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What Drives Jealousy?

The real reason we get so jealous and how we can better deal with it

Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen once wrote, "Jealousy is no more than feeling alone against smiling enemies." This simple statement sets a perfect scene in our minds of what jealousy feels like; Others are happy, overtly joyful or secretly mocking, while we are left alone to look like a fool. 

However, what drives us to feel jealous and suffer over this stirring emotion isn't always the "smiling enemies" we formulate in our minds. The "sexy secretary" and "college love" are rarely the threats we think they are, but the overwhelming, possessed state of suspicion we enter because of these characters, can be a real hazard to our closest relationships.

Jealousy itself can take on a sort of wicked presence in our lives. Actions taken on its behalf have been known to crush a budding romance, slowly erode a longstanding union or even lead to serious abuse. In a blog I recently wrote for The Huffington Post on "sexting" cheating couples out of real intimacy, I described how the ease and accessibility of technology now breeds even more distrust and deception between couples. Email, text messaging and Facebook can be a perfect platform for forging new connections. And as the floodgates of communication open, the green waves of jealousy begin to flow.

Jealousy isn't something we have much control over. In truth, it is a natural, instinctive emotion that everyone experiences at one point or another. The problem with jealousy is that it masks other feelings and attitudes that are even more hurtful to us and those closest to us. Its intensity is often shielding deep-seated feelings of possessiveness, insecurity or shame. I believe that what lies at the heart of jealousy very often isn't the threat itself, but a drive we have within us to torment ourselves and berate ourselves with self-critical thoughts.

Think about the thoughts we have when we feel jealous. Lurking behind the paranoia toward our partners, or the criticisms toward a perceived third-party threat, are often critical thoughts toward ourselves. Thoughts like, "What does he see in her?" can quickly turn into "She is so much prettier/thinner/more successful than me!" Even when our worst fears materialize and we learn of a partner's affair, we frequently react by directing anger at ourselves for being "foolish, unlovable, ruined or unwanted."

These critical inner voices and the feelings of humiliation that they foster can be more painful to us than the threat itself. They can also be more real. This negative self-coaching accompanies us into our personal relationships and instills in us a level of doubt and criticism that keeps us from perceiving ourselves as truly lovable. It reminds us to be suspicious with thoughts like, "She doesn't really care about you" or "You can't trust him. Just keep him at a distance."

This internal coach was formed from negative experiences we had as children. Whether we were witness to a destructive interpersonal relationship or were made to feel bad about ourselves by a significant parental figure, we internalized these experiences by identifying with the destructive attitudes that were being expressed. If we felt insignificant because we were ignored, it is very likely we have carried this insecurity with us into adulthood and into any romantic relationship we form.

Many of us are often unaware of the basic shame that exists within us, because it comes so naturally to think self-critical thoughts about ourselves. Yet, shame from our past can heavily influence the degree to which we feel jealous and insecure in the present. In a serious relationship, real hurt from rejection or betrayal can trigger old feelings that there is something basically wrong with us.

In the same way, this inner critic turns on us, it also turns on those closest to us. When we notice ourselves fostering unwarranted suspicions or accusing our partners of being "distracted, rejecting, insensitive or cruel," it is important to consider how much of this is our real point of view and how much is a product of the coaching of our critical inner voice. Are these criticisms based on real events or actions? Are our unfavorable reactions disproportionate to the situation?

While real rejections do hurt, long-term harm is primarily caused by how our critical inner voice continues to criticize and influence us long after the incident is over. When we listen to destructive self-coaching that fuels our insecurity and distrust, we risk acting on our emotions to a degree that hurts both us and those close to us. Over time, we become less like the person we really are and more like the person our critical inner voice is defining us as.

For example, when we end up searching our partner's cell phone for suspicious texts or restricting our partner from having friends of the opposite sex, we may be acting on old self-doubt and mistrust that has nothing to do with current circumstances. Even if we do then find a text message from an ex in our partner's phone or hear that our partner hung out with an attractive co-worker at a company event, we may overreact in a way that neither we nor our partners are likely to respect.

Accepting these negative attacks and not challenging them can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy by creating actual distance between ourselves and our partners, pushing them further away from us, perhaps ultimately into another person's arms. Even when our "worst fears" are realized, no act of dishonesty or even infidelity should be used as evidence for the attacks our critical inner voice has been leveling against us.

Understanding the roots, triggers and reasons for our feelings of jealousy is an important part of maintaining a healthy relationship. To do this, we must be aware of the critical inner voices driving our uncertainties and self-doubt. If we can identify these thoughts, we can challenge them as the "smiling enemies" they are, the ones that want us to wind up alone. We can act against the thoughts that tell us to be suspicious, mistrusting and accusatory.

Though challenging these thoughts may initially make us anxious and may even intensify the voice attacks in the short run, in the long run it will strengthen us as individuals and improve our trust and communication with our partners. The more we weaken this internal enemy, the more we strengthen a positive sense of self. This will enable us to accept the reality that we are loved and reject the misperception that we are going to be betrayed. And if there were an infidelity, we would be much better able to get through it if we weren't letting our critical inner voice get the better of us.

To read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone on relationships visit PsychAlive -- Alive to Intimacy

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