His Jealous Heart

Advice on a jealous partner—one who gets abnormally agitated.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published on January 1, 2004 - last reviewed on September 22, 2006

I feel relieved that other women out there are struggling
with the same problem I have: a jealous boyfriend. However, I am also
confused, sad and frustrated. I love my boyfriend very much and feel
truly connected to him on many levels. We talk about our future
together and have made tentative plans to get married. Despite the
warmth and tenderness we share, our relationship is tortured by his
frequent bouts of jealousy. I am deeply committed to my boyfriend and
do not entice the attention of other men. However, he becomes
abnormally agitated any time I greet a member of the opposite sex. He
criticizes my natural openness and friendliness and my clothing,
although I always dress professionally. He always thinks I am "checking
out" other men. He admits he has a problem with this. Some
insignificant situation will completely set him off. One moment we are
sitting at an awards ceremony for his colleagues, the next he is
accusing me of having an interest in one of them because he thought I
clapped more for one than the others. How can I deal more effectively
with this problem?

Jealousy is a very common issue in relationships, and the problems
it presents are not easy to resolve. Jealousy has deep roots, often
enough in the reliability, or lack thereof, of parental attention and
affection early in life, sometimes in actual later experiences of loss of
or rejection by a loved one. Both kinds of experience can breed enduring
insecurity in relationships and undermine the capacity for trust.

At least at first, jealousy in a partner can feel good. It can make
you feel wanted and appealing. But as you are discovering, it quickly
becomes a prison, and a potentially dangerous one at that, drastically
restricting your freedom, putting you under a constant cloud of suspicion
and making you feel defensive about innocent interactions. Jealousy is
commonly the driving force behind psychological, verbal and even physical

Jealousy ignites fear of loss and rejection, feelings of
inferiority—in other words, it is a sign that a person feels
threatened. In emotional panic over threatened loss, some people do
dangerous things. The fear makes them actually misperceive innocent
social situations, viewing every glance or conversation with an outsider
as absolute proof of abandonment. Then they feel tremendous anger over
what they see as a betrayal.

Though jealousy often incites aggression, it arises from a sense of
personal weakness, not of strength. It occurs because a person fears
losing a partner and relationship that is important to his (or her) sense
of self. Abuse becomes an attempt to eliminate doubt.

Your friend means it when he says he loves you. But the fear of
abandonment sets off such primitive alarms that he goes into an emotional
panic. It isn’t your openness or your dress style that sets him
off. It’s his demand for complete possession that is making him act
so irrationally.

Without rubbing his nose in the emotional frenzy he works himself
into, try talking calmly to your boyfriend and take a stab at joint
problem solving. You might be able to effect some change. Of course, the
middle of a jealous tirade is no time for the kind of conversation you
need. And whatever you do, avoid argument and don’t get defensive
about your own behavior.

You might tell your boyfriend that there are some things that you
do that obviously get him upset. And you don’t like upsetting him
any more than he likes being upset. Ask him what behavior of yours
bothers him most. Is it talking to any other male? Is it worrying about
who you are talking to at work? Focus, for now, on just one

Tell him in a kind and loving way how his reactions make you feel.
How they scare you, how restrictive they feel, and keep you from getting
your job done or from feeling you can have an everyday life.

Then jointly—the key is jointly—create a set of rules
that you can both live by, rules about your behavior in such a situation
that will satisfy both you and him. Be creative—you did say this is
a relationship you want to save. If he feels that he has some control
over the situation, it may avert a volcanic eruption next time.

You aren’t going to solve the problem completely in one
discussion, or in 10. You will have to revisit this issue often and keep
moving the boundary until he feels comfortable with normal behavior on
your part. And it won’t be easy under the best of circumstances.
But you will learn an important message: that love doesn’t
automatically solve all of life’s problems, although over time,
with a great deal of patience and understanding from you, his worst fears
can be subdued. If he is worth keeping, it is worth taking the first step
down the path to change.