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Romantic Jealousy

How to recognize where jealousy comes from and how to cope with it.

The Shadow of Love

"I found myself sitting curled up in the bushes, following every movement seen through the curtains in her lit-up window. I knew her boyfriend was there, and the knowledge caused me excruciating pain. It was a cold winter night, and once in a while it would drizzle. I said to myself: "I know I am a sane, well-adjusted, responsible adult. What in the world is happening to me? Have I totally lost my mind?" And yet, I continued sitting in those bushes for hours. I didn't leave until the light in the window was gone. A force larger than myself held me hypnotized to the light and to her. I have never in my life felt so close to madness."

"Although I knew that our relationship was over, I still had very strong feeling towards him. Then, one day, I saw him at the corner store we used to shop at when we lived together. He was with this bleached-blond chick--the kind who spends hours choosing her outfit, perfectly applies her heavy makeup, sprays every hair on her head in just the right place. I knew that I looked like a bag lady; my nose was red from a cold, my hair was unwashed and greasy. I think I simply went mad. I went up to him, kicked him in the groin, snapped the hat he was holding in his hand and ran outside. I went to his car--which for some reason he left unlocked--and started crying uncontrollably. I've never cried like that in my life. I felt I was going out of my mind."

Both people in these paragraphs are describing powerful experiences that have several things in common. They are extreme and unusual, involve loss of control, and result in a sense of going mad--three prominent features of romantic jealousy.

Most people describe jealousy as an extremely painful, "crazy" feeling. A woman who participated in one of my workshops said that jealousy was the most painful thing she had ever experienced: "I tried everything in an attempt to gain some control over it, but nothing works. I don't think I can live with this pain much longer." Even when people who experience extreme jealousy have enough self control not to resort to actual acts of violence, they often fantasize about it. A woman whose estranged husband started dating her best friend said: "I have daydreams in which I go into her apartment with a sledgehammer and start destroying things-- furniture, records, windows. I can virtually hear the glass breaking. These fantasies have a way of calming me down, even if I know I will never carry them out."

For most of us, even if jealousy produces tremendous pain and distress, it remains an inner experience that does not cross the boundary into violent action. But anyone who has experienced intense jealousy is well aware of its power and potential destructiveness.

Jealousy is a reaction to a perceived threat--real or imagined--to a valued relationship or to its quality. A nationwide survey of marriage counselors indicates that jealousy is a problem in one third of all couples coming for marital therapy. This helps explain our fascination with stories about the wild things some people are driven to do. One middle-aged wife whose husband left her for a younger woman kidnapped her rival at gunpoint, shaved her head, stripped her naked, covered her with tar and feathers, and released her at the city dump. The story was repeated over and over again--with great delight--by women who identified with the revenge of the deposed wife. Is jealousy a form of madness, then?

Jealousy lies somewhere in the gray area between sanity and madness. Some jealous reactions are so natural that a person who doesn't show them seems in some way "not normal." Others seem so excessive that one doesn't need to be an expert to know that they are pathological. A classic example is the man who is suspicious of his loving and faithful wife that he constantly spies on her, listens in on her phone conversations, records the mileage in her car for unexplained trips--and despite her repeatedly proven fidelity continues to suspect her and suffer from tremendous jealousy.

It is important to differentiate "normal" from "delusional" jealousy. Normal jealousy has its basis in a real threat to the relationship; delusional jealousy persists despite the absence of any real or even probable threat.

The good news is this: By recognizing the signs of romantic jealousy, by realizing what feelings are normal and abnormal, and by examining the roots of our jealous feelings, we can effectively learn to cope with it by changing our behavior. Believe it or not, like other difficult emotional experiences, jealousy can be a trigger for growth, increased self-awareness, and greater understanding of both your partner and your relationship.

Whatever it is that draws two lovers to each other will create the character of the jealousy they may experience. Let me demonstrate this statement by an exercise. Think back to the time you first met or got to know your mate and try to recall as best you can the way you felt. What was it that most attracted you? What was it that made you think (right away, or at some point later) that this was the person with whom you wanted to share your life? What was the most important thing the relationship gave you? A feeling of security? Of being respected and listened to? Of being desired or adored?

Now switch back to the present and consider the primary component of your jealousy--the most painful thoughts and feelings associated with your jealousy or that of your mate. Is it a fear of being abandoned? Humiliation and loss of face? Loss of self-esteem?

The third part of this exercise is the most challenging, and the most significant. Think: Could there be some connection between the things that the relationship gave you initially and the primary components of your jealousy? For example, a woman who fell in love with her husband because he made her feel she had "finally come home" to a safe and secure place described the most painful aspect of her jealousy as "feeling abandoned and all alone."

The opposite example is the woman who fell in love with her husband because he made her the center of his world. After 20 years of marriage she wanted a divorce because his jealousy was suffocating her. Her husband fell in love with her because she was beautiful--the kind of woman he only dared dream about as a shy adolescent. His jealousy focused on his feelings of inferiority and insecurity.

Why is it so important to note the connection between what attracted us to our mate--the most valuable thing the relationship gave us initially--and the primary components of our jealousy? Because it proves that jealousy is indeed the shadow of love. Furthermore, it's a reminder that we didn't just happen to be in this relationship--we chose to be in it. Something in us attracted us to our mate. Something in us makes us experience jealousy the way we do. That something is our romantic image.

Psychologists have spent a great deal of time studying who falls in love with whom. They have discovered similarity between couples across a wide range of variables including family background, education, religious affiliation, happiness of parents' marriage, tendency to be a lone wolf or socially gregarious, preference to stay at home or be on the go, number of friends, intelligence, attractiveness, etc. Even if you and your mate are similar in several of the traits mentioned in the list, you probably still feel that these were not the real reasons you fell in love. Yet after you made your choice, these were the things that told you that your choice was right. Your emotional choice--the spark you felt--was based on your internalized romantic image.

We develop this image very early in life, based on powerful experiences we had during childhood. Our parents and other adults involved in raising us influence the development of our romantic image in two ways: the way they express, or don't express, love toward us; and the way they express, or don't express, love toward each other.

Think back to the earliest time in your life you can remember. Who took care of you? Who taught you the meaning of love? Try to remember as much as you can about these people--not the way they are now, but the way you experienced them in your childhood. What were their most important characteristics, both good and bad? What was the most notable characteristic of their relationship with each other? What's the most important thing they gave you? What was the thing you most wanted but didn't get? Were they unfaithful to each other? Were they jealous?

The positive and negative features of the people who raised us are the building blocks for our romantic images, and while they can be influenced by the people who reared us, there is an important difference between their negative and positive traits. The negative traits tend to have more influence on our romantic image. The reason for this is that these are traits with which we still have "unfinished business."

As adults we look for a person who will fit our romantic image in a significant way. When we meet such a person, we project our internalized image onto him or her. This is why, when we fall in love, we often say, "I feel as if I've known you all my life." This is also why we are so often surprised after the infatuation is over--as if we didn't see the person, only the projection of our own romantic image.

The person who fits our romantic image is also the person who is best able to help us work through our childhood traumas. While it would seem to make sense for the woman whose father was unfaithful to look for a man who is sure to be faithful, this is not what usually happens. A woman like this most often falls in love with playboys just like her father--not because she needs to repeat her childhood trauma, but because only a man who resembles her father can give her what she didn't get from him. The paradox is that she marries such a man because he resembles her father, yet what she wants most desperately is for him not to behave the way her father did. She wants him--a sexy, flirtatious man with women always flocking around him--to be a faithful husband and give her the security she didn't get as a child.

The effects of a romantic image are not always that direct and straightforward. A boy who witnessed his mother's unfaithfulness may choose to marry a woman whose most redeeming quality is her faithfulness. How will he then be able to "work" on his childhood trauma? By suspecting his faithful wife of infidelity. The repeated proof of her innocence helps heal his wound. It shows that, unlike his father, he is number one with his wife.

Most of us have some unresolved conflicts we carry from our childhood. We experience these conflicts as vulnerabilities, insecurities, or fears. When we fall in love and our love is reciprocated, these vulnerabilities, fears, and insecurities seem to vanish. We are loved despite our imperfections. We feel whole; we feel safe. But when this love is threatened, the fears and insecurities that we thought had gone forever come back in full force. If this person whom we love and adore--the person we thought loved us despite our flaws--is going to leave us for another, then there is no hope for us, ever! We no longer feel secure even in those things we previously loved in ourselves. As glowing as the love was, so dark is the shadow of its possible loss.

Yet jealousy need not be the green-eyed monster that destroys people and relationships. Recognizing it as the shadow of love gives couples an opportunity to examine two key questions:

o What is the essence of your love? What was it that attracted you to each other initially and what is the most important thing the relationship has given each one of you?

o What is the shadow that your love casts when threatened? What is the threat or the loss that the jealous person is responding to?

As we move with awareness into the core of our jealousy, we discover ungrounded expectations, projections, envy, loss of self-esteem, infantile fears and insecurities. These are not "nice" discoveries. In fact, they may be so unpleasant that some people will try hard to avoid them. In order to solve a jealousy problem, however, a much more effective approach is an open and honest examination of the issues involved. Such an examination can do more than help relieve the jealous person's perceived threat. It can also help enhance the relationship and deepen both mates' commitment to each other.

One of the most common questions of people with a jealousy problem is: Can jealousy be overcome? The answer is yes, but with great effort. Like most other difficult emotional experiences, jealousy, if treated correctly, can be a trigger for growth. It can become the first step in increased self-awareness and greater understanding both of your mate and of the relationship.

In a jealousy crisis, you first need to determine what is at the heart of your jealousy. Is it fear of loss? Is it a feeling of humiliation? Is it feeling excluded? Is it something else? What is the most painful thought associated with your jealousy: Does it hurt you to know that your wife had a wonderful time with someone else, and you were excluded? Do you feel humiliated because your husband has flirted all night with a stunning woman, and everyone at the party saw it? Or do you feel terrible pain of loss because you know you have lost your mate's love and the relationship? While feeling excluded is no doubt painful, it is not as painful as losing a love relationship. People who don't bother to clarify what hurts them most can respond to a trivial incident as if they have lost the relationship.

Once you've identified the focus of your jealousy, you need to figure out why you are responding the way you are. Is it a result of your sensitivity to the subject, or a result of a real threat to the relationship? After you've clarified for yourself what exactly you are experiencing and why, you can proceed to examine your different options for coping.

One such option is the behavioral approach, which, as its name implies, focuses on observable behavior. Behaviorists assume that the causes for and solutions to a jealousy problem exist in the current environment, even if the jealousy-triggering event happened at another time and place. To behaviorists, all psychological problems are a result of inappropriate learning and can be unlearned and replaced with a new (and better) response.

Desensitization is one of the techniques behavior therapists use to treat jealousy. The process includes several steps. First, you are asked to make a list of the things that cause you jealousy and rank them according to the amount of jealousy they trigger in you. Second, you are taught to progressively relax different parts of your body. Third, you are trained to remain relaxed as you imagine the different items on your list. You start by imagining the item at the bottom of the list, the one that triggers least jealousy in you. Once you are able to think about this item and remain relaxed, you are asked to imagine the next item on your list. If you can't remain relaxed while imagining it, you return to your relaxation exercises and then try again. This way, you gradually can learn to confront the triggers that produce the most extreme jealousy in you, and remain calm.

I use a variation of this exercise in jealousy workshops that involves revisiting your most intense experience of jealousy. Lie on the floor and make yourself as comfortable as possible. Imagine yourself in your favorite place; the day is sunny and you're relaxed and happy. Take a deep breath and imagine it bringing calm and comfort to every cell in your body. As you exhale, imagine all feelings of discomfort, tension, and pain leaving you. Concentrate on relaxing each part of your body separately, starting with your toes and moving up slowly to your face and head, until you feel completely relaxed.

Now flip through the pages of your personal history book until you reach the incident that triggered your most extreme jealousy. Try to remember as many details as you can about it. Who were the people involved? How did they look? What exactly happened? When? Where? What did you do in response? Don't try to escape the pain, the rage, the panic. Let them flood you. Stay with the pain for a minute, then take a deep breath, slowly bring your mind back to the present and sit up.

In workshops, the participants tell each other the details of their most intense experience of jealousy. If you do the exercise on your own, write down as many details of your experience as you are remembering. For a behavioral therapist, accumulating such details is an essential step of treatment.

The second part of this exercise starts the same way as the first. Imagine lying there, the sun warming you gently. The wonderful feeling of relaxation is back.

But this time, imagine that the sun is not only warming you, but also energizing and empowering you. You are feeling strong and in control. Time has passed since you experienced your most intense experience of jealousy, and during that time you've learned more about yourself, about relationships. You are wiser, more experienced, more powerful now. Feel your inner power and wisdom. Hold on to them as you would to a shield, a magic weapon.

Now you are ready to go back in time and revisit your most intense experience of jealousy. Imagine you've been given a chance to go back to that incident and relive it anyway you want. Remember that now you are armed with wisdom, experience, and power. What do you do? How do you respond this time? The same way you responded originally (because the experience taught you so much, despite the pain), or differently (the way you wished so many times you would have responded--cool, gracious, in complete control of yourself and of the situation)?

After you complete the guided fantasy, make sure to write down both your experiences and your insights. If you found yourself responding differently when you revisited the site of your most extreme jealousy, remember that the ability to respond in this new way is within you. The feelings of empowerment, of wisdom, of control, are a part of you. You can call them up at any time, even if this requires greater effort in times of stress.

A variation of this is called Physiologically Monitored Implosion Therapy (PMIT). Based on a well-known behavioral technique called "flooding," it has been used successfully in the treatment of phobias and posttraumatic-stress syndrome. In implosion therapy, patients are asked to imagine their worst fear or most-traumatic experience again and again until the fear is reduced. In PMIT, the therapist monitors the patient's blood pressure with an electronic instrument that records subtle changes. The patient talks about difficult situations, and the therapist keeps a tape recording of the scene the patient described just preceding a peak in blood pressure. This scene is the source of the problem. Repeated exposure to the recording reduces the power over the patient, and blood pressure gradually returns to normal.

Another version of implosion therapy is the "Dutch Cow" technique, in which the husband of a jealous wife, for instance, is instructed to call her every hour. This means that the wife must tell her husband where she would be every hour so he will know where to call her. (The technique is nicknamed "dutch cow" because the calls serve the same function as the bells the cows carry around their necks.) Eventually, it is hoped that the connection between the husband's absence and jealousy will be replaced with a connection between his phone calls and annoyance.

Another technique, called "pretend," involves having the jealous person behave as if he or she is not jealous. The underlying assumption--one of the basic assumptions of the behavioral approach--is that if a jealous person can control his jealous behavior and act in a non-jealous manner, he can learn to perceive himself as a non-jealous person.

In addition, behaving in a non-jealous manner is likely to evoke a more favorable response from the non-jealous partner. As systems therapists note, jealous behavior, with its attendant demands--interrogation, whining, and fault-finding--usually evokes a negative reaction from the partner. By behaving more reasonably and positively toward the partner, despite feelings to the contrary, couples can reverse their downward spiral of interaction.

The counterpart of the pretend technique is called "turning the tables," in which the non-jealous partner is instructed to act the part of the jealous partner.

Working it out together

In both the "pretend" and the "turning the tables" techniques, one spouse is instructed to behave differently (more like the other spouse) as a way of changing the dynamics surrounding a jealousy problem. The following exercise is aimed at getting both mates to work on a jealousy problem together.

Each of you will need three sheets of paper for this exercise. On top of the first page, write: "Behaviors that trigger my jealousy" or "Jealous behaviors that get on my nerves." Under this heading, if you are the jealous spouse, list all the things your mate does that trigger your jealousy; if you are the non-jealous spouse, list all the jealousy-related things your spouse does that make you feel angry, frustrated, caged, hurt. For example, an item on a jealous spouse's list may be: "When you're nauseatingly sweet to every woman on the street after being nasty to me." An item on the non-jealous spouse's list may be: "The fact that you get so suspicious about every woman I happen to bump into."

On top of the second page, write: "The needs at the base of my jealousy" or "The needs at the base of my annoyance." Under this second heading write the different needs at the heart of your jealousy or your annoyance. For example, at the heart of her jealousy triggered by seeing him get sweet to other women may be a need to feel special, to feel that you are his "one and only." At the heart of his anger at her suspicion may be a need for trust.

At the top of the third page, write: "Wishes." Under it write what your partner can do to fulfill your need. Don't ask for things that are too general, such as "make me feel special" or "show me that you trust me." Ask for specific and concrete things your mate is able to do, things that have special significance for you. For example, "Take me out for a romantic dinner." "Tell me that you trust me." Note that both examples are positive statements--things to do, not things to avoid. Note, too, that both examples involve observable behaviors, the focus of the behavioral approach.

After writing your lists of wishes, go over those lists and rank your requests in terms of their importance to you, (10=very important, 1=of minor importance.) For example, how important is it that your husband take you out for a romantic dinner? How important is it that your wife tell you that she trust you?

Once both of you have ranked your requests, exchange your lists, examine your spouse's wishes, and then rank them in terms of your difficulty in fulfilling them. How hard it is for you to tell your husband that your trust him? How difficult it is for you to take your wife out for a romantic dinner?

It is important to emphasize that requests are not demands and should never be expressed or understood as such. They are wishes. When your partner fulfills your wish, it's a gift and should be received that way.

If you have a jealousy problem you are trying to overcome, try to give each other at least three gifts every week. This probably will not be easy (if it were easy, you would have done it before). The things your partner asks for may be difficult for you to give. It may be difficult for you to look in your husband's eyes and tell him that you trust him when deep in your heart you don't (which is why you respond with jealousy when he is friendly to other women). You don't have to give presents you rated high in difficulty. Start with those you rated easier. As the relationship becomes more loving and trusting, you will find it easier to give your partner the more difficult gifts, too.

Finally, a note about assumptions. One of the most damaging in couple relationships is that something asked for is worthless ("If I have to ask for it, what kind of a gift is it?") Another is that the gifts your mate wants are the same things you want. The goal is to break free of these assumptions and give each other what you really want. This way both of you will get more rewards from the relationship. You may recall that getting as many rewards for the lowest possible cost is one of the goals of behavioral couple therapy.

The exercises here assume that both of you truly want to be rid of your jealousy problem. This assumption may or may not be true. It is possible that, despite all appearances to the contrary, the jealousy problem serves an important function in the relationship--a function you would rather not acknowledge. If this is the case, chances are that the coping strategies recommended here will not work, and you may want to get professional help at some point.

Nevertheless, exercises that give you an opportunity to learn about yourself and about each other, and that increase the number of rewards you give each other, can only help, and--like the relationship--deserve a good try.

From Romantic Jealousy: Understanding and Conquering the Shadow of Love, by Ayala M. Pines, Ph.D. Copyright (c) 1992 (St. Martins Press).