Envy and jealousy are often conflated. After all, both are destructive feelings that stem from desire and arise within the context of a relationship. Both are toxic. But that might be where the similarities end. More significantly, envy and jealousy originate from different desires; they are destructive in distinct ways; and they are best dealt with using discrete strategies.
Here is a simple example:
In discussing plans for the weekend with her friend, Brit says she has to check with her husband first. Her friend responds curtly, “You don’t have to check-in with him about everything!” Brit is confused and hurt.
Though Brit considers that her friend is in a long-distance relationship and often doesn’t check-in with her boyfriend, she senses that something is up with the intensity of her friend’s comment. Brit begins to wonder whether her friend is envious, or maybe, jealous.
What is the desire behind the feeling?
The key to understanding whether someone is envious or jealous is to uncover the desire behind the feeling. The difference between envy and jealousy lies in the contrast between desiring to be like someone and desiring to be with someone.
Desiring to be like someone—envy—involves only two people—it is a dyadic relationship. Typically, one person wants to possess some quality that a second person has. In the example above, if Brit’s friend desires to have a relationship like Brit has with her husband, it would indicate she is envious. Her desire is to be like Brit, at least, as she is in her relationship.
Desiring to be with someone who is with a third person—jealousy—involves three people—it is a triadic relationship. Typically, one person wants a second person all to themselves and feels left out—excluded—when that second person is with a third. If her friend wants Brit all to herself without her husband’s interference, it would indicate that she is jealous. Her desire is to be with Brit.
How is the destructiveness expressed?
The difference between the destructiveness of envy and jealousy hinges on the difference between dyadic and triadic relationships. In a dyadic relationship—between two people—one’s aggression is necessarily aimed at the only other person in the relationship. In jealousy, the negativity is aimed at a third person, even if expressed in the presence of the friend, partner or family member.
In envy, the person we admire—is also the object of our hostility. Being esteemed and hated at the same time can be very disconcerting. In the above example, if the friend is envious, her hostility would be aimed directly at Brit, perhaps regarding the close relationship Brit has with her husband. As is typical with envy, her friend not only desires what Brit has, but she also wants to ruin it for Brit.
As triadic relationships are inherently more stable, jealousy is less immediately toxic. We can express our desire to be with someone while expressing our negative feelings towards a third person. It allows us to express our loving and hating feelings separately. If Brit’s friend is jealous, she would be able to maintain a loving attitude toward Brit, while focusing her aggression on Brit’s husband. Even though Brit would likely find the jealousy disturbing, at least it would not be directed at her.
What can we do about it?
Ultimately, we are all responsible for our feelings and need to discover how best to regulate them. That said, we can help those in our lives to deal with their feelings by being mindful of their difficulties and by making efforts to mitigate our effect on them.
When someone suffers from envy—they want to be like us—we can take care not to mobilize their envy. Although we certainly don’t want to have to downplay what is good in our lives just to suit another person, we can be mindful to provide a balanced picture. In Brit’s case, if her friend is envious of her relationship, Brit could mitigate her friend’s envy by sharing some of the problems she has in her relationship.
When someone suffers from jealousy—they want to be with us—we can mitigate their jealousy by reassuring them of their importance to us. Of course, we don’t want to give into their jealousy and alienate other people in our lives. But, for example, if her friend is jealous, Brit could take to heart her friend’s difficulty sharing Brit with her husband. Brit can make a point of letting her friend know just how much she appreciates her.
Empathy and Accommodation
Determining whether someone is envious or jealous requires looking beyond the feelings expressed to the desires behind them. Though both can be destructive to the relationship, once we establish whether we are dealing with envy or jealousy, we can better empathize with the struggle and make accommodations that improve the situation for all.