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Advice: His Jealous Heart

How to subdue his worst fears.

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 abuse.

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 behavior.

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.