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Jealousy in Relationships & What We Can Do Author: Tim Woody MAC PLPC

There are few stronger feelings than the feeling of jealousy. We can feel like we are secure individuals, but often relationships have a way of provoking the emotion of jealousy that can erode our sense of self and sense of security. When we are not at our best, we can think that the best way to handle jealousy is to create an environment of safety by a variety of ineffective behaviors. Some of these ineffective relational behaviors are:

  • Restrict or require our partners to change behaviors in order to create a sense of safety for ourselves and alleviate some of the distress that comes from their choices.

  • Assuming things about our partner’s choices and motivations.

  • Create a mental and emotional environment that obsesses over our partner’s lives.

  • Become intrusive in our partners lives by not respecting privacy, including going through their phones and emails.

If these behaviors are something you have experienced or have struggled against, then maybe jealousy has taken over in your life in ways that strain your relationships or make you feel guilty. Maybe it's time to understand jealousy better, and have strategies that help us become less jealous and more secure.

Understanding Jealousy

The first step in reducing the negative effects of jealousy is to better understand its function. Sometimes we look at jealousy through a purely negative lens. But jealousy can be a very important emotion.

First, jealousy can let us know when our needs or wants are not being met. For example, maybe you are feeling jealous because you have been wanting more time with your partner, but instead they are giving their time to their hobbies or friends. Or, maybe your partner missed an important date or event and you are feeling forgotten. In lots of situations jealousy can let us know when something feels unbalanced. In these cases, being vulnerable and having a productive conversation can do wonders for our jealousy. Just a brave conversation starter like “I have been really wanting more time with you. I am feeling like I haven’t been getting as much time as I need to feel connected to you, can we talk about scheduling some more quality time together?” can do a lot to help with this kind of jealousy.

Secondly, jealousy can help us know what is important to us. Think of jealousy like a barometer of value in a relationship. The more you feel jealous for someone, the more you know just how important that person is to you. You might feel jealous of your partner going out with friends because you feel so deeply for them that you wish you could be spending time with them. However, you might not want or need them to change their plans because you know friendships are incredibly important. This kind of jealousy might be better labeled as envy; wanting something that others are getting. Sharing this with your partner can be helpful as well. You might consider saying something like “I love that you are going out with your friends today, I am feeling jealous that I don’t get to spend time with you but that is because I care for you so much and I really enjoy our time together. I am looking forward to seeing you again.”

When Jealousy Turns Ugly and What to Do?

When our jealousy starts to become distressing or we feel like we might want to encourage unproductive behaviors, it's time to do something about it. If we want good, healthy relationships where we maintain a sense of self we have to work against these impulses.

The first thing we have to understand is that there is always another emotion underneath jealousy. Sometimes these emotions are old wounds that we developed at a young age and things about our current relationships expose us in ways that make us feel insecure and uncomfortable. In order to uncover the source of our jealousy and start to fix it, we have to do some work.

Start with a question!

The first thing we do is start with a question that can help us understand our jealousy. Take the situation that is prompting your jealousy and ask yourself:

“If my partner hangs out with friends tonight then _______________ will happen.”

Are you afraid that if your partner hangs out with friends then they will neglect their responsibilities? Are you worried that they are avoiding you? Are you experiencing fear that they just enjoy their friends more than you?

Take the Next Risk

If you have gotten this far you have already given yourself insight into your jealousy. That is a powerful tool! But in order to really build better habits we need to go deeper and we need to take big risks. Sometimes our jealousy is telling us things that might be true or partially true and facing that might be really scary.

Your partner might be hanging out with their friends more because you and them do not share many things in common. But that information can be really valuable. Maybe it means that you need to invest in the relationship by developing shared experiences. Now you have something to ask! “I feel like we don’t have a lot of shared hobbies and I think I am experiencing some jealousy that you have that with others. I think it would be great for us if we could find something to do that we enjoy together!”

It is risky to assess our lives. But it also means sometimes our feelings can’t be trusted and we might be making assumptions that are false. Our jealousy might be telling us that our partner likes their friends more than us. But if we take a step back and think about our relationship we might be able to list lots of things we enjoy doing together that are fulfilling and enjoyable. By challenging our assumptions sometimes our jealousy recedes into the background and becomes more manageable.

When our Jealousy Tells us About Our Pain

At times our jealousy is rooted in painful fears. For example, I might be jealous of my partner when they go to work and have a good time because maybe they will realize that they don’t like me very much and they will leave me. Maybe there was a time in your life when a partner left you, and you feel like you are going to be left again or that your partner will get bored of you.

It takes time to heal wounds like these. But reacting to this kind of jealousy by creating more rules and having less independence only encourages ineffective behaviors for healthy relationships. In healthy and safe relationships, you can have space to heal these kinds of wounds and reduce the distress this kind of jealousy brings. It just begins with an ask now that you can understand where the jealousy is coming from.

“I have been feeling really jealous of you and your friends lately. I know you care for me and you are committed to me, but I am afraid that you will get bored of me. I don’t want you to stop seeing your friends. What I think might help is to hear that you care for me and maybe you can affirm how you feel for me.”

What a response like this does is that it tells your partner that you don’t want to control or change their healthy choices. It lets them know about your emotions without making them responsible and it gives you the chance to hear words and affirmations that can heal your wounds.

Jealousy can be both a wonderful emotion to tell us what is important to us and it can also be an emotion that can contribute to an unhealthy relationship. We can use self reflection and good communication to alleviate the distress of jealousy and become more secure and safe.

Jealousy can be hard to understand and course correct by ourselves. Therapy can be a great place to explore our feelings of jealousy and find healthy ways of asking to get our needs met. Jealousy doesn’t have to control or get in the way of healthy and happy relationships. Using these tools is a wonderful place to begin the path to better connections.

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