It’s been long said that narcissists love creating love triangles and provoking jealousy in their partners – thousands of partners of narcissistic and psychopathic individuals have shared their experiences on this phenomenon. There is also now a wealth of research that supports and documents this behavior in narcissistic individuals and points to the surprising motives behind what is called “jealousy induction” in the research literature. In my 2022 study conducted at Harvard University and published in the journal of Personality and Individual Differences, I found significant positive correlations between both narcissistic (including both vulnerable and grandiose narcissism) and psychopathic partner traits and the use of manipulation tactics such as jealousy induction, particularly for grandiose narcissism and psychopathy. Other research demonstrates why narcissists and psychopaths engage in this type of behavior. The findings of these studies indicate that overall, narcissistic and psychopathic partners can provoke jealousy as a strategic strategy to gain power and control over their partners.
Why Do Narcissists and Psychopaths Provoke Jealousy on Purpose?
Why would a narcissist or psychopath provoke jealousy on purpose? According to research, it can depend on the “subtype” of their particular “brand” of pathology.
It seems that according to the specific subtype of narcissism or psychopathy at play, jealousy induction can be used moreso as an offensive, antagonizing, unprovoked strategy to gain power and control over a partner – and in other cases, it can also be used as a defensive, reactive strategy meant to compensate for low self-esteem or gain self-esteem, retaliate as a form of revenge due to one’s own jealousy or test and secure the relationship.
Researchers Tortoriello and colleagues (2017) investigated whether people with grandiose and vulnerable traits engaged in strategic jealousy induction. In their study, they discovered that grandiose narcissists (who are entitled, seek admiration and superiority) provoked jealousy in their partners for the purposes of power and control, while more vulnerable narcissists (who are more hypersensitive and neurotic) induced jealousy to gain power and control as well as exact revenge on the partner, test and strengthen the relationship, seek security, and compensate for low self-esteem.
Those with psychopathic traits also engage in jealousy induction. In a 2017 research study by Massar and colleagues, 347 individuals (both men and women) filled out measures on psychopathy, jealousy, and jealousy induction. This study found that people who exhibited the traits of primary psychopathy (the subtype of psychopathy that is associated with grandiosity and low anxiety and is said to be “born” rather than made by their environment) tended to deliberately provoke jealousy to gain control over their partners and to “exact revenge” (for example, in cases where they felt jealous themselves).
Similar to vulnerable narcissists in the other study by Tortoriello and colleagues, those who had the traits of secondary psychopathy (associated moreso with criminal behaviors and impulsivity and thought to be shaped by the environment) also induced jealousy to gain power and control, but also did so to test the relationship and gain self-esteem.
Psychopaths Get Jealous, Too
Interestingly, both primary and secondary psychopathy was associated with experiencing emotional jealousy (jealousy in response to a perceived threat), while secondary psychopathy was associated with both emotional and suspicious jealousy (jealousy that is pre-emptive and centered around concerns of infidelity as well as “checking” behaviors such as going through their partner’s belongings or text messages). This reveals that although psychopathic partners may repeatedly provoke jealousy in you, it’s likely they are also experiencing jealousy and suspicions themselves when it comes to their partners.
What Does Jealousy Induction Look Like?
Jealousy induction can take many forms. Narcissistic and psychopathic partners may engage in explicit or implicit comparisons designed to get their partners to compete for their attention or work harder for their approval. They may mention past or current love interests or hint at their own deception or affairs, presenting “rivals” in hopes that their partner demonstrates insecurity or evidence of heightened interest in the narcissist as a result. Technology has also made it possible for jealousy induction to occur rampantly in the digital landscape, as narcissists and psychopaths can now provoke their partners on social media.
How Do You Heal from Jealousy Induction?
Healing from repeated patterns of jealousy induction is not easy. Narcissists and psychopaths may have trained you to constantly compete and compare, causing you to lose a sense of your unique qualities and irreplaceability throughout the relationship. On the healing journey, it is first important to recognize the motives for why these individuals engage in such manipulative behaviors. If your partner had more grandiose narcissistic traits, they may have wanted power over you. If your partner was fit the bill of psychopathy, they may have even wanted revenge for feeling jealous and possessive themselves due to the romantic attention and interest you received from others, even if it was through no “fault” of your own. If they had more vulnerable narcissistic traits, they may have been insecure and looking for validation as well as a sense of power and control. They may have wanted to alleviate feelings of inadequacy and “test” your love for them. Either way, recognizing that their malicious, calculated behavior (or esteem-seeking, reactive behavior) was not your fault is important to validating yourself and resisting gaslighting and blameshifting.
In addition, it is vital that you get support in processing your traumas, preferably with a mental health professional. For example, specialized trauma therapies such as Eye-Movement Desensitization Reprocessing therapy (EMDR) may help you to process such triggering events while bypassing the typical heightened amygdala response that causes emotional overwhelm. Therapies like Dialectical Behavior Therapy can teach you powerful mindfulness and emotional regulation tools for when you are triggered. These can help ground you in a sense of safety as you unlearn the destructive conditioning and triggers that have been instilled in you about your sense of worth.
Reconnecting with your uniqueness is also important. You may want to write down all the positive qualities and traits that you have and that others notice in you as a reminder of the sense of self that was diminished throughout the toxic relationship. If you have experienced jealousy induction or an unhealthy relationship with a narcissist, you are not alone, and help is out there. Remember that you were always “enough” and that no one who is worthy of you would ever make you compete for their attention.