It is common to be occasionally jealous of a close romantic partner. A simple conversation may cause worry that something lingers beneath the polite veneer; normally, it is easy to dismiss such fears, confident that one's partner is faithful, and that suspicion is unwarranted. Extreme or "morbid" jealousy, however, can be problematic. Sufferers may become preoccupied with the possibility that a partner is cheating, triggering a vicious cycle of suspicion that leads to incorrect conclusions. They may start to act in ways that cause real relationship problems, and only further inflaming their doubts.
If you or a partner struggles with morbid jealousy, your beliefs about your relationship, and about relationships in general, can be challenged and ultimately changed, thanks to new research on addressing and healing jealous thoughts and behavior.
Psychotherapists, marriage and family therapists, and couples counselors frequently encounter jealousy problems in their clients, typically seeing the problem as a symptom of a troubled relationship. But few studies address the identification and treatment of morbid jealousy. As a result, clinicians must rely on general therapeutic guidelines when treating clients, rather than being able to turn to empirically-tested approaches. In their article titled, fittingly enough, “Taming the Green-Eyed Monster,” Sheffield (England) psychologists Stephen Kellett and Peter Totterdell have tackled the issue of how to adapt known therapeutic approaches to the problem of morbid jealousy.
Prior to their research, a few studies had tested the efficacy of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for the morbidly jealous. CBT involves teaching individuals first to identify the dysfunctional thought patterns that trigger their jealousy and then to develop strategies to prevent those thoughts from taking over their emotional lives. Kellett and Totterdell decided to put CBT to a more rigorous test, developing the first controlled study to evaluate its effectiveness. They also compared CBT with a more psychodynamically-oriented approach called cognitive analytic therapy (CAT). In CAT, clinicians use what happens in therapy (such as the client being afraid the therapist will abandon her) as a way to provide additional insight into the client’s unduly jealous thought patterns. CAT also focuses on underlying issues that people bring into all their relationships, such as fear of abandonment or of feeling inadequate.
Using what’s called a “single-case experimental design (SCED),” Kellett and Totterdell compared two married women in their responses to CBT and CAT; one was assigned to CBT and the other to CAT. Although there is only one client per treatment method, the clients provide highly detailed data consisting of their thought patterns on a daily basis, as well as the responses of their partners. The experimental aspect of the method involves comparing the problematic jealous thoughts during and after treatment with extensive follow-up.
We will see the study's results shortly.
First, however, let’s see how you compare to the two clients on the key morbid jealousy symptoms.
The five daily target symptoms of morbid jealousy that these clients believed to be their main problem included:
- feeling jealous;
- watching and observing a partner (“hypervigilance”);
- acting out jealousy (“disinhibition”);
- being anxious; and
- having low self-esteem.
These are fairly typical feelings associated with high levels of jealousy. Adding to the study's value, the researchers also involved the partners of the two women, asking each to rate how much their wife was acting jealous and whether they felt their wives were being overly controlling (such as demanding to know where they were at all times).
The two women rated how often they had these thoughts and feelings on a daily basis on a 1-9 scale, and rated their self-esteem from 1 (“rubbish”) to 9 (“great”). At the end of each day, the clients and their partners recorded their ratings and reflected on the day overall. They were encouraged not to speak to each other about their ratings nor to use the ratings “in an aggressive manner” to get back at each other.
The treatment took place over 13 sessions following a three-week assessment phase. Each client had a so-called “formulation” of her jealousy, consisting of a diagram mapping out which interactions and thoughts seemed to create the most problems for her. These diagrams served as the guide to therapy. (This was an important point. There is no one-size-fits-all treatment for jealousy; each couple’s dynamics are specific to their personalities and relationship.)
The findings showed that the two therapy methods had different effects on the clients and their partners. Both were effective in reducing symptoms of jealousy (CAT somewhat more so from a statistical point of view), and both alleviated the clients' feelings of distress. The husband of the CBT-treated client felt less controlled after therapy ended, but the CAT-treated partner noticed no changes in jealousy.
There was no control group of women who received no interventions in this study, and the peculiarities of each woman's specific personality may have played a role in the progress of therapy, not to mention the characteristics of her husband. Nevertheless, the study provides an excellent basis for addressing extreme jealousy in you or your partner, summed up in these six steps:
- Identify the situations most likely to trigger your jealous feelings. Is it when you’re out at social occasions, or when one of you is away due to a job or other outside responsibilities? Do you become most likely to have jealous thoughts when you’re having a bad day? Make a list of the situations that trigger your suspiciousness, hypervigilance, or self-doubts.
- Reflect on the thoughts you have that seem to lead you to feel the most jealous. CBT focuses on being able to identify your “automatic thoughts,” the almost unconscious and instantaneous conclusions you jump to, such as “I am unlovable.”
- Connect your thoughts with your emotions. Telling yourself you are unlovable is almost guaranteed to make you feel depressed. Recognize that your emotions follow from those automatic, dysfunctional thoughts, and you are then ready to move on to changing them.
- Challenge your thoughts and beliefs. If your jealousy is being maintained by your erroneous convictions, then it is time to change those convictions. By conducting thought experiments, you can show just how wrong those convictions actually are. Maybe you think that you need to be on the alert for signs of his or her unfaithfulness, or else something bad will happen. Try not being on the alert and then see what happens; chances are your ominous predictions will not come true.
- Put a stop to jealous behaviors. Try not to enact the controlling and suspicious behavior associated with your jealousy. For example, see what happens if you don’t voice your jealous concerns to your partner after he or she is gone for (what you think is) longer than the usual time at work. In the past, your accusations would perhaps have triggered anger and defensiveness in your partner. When you stop making those accusations, your partner should not feel as over-controlled and you will be less likely to have a conflict.
- Focus on the underlying issues in your feelings about relationships. CAT takes into account the underlying issues, such as abandonment and feelings of inferiority that you carry into your relationships. For example, if you are constantly fearful that your partner will abandon you, this fans the flames of distrust, increasing your feelings of anxiety and jealousy. Identifying your trigger points can help stave off those self-doubts and anxious ruminations.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013.
Kellett, S., & Totterdell, P. (2013). Taming the green‐eyed monster: Temporal responsivity to cognitive behavioural and cognitive analytic therapy for morbid jealousy. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 86, 52-69. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8341.2011.02045.x