had broken up.

Sexual jealousy evolved due to the universality of infidelity. Men and women have both been unfaithful since long before recorded history though they have both similar and different reasons for doing so. They are similar because the purpose of being unfaithful is to have successful offspring. They are different in the strategy of achieving this end. The benefits to a man of being unfaithful revolve around having children outside the bond of the primary relationship, and due to parental uncertainty around a man’s primary lover. Women are unfaithful to get resources, higher quality genes than her primary mate, and above all as mate insurance. Human beings evolved in uncertain times and men were lost to battle, famine, and work more often than women. In ancient burial sites men had more evidence of trauma than women. Because of this having a second lover acts as mate insurance so a woman won’t be left to fend for herself with the loss of her lover.

Women and men’s sexuality has evolved in the context of infidelity: a woman’s womb holds sperm for up to seven days to allow men’s sperm to battle in competition to fertilize an egg; most of men’s sperm are designed to kill other men’s sperm rather than for fertilization; a man’s penis is designed to scoop out the sperm of other men and the constant thrusting motion during the act of coitus occurs for this purpose. Women conceal their ovulation even from themselves though they are more motivated to cheat at their peak fertility during their menstrual cycle (Ryan & Jetha, 2011).

Infidelity is difficult to detect, and sexual jealousy evolved to protect against it as well as to detect it. It is no secret that in a couple with one partner who is more desirable than another the less desirable person will often be more jealous. This makes sense as research has shown that the more desirable person would be the most likely to stray. To account for this, a jealous person can act to head this off as well as being more sensitive to signals of infidelity (David M., 2000, p. 22).

Jealousy in Animals

Further evidence that jealousy is an emotion that evolved far into our past is that there are recent evidence that jealousy occurs in animals; if animals also experience jealousy, than it is probable that our mutual ancestor also experienced jealousy. It was long thought that the experience of jealousy only occurred in humans and primates (Ekman, 1992; Morris, Doe, & Godsell, 2008), but recent research conducted by Dr. Morris’s team has found evidence that the experience of jealousy occurs in other social animals. They conducted two studies: one to determine if the owners of domestic animals reported the existence of jealousy and other secondary emotions in their pets, and a second as a follow up. In the first study over nine-hundred participants were given a questionnaire asking about the emotional experience of their pets, the results showed jealousy as almost as common as primary emotions like fear and anger. (Morris et al., 2008)

An interesting study on sexual jealousy in animals

An interesting study on sexual jealousy in animals

This data while, impressive, still left some doubt about the nature of animal jealousy. It could have been possible that the animal owners merely had a belief that their pets experienced secondary emotions rather than seeing direct evidence of it. So Morris et al. (2008) conducted a second experiment with solely dog owners (the most common to report jealousy). In this experiment the participants were asked for descriptions of specific examples of their dog experiencing jealousy. They found a significant number of participants could give specific descriptions of their dog acting in an attention seeking manner when they saw their owner acting affectionately with a rival. The attention seeking spanned range from whining, trying to butt between the two, and even mild forms of aggression. These responses typify the range of jealous responses found in humans.

Extreme Sexual Jealousy

Extreme sexual jealousy comes in many forms: It is known as Othello syndrome, morbid jealousy, psychotic jealousy, pathological jealousy, conjugal paranoia, and erotic jealousy syndrome.

Morbid Jealousy

Morbid jealousy, also known as the Othello syndrome has been described by Kingham & Gordon (2004) as “a range of irrational thoughts and emotions, together with associated unacceptable or extreme behavior, in which the dominant theme is a preoccupation with a partner’s sexual unfaithfulness based on unfounded evidence.” A person who is morbidly jealous believes their partner is unfaithful without firm evidence that they are. Morbid jealousy in psychiatry is thought to occur as a symptom of other mental illnesses. The way this is recognized is in terms of delusions and/or obsessions in regard to a partner’s perceived infidelity. A subject’s delusion of infidelity can be associated with various irrational beliefs around the subjects’ partner, like the partner having sex with a lover while the subject sleeps, or the partner poisoning the subject. These delusions could be the first symptoms of the onset of schizophrenia. Obsessional morbid jealousy occurs with intrusive, excessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. A subject may obsessively check on their partner, or follow them. Checking has spawned an entire industry of honey trapping to check partners for infidelity.

Honey Trapping

People motivated by jealousy will hire private investigator to set up a honey trap for them. A honey trap is a technique used by private investigators to get evidence: a honey trapper, a private investigator, approaches a client’s spouse and attempts to seduce them. This seduction only goes as far as exchanging contact information for a second date, and setting up a second date. The first interaction is recorded by another private investigator and, if a second date is set up, footage of the spouse getting stood up will also be taken. This footage can be used to measure a spouse’s willingness to cheat on their spouse (R.C. Ranno Investigative Services, n.d.).

Pathological Jealousy

According to Vauhkonen (1968), pathological “Sexual jealousy was regarded as pathological in cases where the suspicious partner had no conclusive evidence of the other partner’s infidelity or, when such evidence was present, where the jealous reaction was so strong or prolonged as to necessitate psychiatric care.” Pathological jealousy occurs when a subject’s behaviors become so extreme that they need to be treated. The presence of delusional sexual jealousy or sexual jealousy that results in threats, violence and/or depression are all cases where sexual jealousy becomes pathological. If a subjects partner is unfaithful and the sexual jealousy results in the presentation of clinical depression that could be considered pathological jealousy. If a subject believes their partner is being unfaithful without any evidence to an extent where they have to be treated for psychosis that too would be considered pathological jealousy.

Psychotic Jealousy

Psychotic jealousy occurs with extreme forms of delusional sexual jealousy where a subject has “a firm and sustained but wrong conviction that the spouse is currently having a sexual affair with another person or persons” (Kala & Kala, 1981). Psychotic jealousy is the delusional form of morbid jealousy taken to the extreme. A subject with psychotic jealousy is diagnosed after institutionalization when, as part of a subject’s treatment, the facts of a patient’s relationship are ferreted out and the subject’s conviction of their partners infidelity is proven wrong. Psychotic jealousy is often caused by chronic substance abuse especially of alcohol, which can cause psychosis.

Conjugal Paranoia 

Conjugal Paranoia is the paranoia of a subject that his/her partner has, is, or will have sex with a third party. Conjugal paranoia is a symptom of morbid jealousy. It reflects both the obsessional and delusional aspects of morbid jealousy. It can be obsessional in that a subject can have intrusive, excessive thoughts about their partner having sex with a third party. These thoughts can motivate a subject to compulsively follow their partner to catch them in the act of cheating, or constantly check on their whereabouts. Conjugal paranoia can take on a delusional form when a subject has irrational delusions and beliefs that their partner is having sex with a third party. To be delusional conjugal paranoia, a subject must have beliefs that are unsubstantiated by observational evidence that their partner is cheating on them (Revitch, 1954).

Mistaken Extreme Sexual Jealousy

Often people diagnosed with forms of extreme sexual jealousy turn out to be having their fears validated. The European psychiatrist Odegaard (1968) treated many couples referred to him as experiencing cases of morbid jealousy. At the time morbid jealousy was seen as incurable and divorce was a common occurrence among his subjects. When following up with the couples after treatment, Odegaard was shocked to discover that after the termination of a relationship many of the jealous couple’s worst fears had been realized and the exes were with the third party the original lover was jealous of. These cases show the necessity of circumspection about the assumption that sexual jealousy is pathological. While there are many cases of pathological jealousy with no real reason, the possibility that sexual jealousy has a purpose in seeing a well hidden infidelity or heading off one that may occur must be taken into account (David M., 2000, p. 14-15).


Sexual jealousy is a constellation of negative emotions elicited as a response to potential infidelity. Sexual jealousy serves both to strengthen relationships but can also act to destroy them. It is a well-honed evolutionary trait that acts to preserve a relationship against infidelity and as such is a common experience among couples. Romantic love and sexual jealousy evolved in order to protect ones evolutionary interests through strengthening human mating bonds. Sexual jealousy may even be experienced by some social animals. Extreme forms of sexual jealousy appear in the forms of the Othello syndrome, morbid jealousy, psychotic jealousy, pathological jealousy, conjugal paranoia, and erotic jealousy syndrome. Despite the existence of these extremes, well justified jealousy is often miss-diagnosed as pathological.

Works Cited:

Buunk, B., & Hupka, R. B. (1987). Cross-Cultural Differences in the Elicitation of Sexual Jealousy. The Journal of Sex Research, 23(1), 12–22.
David M., B. (2000). The dangerous passion: why jealousy is as necessary as love and sex.
Ekman, P. (1992). Are there basic emotions? Psychological Review, 99, 550–553.
Kala, A., & Kala, R. (1981). Psychotic Jealously: A Phenomenological Study. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 23(3), 237–241. Retrieved from
Kingham, M., & Gordon, H. (2004). Aspects of morbid jealousy. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 10, 207–215.
Mathes, E. W. (1986). Jealousy and romantic love: a longitudinal study. Psychological Reports, 58, 885–886.
Morris, P., Doe, C., & Godsell, E. (2008). Secondary emotions in non-primate species? Behavioural reports and subjective claims by animal owners. Cognition & Emotion, 22(1), 3–20. doi:10.1080/02699930701273716
Odegaard, J. (1968). Interaksjonen Mellom Prnerne ved de patoljiske sjalusireaksjoner. Nordisk Psykiatrisk Tidsskrift, 22, 314–319.
Pinker, S. (1997). How the Mind Works. New York, NY: Norton.
R.C. Ranno Investigative Services. (n.d.). Honey Trap Investigations. Retrieved June 16, 2013, from
Revitch, E. (1954). The Problem of Conjugal Paranoia. DISEASES OF THE NERVOUS SYSTEM, 15(9), 271–277.
Ryan, C., & Jetha, C. (2011). Sex at dawn: why we stray, and what it means for modern relationships. New York, NY: HarperCollins Books.
Vauhkonen, K. (1968). On the pathogeneses of morbid jealousy. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavia, (202).

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