Romance Redux

Using science to understand and improve relationships.

Five Ways to Kick the Jealousy Habit

Connection is the cure for jealousy.

Five Ways to Kick the Jealousy Habit

Five Ways to Kick the Jealousy Habit

It fuels suspense in the greatest novels. It's a motive for murder. It even has its own color.

Jealousy–the green-eyed monster. Taming it's not easy, but you'll find it's a lot easier if you know what keeps it alive.

Laura and the Green-Eyed Monster

Last winter, Laura had found her partner of 7 years, Billy, cheating with a friend–a discovery that launched them into twice-weekly couple's therapy for the rest of that year. By the time Laura contacted me, Billy had already broken off the affair, recommitted to Laura, and thrown himself, full force, into the work of understanding his mistakes. The therapy was paying off, too. Billy had starting opening up in ways he never had before. There was just one problem. Laura was, by her own description, "insanely jealous."

Lately, snooping had become her primary hobby. She hacked into her boyfriend's e-mail and read all his correspondence. She regularly reviewed phone bills and browser histories. On more than one occasion, she'd even followed Billy around for a full afternoon. That was a good weekend. When things got really bad, she called and texted him compulsively, as if by locating his exact position in time and space, she could prevent him from ever straying again. All of this had the predictable effect: her boyfriend, Billy, had grown frustrated, and Laura feared she'd only made matters worse.

Jealous is as jealous does

Jealous is as jealous does

Jealous is as Jealous Does

When a partner cheats, we feel a deep sense of betrayal, but the pain goes well beyond (and strikes far deeper) than a simple break in trust. Suddenly, the world isn't right.  Things are not as they seem. Where once the simplest words or actions seemed innocent, now they're fraught with deeper meaning–carefully disguised clues to a hidden motive or a closely-guarded secret (Is she trying to get me out of the apartment? What did he mean by "seeing a friend"? Why is her shirt ruffled like that?). Infidelity robs you of the capacity to take events at face value and still know everything's fine.  After all, you fell for it once. Why fall for it again?

This profound loss of control over emotional security leads to a single, predictable solution: a desperate attempt to win back control. That's where the jealous behaviors come in.

Notice I said behaviors, not feelings. It's natural to feel jealous now and then. It isn't natural to act jealous. Jealous controls–desperate attempts to ensure security by collecting information and keeping a close watch on your partner's comings and goings–only create distance. The research on adult attachment (how couples make and maintain emotional bonds) suggests that the key to managing feelings like jealousy and insecurity lies not in eliminating them altogether, but in expressing them the right way. Like any vulnerable feeling, jealousy can either foster or hinder intimacy. It all depends on how it's handled.

This last bit's important, so I'll say a little more. We all feel insecure now and then, even without infidelity lurking in the background. We wonder if we're good enough, smart enough, attractive enough. We wonder if our partner could find someone better. In that sense, post-infidelity repair (or any cure for the jealous impulse) always involves asking some version of the same question: if I ask you to reassure me–show me you love me, long for me, really want to be with me–will you?

Notice that detective work like Laura's is an attempt to dodge this question all together. It provides an illusory sense of security precisely because it asks nothing more from your partner beyond a list of facts; in fact, half the time, jealous controls don't rely on your partner at all. That's what makes them so seductive. They offer the hope that you never have to rely on anyone again (especially your partner) to answer the question, whats' really going on here? With the help of the right tools and a few well-placed questions, you can put the answer entirely in your hands–quite literally.

There's only one problem. It's the wrong question. If you're ever going to feel secure again, you don't need a list of facts; you need to know your partner loves you and wants to be with you. You need an emotional experience that only your partner can give: direct reassurance when you're feeing insecure about their love. If you're relying on jealous controls, you'll never get that.

In fact, over time, jealous controls only feed the monster by making you more and more insecure.

Never forget that jealous outbursts wear on your partner. They erode trust and closeness and eventually drive anyone to secrets. Faced with a spate of questions, your partner may become loathe to speak. Frequent interrogation can make anyone feel bullied–which leads, inevitably, to an attempt to hide. Unfortunately, all that hiding just takes you further and further from the reassurance you really need.

When Laura felt insecure, all she had to do was pick up the phone, and she knew where Billy was. When she felt a pang of jealousy, an hour poring over phone records could put her mind at ease (temporarily anyway). She controlled every bit of information she could about Billy and whom he'd been with and what he'd done–all the information except whether or not he loved her. That, of course, she never found–until she started looking for it again.

Laura Tames the Green-Eyed Monster

Below, I've detailed some of the steps in Laura's plan for regaining control over her jealous actions. Your jealous feelings might continue for a while, but they aren't the problem. It's the toll that jealous action takes on your self-esteem and feelings of security-that's the true problem. Over time, the feelings even become milder–if, that is, you don't keep feeding the monster.

Laura's Plan for Managing Jealousy:

1.  Fess up

You need to talk directly about jealousy to prevent and manage it. If you don't say it, you'll show it-which can mean all kinds of accusations and snooping. Share your feelings without hurling accusations. Make clear requests: "I'm feeling a little insecure. I think I'd feel better if we firm up our plans so I can look forward to time with you". Request specific actions that help you feel more secure like planning calls or sharing more about his experiences during the day. The more connected you are, the less jealous you'll feel.

2.  Manage stress

Jealousy is a stress responsewhich means if you're already anxious and overwhelmed, you're likely to feel it even more intensely. Before you look to your partner for reassurance, make sure you've done your part to manage anxiety with exercise, good nutrition, meditation or yoga, and plenty of supports. Sometimes the green-eyed monster settles down when you plan a little self-care.

3. Ask for reassurance

If you feel suspicious, use 'I-statements': "I feel a little jealous about your time with her. Can we talk a little about your relationship?" If that sounds too risky, remember, you're already feeling insecure. Better to say it than show it with accusations and angry distance. If there's nothing going on, it shouldn't be a big deal to talk about it–anymore than it would be to discuss time with his other friends. If you do this, be sure you model the same transparency about your own relationships. Avoid making demands or hurling accusations–more attempts at control. Instead, say something like, "I get a little insecure when you talk about having a great time with these other guys (or girls). I think it'd help me if we touched base after you go to the party-maybe in the morning if it's too late when you get back?"

4. But ask in moderation

If you always have to ask about time with friends to get any information at all, it might be a red-flag. If things are innocent, your partner should routinely volunteer information. You shouldn't have to keep asking. The more open you both are about your relationships the less jealous you'll feel.

5. Know your limits

If you worry day and night or fire off insecure e-mails on a daily basis, then consider taking a break. When no amount of direct reassurance helps, or you just can't talk openly about insecurities, it's a sign that the relationship may not be for you.

Want to regain control, like Laura? Learn to ask for reassuring gestures of connection and caring. If you can't rely on your partner for reassurance, you'll rely on jealous controls instead. 

Connection is the cure for jealousy.

Note: although the situation I've described is extremely common, the couple described is a composite-a blend of many people and problems to illustrate my point. All identifying information has been disguised and/or altered.

Want to read more? Check out www.drcraigmalkin.com For more content, including exclusive tips and insights, follow Romance Redux on facebook and twitter.

Craig Malkin, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who taught and trained at Harvard Medical School.

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