Annika admits that during the first year of dating Kent she was one jealous woman. First there was sporty Emily. At their get-to-know-you tennis match, 30-something Emily showed up in pigtails. During drinks after the match, Emily laughed at Kent’s jokes a little too much, and held eye contact a little too long. Annika told him later that if Emily did anything to hurt their relationship, she would physically injury her. Emily dodged that bullet, as she moved out of town a few months later.
Then there was Kent’s employee, Tammy, with whom he used to be romantically involved. They were still great friends, so the couple needed to set up some ground rules, just so Annika could get enough oxygen during the day. The biggest one was for Kent to let her know when he and Tammy were planning a working lunch. Annika didn’t want to hear from someone else that the two were spotted at a cozy Italian restaurant.
As their relationship solidified, reactions of jealousy subsided, but even today, 10 years married, moments of jealousy can pop up on either side. Recently, Kent ushered Annika away from the pub where they were dining because he “didn’t trust the guy” who sat down next to them and attempted to join their conversation. A few years prior, a very large and drunk man had attempted to flirt with Annika at a hotel pool. Kent stood to face him, and like the poofed-tail of an angry cat, he somehow doubled in size.
Jealousy often gets a bad name, and with good reason. The number one reason cited for physical abuse among romantic partners? Jealousy. And the number one reason for jealousy? An affair. These are hard times indeed.
Interestingly, the second most common reason for jealousy is when a partner communicates with someone else through mediated communication1. Let me rephrase: next on the list, just behind sleeping with someone else, we are bothered when our partner interacts with an ex-partner or a new friend via email, texting, or Facebook.
Situations that provoke jealousy can cause immense damage to individuals and couples. But is jealousy always bad? Are there any benefits to it?
There is indeed an upside to jealousy. It can communicate to a partner they are loved and desired, and that we want the relationship to continue. In a new relationship, showing a little jealousy can reduce uncertainty about the importance of the relationship. In fact, trying to induce jealousy is one of the “secret tests” we do in new relationships to see if our partner’s affection is for real2. In a long-term relationship, jealousy can remind us why we fell in love in the first place, and bring a little spark back to a comfortable relationship. Whether jealousy harms a relationship or provides a boost, all depends on how the couple responds.
How to deal
So, how can you respond positively when your partner is jealous? How can you help the jealousy bring you closer, rather than destroy you? Here are some ideas to consider:
1. Avoid emotion and blame. If your partner is jealous, it means he’s emotional, so it’s best if you don’t get emotional back. Avoid blaming him for how he feels. For example, rather than saying, “You are being silly, stop being such a baby!” or “How dare you think I would cheat on you!” focus on what is true for you: “I love you and I would never do anything to jeopardize our relationship.” It might take saying a relationship-affirming message more than once. When people are emotional, the message doesn’t always get through the first time.
2. Do some face-saving. A jealous partner is afraid, at least temporarily, that someone out there is more physically or emotionally attractive and/or has a plan to take you away. A helpful strategy is to point out a flaw in the threatening person. “Him? He doesn’t even have a full-time job.” Or, “Her? Have you ever noticed she has pimples?” This communicates to your partner, “I see who they really are and I won’t be fooled or seduced by them.”
3. Make a plan. It’s important to ask what you can do to make your partner more comfortable about the situation, and together come up with a plan. If she feels awkward about you lunching with an attractive co-worker, perhaps it will help to invite her to go. If he’s troubled that you have pictures of your old flames on your Facebook page, maybe it’s time to take them down. Talk about it together and decide what will work.
Jealousy doesn’t have to harm a relationship if the couple is sensitive to one another, and if they work to create a safe environment. It’s okay for a partner to get jealous now and again—it may even wake up your passion! Supporting each other and working through it together is the smartest way to keep your relationship strong.
Heidi Reeder, Ph.D. is the author of the forthcoming book, Commit to Win (Hudson Street Press).
Let's connect on: Twitter, Facebook, and www.heidireeder.com.
1Dijkstra, P., Barelds, D. & Groothof, H. (2010). An inventory and update of jealousy-evoking partner behaviours in modern society. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 17 (4), pp. 329–345.
2Baxter, L. A., & Wilmot, W. W. (1984). "Secret tests": Social strategies for acquiring information about the state of the relationship. Human Communication Research, 2, 171-201.