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Jealousy: Taming the green-eyed monster

Jealousy: Dealing with the Green-Eyed MonsterDo your insides burn when your partner talks to a member of the opposite sex? Do you check in with your partner 10 times a day to find out where they are and who they are with? Do you regularly snoop through your partner’s things (cell phone, wallet, cell purse, etc.)? If you answered yes to any of these questions, it sounds like you are doing a dance with the green-eyed monster known as jealousy.

Let it be said that a little bit of jealousy is normal. But chronic jealousy — especially when expressed to your partner — can threaten your relationship.

Robert L. Leahy, Ph.D. and his colleague, Dennis Trich, recently published a paper on jealousy for the International Journal of Cognitive Therapy. In it, they take a look at what jealousy actually is and offer ways to help people cope with jealous feelings.

According to Leahy and Trich, jealousy is a form of angry, agitated worry. A person may worry that their partner might find someone else more appealing and fear that they will be rejected. Because they feel threatened, jealousy is activated as a way to cope with this threat. Similar to worry, jealousy may be a strategy used to figure out what is “going wrong” and as a way to learn what our partner “really feels.” Jealousy acts as a defense mechanism that can actually cause a person to give up on a relationship in order to prevent getting hurt.

Unfortunately, feelings of jealousy lead most people to focus only on the negative in a relationship. As a result, many people may interpret a partner’s behavior as a loss of interest (e.g., he is yawning because I’m boring). Jealousy also leads us to take things personally and interpret normal behavior as something negative (e.g., she’s getting dressed up to attract other guys).

Jealousy can be an adaptive emotion. Leahy and Trich believe that jealousy may be triggered by different factors in different cultures, but jealousy is a universal emotion.

Jealousy may also reflect a higher value system. Traditionally, psychologists have viewed jealousy as a sign of deep-seated insecurities and personality defects. While this belief is certainly valid, Leahy and Trich view jealousy as a more complicated emotion. While jealousy can be triggered by insecurities, it’s their belief that jealousy may also reflect a higher value placed on commitment, monogamy, love, honesty and sincerity. Leahy and Trich find it helpful to validate these values.

Jealous feelings are different from jealous behaviors. This is a key point that Leahy and Trich make in their paper. There is a big difference between feeling jealous and acting on your jealousy. A relationship is more likely to be in jeopardy because of jealous behavior such as accusations, pouting, going through personal items and acting out.

So, what do you do to prevent the green-eyed monster from taking over? Leahy and Trich make the following recommendations:

First, accept jealous thoughts and feelings. Take a moment to breathe slowly and observe your thoughts and feelings. Recognize that jealous thoughts are not necessarily reality. You may think that your partner is interested in someone else, but that doesn’t make it so … thinking and reality are two different things.

Second, remember you don’t have to give in to your jealous feelings and thoughts. Accept that you can have an emotion and allow yourself to feel it. Often, simply taking a step back to observe that a feeling/emotion exists can lead to that feeling weakening on its own.

Recognize that uncertainty is a part of every relationship. Uncertainty is a part of life and it is one of those limitations that we can’t do anything about. You never really know for sure that your partner won’t reject you, but if you accuse, demand, push and punish, you may create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Examine your assumptions and expectations about relationships. It’s possible that jealousy can be fueled by unrealistic ideas about relationships. Sometimes assumptions and expectations about relationships are affected by childhood experiences and past intimate relationships. For example, if your parents went through a difficult divorce because one parent left the other for someone else, you may believe this will also happen to you. Or, you may believe that you have little to offer someone. If your emotion of jealousy is based on this belief, Leahy and Trich advise that you examine the evidence “for” and “against” this idea. For example, a patient thought she had little offer, but when asked what she would want in an ideal partner she listed intelligence, warmth, emotional closeness, creativity and fun. She then realized that she was describing herself. So, if she was so undesirable, why would she see herself as an ideal partner?

Finally, Leahy and Trich advise to use effective relationship skills. Jealousy seldom makes a relationship more secure. Practicing effective relationship behaviors such as good communication skills, mutual respect and collaborative problem-solving is a much better alternative. Below are some articles you may find helpful on the topic of effective relationship behaviors: