Being jealous of your partner in a close relationship is a pretty common occurrence. It could be the mere exchange of glances that sets you off or perhaps a conversation that causes you to wonder if there’s something for you to worry about beneath the social veneer of their politeness. However, you decide to brush it off, figuring that your partner really is faithful, and that you’re just being a little too suspicious.
Extreme jealousy, also called “morbid” jealousy, takes on a far more ominous tone. Not only do you become preoccupied with the possibility that your partner is cheating, but these thoughts set in mind a vicious cycle in which your suspiciousness leads you to make incorrect conclusions which only feeds your suspiciousness even more. You then start to act in ways that cause real relationship problems, further inflaming your doubts.
Psychotherapists, marriage and family therapists, and couples counselors frequently encounter jealousy problems in their clients, typically seeing the problem as a symptom of a troubled relationship. Few studies address the identification and treatment of morbid jealousy. As a result, clinicians must use their general therapeutic guidelines when treating people who are its sufferers rather than being able to turn to empirically tested approaches. In an article called, fittingly enough, “Taming the Green-Eyed Monster,” Sheffield (England) psychologists Stephen Kellett and Peter Totterdell tackled the issue of how to adapt known therapeutic approaches to the problem of morbid jealousy.
Prior to this research, there were a few studies testing cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) of the morbidly jealous. CBT involves teaching them first to identify the dysfunctional thought patterns that trigger their jealousy and secondly to develop strategies to prevent those thoughts from taking over their emotional lives. Kellett and Totterdell decided to put CBT to a rigorous test, developing the first controlled study to evaluate its effectiveness. They also compared CBT with a more psychodynamically-oriented approach called cognitive analytic therapy (CAT). In CAT, clinicians use what happens in therapy (such as the client being afraid the therapist will abandon her) as a way to provide additional insight into the client’s unduly jealous thought patterns. CAT also focuses on underlying issues that people bring into all their relationships such as fear of abandonment or of feeling inadequate.
Using what’s called a “single-case experimental design (SCED),” Kellett and Totterdell compared two married women in their responses to CBT and CAT with one assigned to CBT and the other to CAT. In this method, although there is only one client per treatment method, the clients provide highly detailed data consisting of their thought patterns on a daily basis, as well as responses of their partners. The experimental aspect of the method involves comparing the problematic jealous thoughts during and after treatment with extensive follow-up. We’ll see what happened in the study’s results shortly. First, however, let’s see how you compare to the two clients on the key morbid jealousy symptoms.
The five daily target symptoms of morbid jealousy that these clients believed to be their main problem included feeling jealous, watching and observing your partner (“hypervigilance”), acting out your jealousy (“disinhibition”), being anxious, and having low self-esteem. These are fairly typical feelings associated with high levels of jealousy. Adding to the study's value, the researchers also involved the partners of the two women, asking each to rate how much their wife was acting jealous and whether they felt their wives were being overly controlling (such as demanding to know where they were at all times).
The two women rated how often they had these thoughts and feelings on a daily basis on a 1-9 scale, and rated their self-esteem from 1 (“rubbish”) to 9 (“great”). At the end of each day, the clients and their partners recorded their ratings, and reflected on the day as a whole. They were encouraged not to speak to each other about their ratings nor to use the ratings “in an aggressive manner” to get back at each other.
The treatment took place over 13 sessions following a 3-week assessment phase. Each client had a so-called “formulation” of her jealousy consisting of a diagram mapping out which interactions and thoughts seemed to create the most problems for them. These diagrams served as the guide to therapy. This was an important point. There’s no one-size-fits-all treatment for jealousy, as each couple’s dynamics are specific to their personalities and relationship.
The findings showed that the two therapy methods had different effects on the clients and their partners. Both treatments were effective in reducing symptoms of jealousy (CAT somewhat more so from a statistical point of view), and both methods alleviated their feelings of distress. The husband of the CBT-treated client felt less controlled after therapy ended, but the CAT-treated partner noticed no changes in jealousy.
It's true there was no control group in this study of women who received no interventions. Also, peculiarities of each woman's specific personality may have played a role in the progress of therapy, not to mention characteristics of her husband. Nevertheless, the study provides an excellent basis for addressing extreme jealousy in you or your partner, summed up in these 6 steps:
- Identify the situations most likely to trigger your jealous feelings. Is it when you’re out at social occasions, or when one of you is away due to job or other outside responsibilities? Do you become most likely to have jealous thoughts when you’re having a bad day? Make a list of the situations that trigger your suspiciousness, hypervigilance, or self-doubts.
- Reflect on the thoughts you have that seem to lead you to feel the most jealous. CBT focuses on being able to identify your “automatic thoughts,” the almost unconscious and instantaneous conclusions you jump to, such as “I’m unlovable.”
- Connect your thoughts with your emotions. Telling yourself you’re unlovable is almost guaranteed to make you feel depressed. Recognize that your emotions follow from those automatic, dysfunctional, thoughts, and you’re then ready to move on to changing them.
- Challenge your thoughts and beliefs. If your jealousy is being maintained by your erroneous convictions, then it’s time to change those convictions. By conducting thought experiments, you can show just how wrong those convictions actually are. Maybe you think that you need to be on the alert for signs of his or her unfaithfulness or else something bad will happen. Try not being on the alert and then see what happens; chances are that your ominous predictions will not come true.
- Put a stop to those jealous behaviors. Try not to enact the controlling and suspicious behavior associated with your jealousy. For example, see what happens if you don’t voice your jealous concerns to your partner after he or she is gone for (what you think is) longer than the usual time at work. In the past, your accusations would perhaps have triggered anger and defensiveness in your partner. Now that you’re not making those accusations, your partner won’t feel as over-controlled and you’ll be less likely to have an argument.
- Focus on the underlying issues in your feelings about relationships. CAT takes into account the underlying issues, such as abandonment and feelings of inferiority that you carry into your relationships. For example, if you are constantly fearful that your partner will abandon you, this fans the flames of distrust, increasing your feelings of anxiety and jealousy. Identifying your trigger points can help stave off those self-doubts and anxious ruminations.
The main point of this therapy is the basic idea that you don’t need to be tormented by the pain of unrealistic jealousy. Your beliefs about this relationship, and about relationships in general, can be challenged and ultimately changed.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
Kellett, S., & Totterdell, P. (2013). Taming the green‐eyed monster: Temporal responsivity to cognitive behavioural and cognitive analytic therapy for morbid jealousy. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 86, 52-69. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8341.2011.02045.x