4 Signs of Toxic Jealousy You Should Never Ignore

There’s a difference between caring and controlling.
Graphic of person stuck in cage with floating hearts
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Even people in the most secure relationships may have to navigate waves of jealousy. It’s totally normal if your stomach sinks after seeing your partner bond with their attractive coworker, and we’d venture a guess that almost all couples have had some variation of the, “Seriously, they’re just a friend” debate. The green-eyed monster may even seem kind of endearing at times. (Isn’t it so sweet that they care that much about you?) 

Jealousy isn’t a relationship red flag in and of itself, Vernessa Roberts, PsyD, LMFT, a therapist who works with couples in Sacramento, California, tells SELF. At its core, this uneasy feeling usually stems from anxiety, suspicion, paranoia, or insecurity—all of which can naturally arise when you’re afraid of losing someone important to you, according to Dr. Roberts. “Although most of us don’t like this emotion, jealousy can actually be a healthy indicator that maybe we don’t feel secure and need some reassurance from our partner,” she says. But when self-doubt spirals into volatile and irrational accusations or controlling, guilt-tripping behaviors, that’s when jealousy is a sign of something more serious.

“The biggest difference between healthy and unhealthy jealousy is how we manage it,” Dr. Roberts says. The former is natural, normal, and most importantly, temporary; the latter is “toxic, explosive, and uncompromising, usually indicating a desire to control the other person,” she explains. The line between the two can be fine, so we asked therapists to share the most common warning signs that jealousy has gone too far. Here are the biggies you shouldn’t ignore:

They monitor your every move.

It’s one thing if your partner is curious about who you’re calling so late at night, or what bar you’re hitting with your pals without them. But if you feel like you have to report your whereabouts at all times, say, or your lover demands to see your texts under the justification that “there shouldn’t be anything to hide,” that’s a telltale sign that their jealousy is crossing into toxic territory, Aimee Hartstein, LCSW, a therapist at Therapeutic Alliance of New York Counseling who specializes in couples counseling and divorce guidance, tells SELF.

“Constantly keeping tabs on your every move, like regularly snooping on your phone, is an unsustainable fix,” Hartstein says. “They may feel better knowing you’re not flirting with someone today, but they’ll inevitably keep surveilling you to make sure you’re not doing something tomorrow, which is an invasion of your privacy.” Even if you’ve lied to your partner about your past relationships, say, or fibbed about your spending habits, that still doesn’t give them the right to watch you like a hawk. Not only is it super annoying and a strain on the relationship, but taking your freedom away and destroying your sense of privacy can signal emotional abuse, according to Harstein.

At the end of the day, you should feel relaxed and safe when you’re in a healthy relationship, she says—not like you’re being smothered by an overbearing parent or losing your sense of autonomy. 

Their jealousy results in angry outbursts. 

Everyone has moments when their anger gets the best of them and they react in ways they’re not too proud of. However, if you’re frequently tiptoeing around your partner, telling white lies, or staying guarded out of fear that one wrong move will instigate a screaming match, take a step back and ask yourself why you’re being so cautious, Dr. Roberts recommends. 

For instance, do you answer their inconvenient phone calls right away because you know they’ll be furious if you don’t? Do you change your outfit because your favorite skirt isn’t “appropriate” according to your partner? It may be difficult to spot unhealthy jealousy and rage in the moment, but constantly worrying about how your partner will react to your everyday choices is a major red flag, Dr. Roberts says.  

“Walking on eggshells signals a lack of openness in the relationship and can also mean there’s a lack of vulnerability and authenticity,” which, she says, can also be a sign of emotional abuse. You shouldn’t feel tense when telling them about an upcoming dinner plan, and you should be able to truly speak your mind, even if they may not agree with you. Feeling a rush of anxiety as you anticipate their reaction is your body’s way of telling you that you don’t feel safe or secure with this person and it’s important to listen to that gut instinct, Dr. Roberts adds. 

They don’t allow you to spend alone time with others.

Is anyone 100% comfortable seeing their partner giggling at inside jokes with their BFF, who just so happens to be extremely hot and effortlessly cool? We think not. It’s natural to feel a little insecure during moments like this, Hartstein says, but there’s a difference between fleeting envy and controlling behavior. Sure, everyone has their insecurities, but nobody is entitled to decide who you talk to or hang out with.

That isn’t to say you should automatically brush off all of your partner’s worries. If your one-on-one hangs with a former fling make them uncomfortable, for example, you can validate their concerns (how would you feel if you were in their shoes?) and establish some clear-cut boundaries together, Dr. Roberts advises. Another scenario: Let’s say you want to go on a weekend trip with a new group of friends that your significant other doesn’t really know and they’re asking a million questions about your plans (“Who are these people? Why haven’t I met them?”). Rather than ignoring their questions or declining the invite altogether, you can meet in the middle with a compromise, like agreeing to text them each night to confirm that you’re safe, for example, or having them meet your pals beforehand so they’ll feel more at ease.

If you’ve tried to compromise and be as transparent as possible and your partner still incessantly questions or doubts you when you hang out with other people, that’s a sign that their “overprotectiveness” or “concern” is actually just controlling, potentially abusive behavior disguised as adoration.

They try to fully cut you off from other people, including friends and family.

This is a bright-red flag you should never ignore, according to Hartstein. “If your partner puts down your loved ones constantly or tries to make you think they’re the only person you can trust, beware,” she says. Rather than trying to “protect” you, they may actually be cutting you off from your support system as a way to control and manipulate you, which Hartstein and Dr. Roberts both agree is a common precursor to an abusive relationship

These attempts at isolation can be as subtle as complaining about how often you talk to your sibling on the phone (“Are you sure you want to call them back? They seem like a bad influence”) or as extreme as becoming enraged when they find out you went to an impromptu coffee hang (“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me first!”). “We need external connections beyond our romantic relationships, and it’s important to receive different types of support from different groups of people in order to grow as individuals,” Dr. Roberts says. 

Being independent of your significant other—spending time apart and having your own friends, hobbies, and interests—is just as important for you and your relationship as spending quality time together, she adds. A partner who truly cares about you will encourage you to be your own person and connect with the people and things you love—not hold you back.

If you or someone you care about may be in an abusive relationship, confidential help is available. To talk it out, make a plan to stay safe, or figure out next steps, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or TTY 1-800-787-3224, text “START” to 88788, or chat live here.