The Negative Impact of Envy on Relationships

October 6, 2008 at 1:48 pm  •  Posted in Relationships by  •  0 Comments

By Bernard J. Baca, PhD, LCSW


Dr. Bernard J. Baca is a marital/couple therapist and educator with over 21 years of psychotherapy experience. He is a certified Couples Imago Therapist and Couple’s Imago Workshop Presenter. Dr. Baca specializes in marital and couple’s therapy, has conducted national workshops on marital therapy, is licensed in clinical social work, and holds a doctorate in clinical psychology.  His psychotherapy practice is located in Indianapolis, IN.

Q. What is envy and are some people more susceptible to it than others?

Envy is is the feeling of displeasure and ill will at the (perceived) superiority of another in happiness, success, reputation, or the possession of anything desirable.  Envy contains feelings of inferiority as well as spite — a wish to destroy the coveted assets. Scarcity and comparison exist in all people. It is based on our old brain stem automatic response of kill or be killed. Therefore, envy which is based on a comparison resulting in perceived insufficiency is present in all people.

Q. What are ways in which envy is played in family dynamics?

When anyone in the family, be it father, mother, siblings feel that they are perceived as less than another (due to gender, age, family order, profession, etc.) then envy is present. Ultimately, one tries to redistribute this perceived inequity, and spite is the method used to redistribute. This can be accomplished by making the other “better”, “worse than”, the self better than, or worse than, and other methods. The end result is that ultimately when one destroys the desired object, the self is injured. So all envy is ultimately self envy.

Q. How can a therapist help a couple/family that is being negatively affected by envy?

The therapist must recognize that by definition, “helping another” even therapeutically is an intrinsic disparity between the client and the therapist (usually the latter is somehow “better” than the former as they are the therapist and not the client). This sets up envy for both the client(s) and the therapist.

For example, if the couples’ therapist favors one person over the other, this sets up and reinforces envy. Whether or not either is “better than their partner—even in a pathological way”, this simply isn’t true from any objective sources (and there are no objective sources anywhere), people feel this and then react by either making themselves better or the other worse. Then the therapist can intervene successfully but either interpreting their client(s)’ own envy toward themselves or the therapist.


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