How to manage envy in a relationship

Arese Sylvester 16 November 2021

In any relationship, feelings of bitterness and resentment can build up over time or emerge all of a sudden—here's how to deal with them

Navigating human emotions can sometimes feel like crawling through minefields. This is made worse when these are emotions that society says are inherently bad.

Envy is one of them and there is negativity that surrounds it. This negativity breeds silence and avoidance that compounds when our envy is directed at a significant other; someone who is supposed to be at the pinnacle of our love. 

This silence also stems from the shame that we’ve been conditioned to associate with any emotion that isn’t outrightly positive. But just like all other emotions, envy is human, normal and its morality depends on what we do with the way we feel. By itself, envy isn’t inherently bad but it becomes so if it is wielded as a weapon or an excuse for bad behaviour. 

A lot of couples are ill-equipped to handle it, but envy, if left to fester unchecked could cause serious damage to relationships. Susan Trombetti, relationship expert, matchmaker and CEO of Exclusive Matchmaking, mentions that couples who feel this way are not likely to talk about it with their partner. People don't like to admit they feel that way towards someone they love, but it just tends to make it worse and turns into resentment when you silently brew over it, says Susan. 

Resentment was a recurring theme with the people we interviewed for this article. Someone like Emma who began to toe the line between love and hate for her fiancée whose career excelled during quarantine. Emma talked about feeling like her fiancée didn’t deserve her success because she was less ambitious.

“I was immensely proud of her but I couldn’t stop crying. I had wanted a big career break for so long but somehow, my go-with-the-flow fiancée got it first. My bitterness snuck up on me, up to a point where I couldn’t stand to hear anything about my fiancée’s work. I wanted to talk to her about it but I didn’t know how to. So instead, I communicated through snarky remarks and passive aggressiveness. It was terrible and it almost ruined my relationship.”

"My bitterness snuck up on me, up to a point where I couldn’t stand to hear anything about my fiancée’s work"

Envy is also common in couples who feel the need to measure up to their partner’s achievements in a bid to assert their position in the relationship. When compared with his exes who effortlessly mastered their skills and received recognition, Steven Binko sometimes felt socially and professionally irrelevant. This led to him overcompensating as a way to hide his insecurities.

"My finances, time, and attention became over-extended. Everything was a production, and monumental life moments were missed because I was preoccupied with validating my worthiness. That sort of thing causes friction,” he says. 

It’s not possible to completely prevent envy—especially for couples who are in close proximity to each other’s achievements—but it is possible to refine the way we process it. Envy is not something to hide away and although it might be tempting to let your guilt debilitate you, it isn’t healthy. Being honest with ourselves about the way we feel helps us accept our emotions. This in turn helps us to better understand what exactly we’re envious of and makes communicating with our partners easier. 

Communication is key and the best way to deal with envy in romantic relationships. Trying to work through it on your own can leave you feeling isolated which may also induce resentment. Talking to your partner and letting them in on your struggle is also a great way to bond. It is important to communicate your feelings in a way that does not seek to attack or blame. Communication only works when the other partner is receptive and ready to listen. 

In Steven’s healthy relationships, his partners saw an opportunity to nurture his vulnerability but with others, his emotions were met with judgement and intolerance.

This sort of reaction can lead to distrust and a general unwillingness to be vulnerable again. It’s important to remember that as long as your partner is not actively sabotaging your work/life, they are not your enemy. You’re both playing on the same team and working to fix a shared problem. 

We have all collectively got better at processing our emotions but there’s still a lot of work to be done. The goal is to get to a point where discussing envy becomes as casual as discussing excitement and where our envy instead of draining can serve as a motivator. We can celebrate our partner’s successes and their achievements can serve as motivation to challenge ourselves rather than compete with them. 

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