Jealousy and the Duet of Love

Love without compassion is possessive, controlling, and dangerous.

Posted Oct 16, 2019

“Harmony” is an appealing combination of elements in a whole. In music, it's an arrangement of sounds pleasing to the ear. Relationship harmony is more about emotional tone and atmosphere than expressions of love or specific behaviors. It’s about both partners thriving and growing into the best musicians they can be.

That’s easier said than done, of course. The love that brings us together in beautiful harmony can so easily tear us apart in awful cacophony.

Most people ride into committed relationships on powerful waves of affection and intimacy—they marry for love. That’s the easy part. Alas, love is more effective at bringing us together than keeping us together. You’ve heard the saying, "Love is easy; relationships are hard." The truth is, relationships are hard because love is easy.

The ease with which love comes upon us creates an illusion of certainty, which determines what the brain processes and what it ignores. Love makes us project our best perceptions onto loved ones. We focus on what we like, while pretty much ignoring what we don’t like. Until the bonding hormones that bring us together begin to wane. That’s when criticism starts. Jealousy soon follows.

Simple Jealousy Regulates Distance

Simple jealousy starts as a feeling of discomfort at the prospect of losing reward or affection to someone else. It motivates reward/affection-seeking behavior—you try to be more cooperative, helpful, or loving, and that usually gets a positive response sufficient to alleviate the discomfort.

Simple jealousy first emerges in toddlerhood, typically when the child witnesses parents showing affection to each other or to another child. The toddler at first squeezes between the embracing adults and tries to be as cute and lovable as possible. The arrival of a sibling often causes regression to things like bedwetting and less mature speech. Regression is, in part, an attempt to seem more lovable to the distracted parents: "I can do that, too."

A little jealousy is good for a relationship. Most people would not want a lover who couldn't care less if they slept with everyone on the men's and women's hockey teams. But even simple jealousy must be limited to small doses. Think of it as a concentrated acid that needs lots of dilution to be effective without doing harm.

Simple jealousy functions as a kind of distance-regulator. When the partners drift apart, the pang of jealousy motivates more attention and connecting behavior.

The Green-Eyed Monster: Complex Jealousy

When the parties cannot reconnect, simple jealousy fails to function. Once resentment takes over the relationship and systematically blocks connection, simple jealousy turns into something more complex and insidious.

In complex jealousy, the prospect of loss feels like punishment; you become smaller and less valuable, because it feels like someone is manipulating or betraying you.

Complex jealousy motivates attack, either overtly or in your head. It makes you devalue and try to control others, which invariably makes things worse.

Simple Jealousy Expresses Value; Complex Jealousy Drives You Crazy
Simple jealousy raises the value of the loved one—you want more of him or her. Complex jealousy devalues the loved one—you want to control, punish, or avoid.

Rising and falling on the ebb and flow of intense feelings-states, complex jealousy has a Jekyll & Hyde quality. When you feel close to your partner, you can't imagine ever feeling jealous—"How could I have thought those ugly things," or, "He is so wonderful, how could I ever imagine he'd betray me!" But once the feelings of closeness ebb, the obsessions return, and you feel and act like a completely different person.

Complex jealousy is obsessive—you can't stop thinking about incidents—real or imagined—that invoke it. Obsessions impair reality-testing. If they persist, you can become paranoid, delusional, or hallucinatory.

Disarming Complex Jealousy

1. Don't trust obsessions.

They greatly distort reality. If you can't stop thinking about your partner flirting with someone else, you must distrust your thought process. The longer obsessive thinking goes on, the more certain you feel, and the more likely you're wrong.

2. Regulate core hurts.

The primary component of complex jealousy is self-diminishment—you feel unlovable and inadequate as an intimate partner. These "core hurts" give rise to obsessions: If, in my heart, I don't believe that I am worthy of love, how can I believe someone who says (he or) she loves me? I will assume that she doesn't know the real me, or wants something else from me, like my money. Because I cannot possibly be enough for her, I will look for "clues" that she's seeking fulfillment somewhere else.

And as many studies have shown, whatever the brain looks for, it will find.

When attacked by this painful feeling of unworthiness, before it stimulates a cycle of obsessions and revenge motives, ask yourself out loud:

"What can I do to feel more lovable and adequate?"

Just uttering the words will make it clear that devaluing, belittling, hassling, or punishing your loved one is unlikely to make you feel like a lovable and adequate partner.

To feel worthy of love and adequate as an attachment figure, begin by trying as hard as you can to see the world through your partner's eyes and to feel what it's like in his or her shoes. Appreciate that your partner may feel unlovable and inadequate as well. Think of what you can do to help you both feel more worthy of love.

3. Focus on compassion, not trust.

If you suffer from complex jealousy, you don't have the confidence to trust. Focus on compassion for yourself and your loved one. Compassion is sympathy for core hurts, with a motivation to heal, improve, appreciate, connect, or protect. Trust will eventually return, after a long period of self-compassion and compassion for loved ones. But it will fall apart almost immediately if you try to trust without a great deal of sustained compassion.

4. Follow the self-correcting motivation of simple jealousy.

Be more compassionate, supportive, cooperative, and loving. Be mindful of the assets your partner brings to the relationship. Think of what you can do at this moment to make the relationship stronger. That will lead you to the duet of love.

The Duet of Love

In a musical duet, both musicians can make beautiful music on their own. But together they can do something greater than either of them can do alone—make harmony.

Think of a violin and cello duet. The violin doesn’t change its tonality to suit the cello, and the cello doesn’t sell out its cellohood for the sake of the violin. The harmony of the duet comes from the differently pitched instruments resonating together while retaining the beauty of their individuality.

Harmony rises from partners attuned to their deepest values, including compassion and kindness for each other. The foundation of relationship harmony is frequent notes of compassion and kindness.

When both partners focus on compassion and kindness, they eliminate complex jealousy and achieve relationship harmony.