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Do You Understand the Jealousy in Your Relationship?

Understanding jealousy may offer information, reflection and unexpected healing.

Key points

  • Jealousy is a complex emotion with varied causes and different consequences.
  • Both men and women are jealous, but differently. Men are more jealous of sexual infidelity while women are more jealous of emotional infidelity.
  • The source of your jealousy may be personal or interpersonal depending on your sense of self and capacity to trust.
  • Jealousy can be constructive or destructive to your relationship—a symbol of love and desire, or a threat to stability and connection.

For as long as there have been men, women, and relationships, there has been jealousy: the fear of losing the person you love to a rival.

Romance and literature throughout the ages have extolled jealousy as the sign of true love.

“He that is not jealous, is not in love,” -St. Augustine.

They have also associated jealousy with pain, distrust, anger, and anguish.

“There is no greater glory than love, nor any greater punishment than jealousy,” -Lope de Vega.

In the actual lives of couples, jealousy is a complex emotion with varied causes and different consequences. While it can re-affirm love and even create enticement, it can also assault self-esteem, reflect betrayal, justify possessiveness, and cause violence.

Where does jealousy fit in your relationship? Is it experienced in a constructive or destructive way?

Recognizing Realities

According to David Buss in Why Jealousy Is as Necessary as Love and Sex, both men and women are wired to be jealous as a solution to the problem of reproduction and survival. Earliest man had to keep his partner from sexual activity with a rival to ensure ownership of offspring. Women physically “know” their own children (that’s for sure). They needed to keep their man’s attention and love from a rival to ensure protection and survival.

The modern translation seems to ring true. Buss found that in studies of men and women in sexually committed relationships, men reacted with more jealousy to sexual infidelity; women responded with more jealousy to emotional infidelity—the thought that their partner could “love” someone else is the most upsetting aspect of betrayal for women.

Cultural Anxieties

This is a culture that escalates jealousy and fear of the perfect rival through an endless bombardment of icons and images of hyped sexual perfection and opportunity. Set against the backdrop of high divorce rates, we are continually reminded that the things that belong to us are disposable and replaceable. “Not worth fixing!

Connection and Affirmation

In this cultural context, connection, as well as affirmation, become invaluable. In a workshop of many couples, everyone reacted to the vignette of the husband thumbing through a lingerie catalogue that had arrived in the mail and his wife’s reaction to his comment:

"Hey, some of this looks great. You should place an order."

"What looks so great? The girl, or what she is barely wearing?"

In processing this, it was immensely helpful for the women to hear many men in the large group affirm “Yes we like to look—but we love and want to be with our own partners.”

Understanding the Source

If you find that you are often feeling jealous about your partner but there seems no tangible reason that your partner has given to make you feel this way, you may want to self-reflect.

In her book, Mating in Captivity, Ester Perel suggests that too often we turn the focus on the object of our love rather than our own capacity to love.

  • Are you secure in your capacity to love your partner in a way that makes both you and your partner feel loved, liked, desirable and secure?
  • Are you threatened about the connection your partner has with work friends, neighbors, or athletic teammates?
  • Is your worry driven by your own feelings of self-criticism, boredom, or discontent?
  • Are you overly fatigued since the baby, lonely after retirement, isolated from working from home? Does your partner know?

It is understandable that all of the above may lower your confidence and increase your possessive worry about losing your partner to another.

When a partner is not the sole source of affirmation—when you are able to feel support from friends, get a consultation from a professional, or generally re-engage with activities in your own life, there is often a positive emotional translation to a sense of self that changes your feelings about you and your partner.

Something is Wrong!

While most of us have a built-in denial of the possibility that someone we love could be betraying us, it is sometimes hard to ignore the persistent feeling that “something is just not right,” and that “someone” is between you.

  • Some People React Indirectly: They use avoidance, negative digs, criticism about other things, even competitive flirting—none of which invites clarity or more closeness with the partner.
  • Some Gather Evidence And Outside Supporters: They try to ease the fear of loss. This is understandable, as people often need a sounding board; but oversharing with many people can complicate the reality and the bond you need to examine and possibly re-build.
  • Some Decide To Use Their Suspicion As A Point Of Information: They move in to reclaim the relationship and the intimacy. Sometimes, without too much said, their proactive efforts to involve the other, plan something different, etc., bring a reciprocal positive response. If the relationship regains life, they don’t look back. It does happen.
  • Most Confront the Partner: Confronting a partner with your suspicions and concerns can be frightening and disruptive. Some warn that if you don’t want the answer—don’t ask the question.

In terms of authentic relating and healing, however, it is usually in the best interest of both to clarify reality.

Confronting the Source of Jealousy

  • When confronting is done as a screaming accusation, it offers little besides making your partner a victim.
  • When confronting is met with stonewalling and deceit from a partner, it is a matter of time before you make the decision to do something or live in an unhappy way.
  • When jealousy is the collateral damage of a partner’s earlier betrayal, confronting it again can be a source of pain and contention for both or an opportunity to remind each other of what is different now, what was learned, and what amends were made.
  • When confronting makes dialogue possible, it can be a step toward evaluating, repairing, or rebuilding the bond.
Woman Jealous of Couple
Source: Highwaystarz/iStockphoto

When is Jealousy Destructive?

However stirred, when jealousy becomes obsessive vigilance and threatening possessiveness that keeps you and your partner from living in a free and healthy way, it is toxic to any relationship.

  • If your partner has no freedom to choose to be with you—you don’t have a partner, you have a prisoner.
  • If you can’t help endlessly checking-up on your partner, you are not relating—you are stalking.
  • If, on the other hand, you continue to betray your partner while accusing him/her of jealousy—take stock of your need to be falsely connected at the cost of hurting everyone else.
  • If you are staying in a relationship built on fear of loss to a rival, the relationship may have little to do with love and much more to do with a lack of real connection and happiness.

Professional help and outside support are necessary and crucial resources for both partners.

When is Jealousy Constructive?

That stir of pride and possessiveness you feel when you see others noticing or wanting to interact with your partner is constructive jealousy.

It is the inside joke and the pleasure in seeing your partner recognized as important and desirable. It is the mutuality that comes with trusting each others’ love.

Constructive jealousy is fueled by connection and confidence. Sadly, if there is never a sense of jealousy stirred in either partner, it can feel like indifference.

Reduce Destructive Jealousy and Build Constructive Jealousy

Avoid Captivity: If the way you avoid jealousy of your partner is by staying glued together, it is a costly solution. It is worth considering that it is hard to develop trust or to daydream about a partner who never leaves your side.

Increase Psychological Inclusion: If your relationship is precious to both of you, there are ways to stay lovingly close while having connections with friends, teammates, neighbors, and colleagues outside of your relationship.

  • Your partner may not be at work, on the tennis court, or at the political rally with you but when you are in a strong relationship, people who know you know that you have a significant other.
  • In turn, your partner often gets to know the people you are working with through your sharing, your interests in them, and even your difficulties with them. In this way, your partner feels like an insider with you and the people in your life.

On the other hand, if people in your outside world never hear about your significant other or hear only critique of or disappointment in that person and your significant other never hears what has gone on that is funny, interesting, or tragic in the other corners of your life, there is disconnect, loss, distrust, and space for destructive jealousy.

Use The Power of Touch: Experience and research confirm the power of touch to calm, regulate, and reduce feelings of social exclusion and actually buffer jealous feelings in partners with anxious attachment who struggle with jealously.

Clasping a partner’s hand, locking arms, or placing a loving arm over a shoulder, sends a message to the world and to each other.