Like many family therapists, I regard unpleasant behaviors as solutions. I'm wary of confusing a mistaken pattern of actions and reactions with a "personality." I much prefer to use the guideline, "A symptom is a solution." The therapist's task then becomes to help the client to understand what the problem is that this symptom, such as jealousy in a relationship, is a solution to.
By believing that symptoms are solutions, family therapists see their clients as problem-solvers. The therapist's job is to help the client first to clarify what underlying problem needs to be addressed. Therapist and client then together explore alternatives that could offer a more effective plan of action.
This article looks at how this concept of symptoms as solutions has guided my treatment strategy with clients whose presenting problems included distressing feelings of jealousy.
Clinical strategy for treating jealousy by regarding the symptom as a solution
To find what the problem is to which a symptom is a solution, I invite my client, "Close your eyes." Closed eyes enable people to focus inward.
I ask then the forward-looking question, "If you look at your jealousy in the best possible light, what is the jealousy intended to accomplish?"
This best possible light question clarifies the triggering dilemma. Once we know what concern the "solution" of jealousy is meant to address, we can work together to create new options for solving the problem.
Jealousy in general erupts from a crisis in trust. The trust may be distrust of others, or of oneself.
When I ask clients who have been plagued by jealous feelings the "best possible light" question posed above, the responses tend to fall in three baskets. The distrust of others and/or of oneself that is experienced as jealousy usually serves the goals of projection, protection, and competition.
Carla felt intensely jealous mistrust of the women in Lenny's business. When she'd mention her distrust and angst about the women he worked with to her husband, Lenny would feel unjustly accused and erupt in angry self-defense. Carla acknowledged that her jealous feelings, in fact, were prompting increasing arguments between them, arguments with potential to drive Lenny into just the kind of amorous affair with another woman that she feared.
I asked Carla the symptoms-are-a-solution question, "If you look at your jealousy in the best possible light, what is it intended to accomplish?"
Carla thought for some time. She then grimaced ruefully. "The truth is, I have been feeling sexually aroused by a new colleague at my office. That's brought up fears that maybe Lenny has similar feelings about one of the women at his business. Or that they have sexual impulses toward him. My jealousy motivates me to keep checking that he's not being unfaithful, and to warn him that affairs can happen when people aren't careful. But I see now it's me that needs the warning, not him. I distrust myself, and that's why I distrust my husband and the women in his office."
Carla thought a moment more. "My jealousy also serves to distract Lenny so he won't notice that I'm having sexual feelings toward someone that's not him. I hate to admit it, but I can see now that it's my sexual feelings, not his, that have gone out of bounds."
"So your jealousy," I verified, "is a projection onto Lenny and the women at his office of sexual feelings that actually are within you? And the jealous accusations serve to distract Lenny so he won't pick up the scent of your interest in someone else? So now that we understand what the jealous feelings are meant to accomplish, what might be an alternative, hopefully more effective and less costly, solution?"
Carla thought at length. Her answer impressed me. "Flirting with this new fellow has potential to ruin my marriage. I love Lenny, and besides, we have three kids. The last thing I want to do is to let titillating sexual feelings toward someone at work ruin my family. OK, I'm done with it. No more private chats. No more sexual fantasies about the guy. I'll focus my head back on work if thoughts of him come up when I'm at work, and I'll totally minimize my actual contact with him. And at home, I'll super-focus back on enjoying Lenny and the kids."
Ginny was racked with jealousy when her husband would talk with other women at parties. He was very attractive, seductive even, which was part of what Ginny found so exciting about him. Would they have to cease going to social events though? Jealousy, and the distrust on which it was based, felt so painful. The after-party arguments were dreadful.
Part of the problem with parties also was that Ginny increasingly distrusted Joe's friends, who were mostly single and similarly flirtatious.
I asked Ginny the symptoms-are-a-solution question, "If you look at your jealousy in the best possible light, what is it intended to accomplish?"
"My jealousy is warning me that husband really does flirt inappropriately for a married man. Instead of getting mad at him, or even jealous, I need to sit down and have a quiet respectful talk with him. Joe's friends are still single. He's the first of them to get married. I don't think he gets it that he's not one of the guys in the pack anymore. His father never got it, and as a result is going on his fourth wife."
Ginny paused then continued, "I think Joe and I really need to clarify if he wants to be married. If not, I'd rather leave him than have children with him and then have him leave us like his dad has left his wives and kids. Funny, I feel a sense of calm now. I have a plan."
Sherwood and George were brothers, both in their young adult years. Sherwood's jealousy of George had begun when their dad once mentioned how much he had enjoyed a recent afternoon of hiking with George.
"Dad never hikes with me," Sherwood had thought. "And George is more fun than I am. He makes Dad laugh, which just isn't something I can do."
I asked Sherwood the forward-looking question, "If you look at your jealousy in the best possible light, what is it intended to accomplish?"
"Hmmm," Sherwood mused. Maybe my jealousy is alerting me to the fact that I'm competing with George for Dad's affections, and George is winning. I want Dad to love me. And I don't trust either that he does, or that I merit his love."
"What might be a more effective way to go about winning your Dad's affection than getting stuck in the jealous feeling?"
"OK," Sherwood admitted. "You mean maybe I could be thinking about what I can do to build a better relationship with Dad instead of dwelling so zealously on my jealousy?"
"Sounds good to me," I responded. "And I like your way with words."
Sherwood smiled. "Dad and I both love words. He also loves music, and so do I. He's not a very good guitarist, but I'll start inviting him to join when my friends and I have a jam session. Maybe he and I could even work together on writing some songs ... and make a recording of them as a Mother's Day present for Mom. Dad would really love that."
"So I get it. Instead of comparing myself to what Sherwood does better than me, I can look at myself, trust what I see that's special that I can offer Dad, and do more of it."
"You've got it," I replied with pleasure.
The moral of the stories
Distrust feeds jealousy. The goal of jealousy is usually to sustain a relationship that you treasure when you distrust yourself and/or others to act in a manner that will keep that relationship strong.
Do try out the "If you look at your _______ in the best possible light ..." question on a counter-productive habit or feeling that you have been having. For more explanation and examples of this remarkably potent technique, see Prescription #2.9, #3.4, #3.5, #3.9 and #5.4 in my book Prescriptions Without Pills.
A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D., is author of multiple books including From Conflict to Resolution for therapists and The Power of Two, which, along with her website poweroftwomarriage.com, teaches the skills for relationship success. Learn more about managing negative emotions like anger and depression in Dr. Heitler's most recent book, Prescriptions Without Pills.