Some people argue that a little bit of jealousy in a relationship is OK or maybe even a turn-on, and I agree. For example, asking your partner to spend some evenings with you instead of grabbing drinks with their friends after work every day can serve as a friendly reminder that they cherish your bond, which can actually bring you closer together. But jealousy, depending on its intensity, how often it pops up, and how well it’s managed, can also destroy a relationship.
I’ve personally experienced dangerous levels of jealousy from both sides. I hate to admit it, but I used to look through my ex’s phone while he was in the shower to see if he was texting a friend with whom I thought he was too friendly and eventually demanded they stop talking for no reason other than I was insecure. Unsurprisingly, my ex said “fuck that,” and we broke up.
I’ve also been on the receiving end of the “it’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s that I don’t trust other people” excuse that jealous partners throw out as a way to manipulate and control the people they’re dating. I’ve received orders not to hang out with or text other men, and dated men who glared at me anytime I talked to, hugged, or looked at another guy. In all cases, this behavior was evidence of control issues or a lack of trust — and a warning signal to GTFO. These five red flags should prompt you to do the same.
1. Everything turns into an argument.
Your partner might feel envious that you immediately text a certain friend when something exciting happens, or maybe they get a funny feeling in their stomach over who coworker you mention nearly every night. Expressing these concerns in a clear, respectful way can lead to better understanding each other’s feelings and help prevent arguments. “A big part of talking about jealousy is being vulnerable. This means talking openly, having a discussion, and not shutting down,” says Katie Ziskind, LMFT.
If, on the flipside, every attempt to address your partner’s concerns leads to an argument, you may have a problem. “I ran into an ex’s cousin while with my boyfriend at the time, and I knew we were going to argue about who that was and why I stopped to talk to them as soon as we walked away,” says Meg, 23. “I’m a firm believer in not having bad blood with people you once cared about, so [I explained that] it wasn’t a big deal to me, but [this guy’s] ugly, jealous side came out and the fight began.” She finally ended the relationship when she realized that this pattern of arguments was a reflection of her ex’s insecurities rather than of her being a bad partner.
2. Their reactions are overreactions.
Checking out a hot stranger for 30 seconds might incite a nagging question or two from your partner, but there’s no need for an interrogation over casually liking a mutual friend’s Instagram photo.
“We all have an ‘attachment alarm system’ that’s triggered when we sense a threat in our romantic relationship,” says Heather Z. Lyons, Ph.D., licensed psychologist and couples therapist. “Some partners’ alarm systems can be tripped more easily, and their reactions can become more extreme.” This is often the case for someone who has been cheated on or lied to in ways that had extreme consequences.
Chele, 25, says this rings true for her boyfriend, who constantly thinks she’s going to sneak around like his ex did. “He forgets that I’m an entirely different person and would never do anything to hurt him.” She regularly reassures him that she cares about him and isn’t like his last partner, but she worries that his concerns haven’t disappeared after two years together.
This is something that Lyons recommends trying to resolve with the help of a therapist. “Overcoming mistrust can happen in individual therapy, but it can be even more helpful to process this attachment injury in couples therapy where you’re actually reenacting and working through the concern together.” If therapy doesn’t help and they continue acting suspect, consider ending things. You don’t need to be in a relationship with someone who projects their insecurities onto you.
3. They can’t stand the thought of your past relationships.
“Retroactive jealousy is when your partner is jealous of a relationship you had before you even met each other,” says Caroline Madden, Ph.D, MFT. Signs of this can include making rude or judgmental remarks about how many people you’ve slept with and asking excessive questions about past partners. Since there’s nothing you can (or necessarily should) do to rewrite your past, if someone can’t accept your history, you might need to start writing a new chapter of your life without them.
Ella, 24, dated someone who brought up and shamed her about her past on a weekly basis for two years. “He made me disclose my ‘number’ [of sexual partners], and had me write down the name of every guy I’d ever kissed. We’re from a small town, and he contacted everyone on the list to make sure I wasn’t lying and that it wasn’t more than just a kiss.” The two eventually broke up because “he couldn’t get over it.”
4. They need to know every little detail about your plans.
Who are you texting? Where are you going? Who are you going with? Will [insert name here] be there? What time will you be home? Without context, this might sound like a nosy parent rather than a romantic partner. If your S.O. demands to know every detail about your plans, it’s often more than jealousy — it’s an effort to police your actions. This is warning sign of issues that could lead to abuse down the line, says licensed psychotherapist Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., LMFT.
“My ex needed to know every single detail about where I was, who I was with, what time I was going, what time I’d get back, etc.,” says Lynn, 27. “If there was going to be another guy there, he’d get angry and need to know exactly who they were. Sometimes I decided not to go places simply because of this. It was easier to not have to explain myself.” You are an independent adult, and while it’s courteous to keep your S.O. up to speed, they’re not allowed to give you the third degree.
5. They want you all to themselves.
Everyone wants a partner who likes spending time, including alone time, with them. But when someone craves your time and attention so much that they become jealous when you do anything with anyone else that doesn’t involve them, it’s a red flag.
Chelsea, 26, dated someone who wouldn’t let her hang out with friends and family without him. “I’ll never forget when I got invited to my best friend’s ‘girls-only’ birthday party,” she says. “I didn’t want to miss it, so I went without him. He cussed me out and didn’t speak to me for days after, brainwashing me into thinking I did something wrong.”
“This is usually the first stage of emotional, verbal, or physical abuse,” warns Saniyyah Mayo, LMFT. That’s because jealousy can easily be mistaken for being “protective” or “caring” when it’s actually something much less healthy and in need of addressing.
No one outside of your relationship can pinpoint the exact moment when jealousy gets out of hand, so it’s important to use your intuition and reflect on your limits to figure it out. “You’re in the relationship, and you know your boundaries,” says Lyons. Once you feel a line has been crossed, it’s time to cut ties and, in future partners, prioritize healthy control over jealous tendencies.
If you are experiencing or have experienced domestic violence and are in need of support, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224.