What is jealousy and what can it do to a relationship?

Writer Curt Goetz said, “the jealous know nothing, suspect much, and fear everything.” Columnist Elizabeth Gilmer said, “the jealous bring down the curse they fear upon their own heads.” We\’ve all heard the stories, from Shakespeare\’s Othello to the Beatles song “Jealous Guy,” to the many contemporary movies based on jealousy. But what does jealousy really mean? And how can it affect a marriage or other relationship?

Here are some of the main emotions and mental states that factor into jealousy:

  • Fear. Jealousy can reveal your deepest fears—fear that something bad and irrevocable has happened, such as a partner\’s infidelity, even if there is little evidence to support that. Or fear of losing love, of rejection, of losing a happy home, of being alone, of judgement from others if you are left abandoned. All of these can paralyze your rational mind and make you see threats behind every tree. If these fears are common and familiar in your life, it may be time to seek anxiety counseling to understand what\’s behind them. Often, the root cause can be an early environment in your life in which bad things happened frequently. Or there may be a later experience that left you fragile and fearful. If these fears have not been familiar and you have real cause to be afraid in a bad relationship, couples or marriage counseling can help.
  • Insecurity: Insecurity, poor self-image, poor self-confidence—all of these terms mean a crisis of self-worth in a person. You might doubt that your attractiveness, abilities, passions, and personality measure up to the expectations of your partner. Those feelings can be more intense and difficult to deal with if you have an unusual condition, such as a mastectomy or a physical deformity. Adopted children or children from unloving families are also at risk of poor self-image. The results can be devastating to a marriage or other committed relationship. You might feel that your partner stays with you out of duty and loyalty, not love, respect, and admiration. You might have feelings that your partner secretly wants to drop you for someone better. Offering reassurance within a relationship can help allay these fears, but if they continue despite the reassurance, it might be time to seek counseling or talk therapy.
  • Powerlessness. An object of jealousy can feel powerful, and can sometimes use this power to control or hurt the feelings of the partner. On the other hand, the jealous partner can feel powerless, as if the emotions around the jealousy were overwhelming and cannot be controlled. This powerlessness is often at the root of jealousy. In relationships, there can be any number of small imbalances that wax and wane over the years. Many people feel they can overcome these. For example, a person with less education can take night classes in an interesting subject and bring home a passionate interest and a wealth of ideas to talk about. One partner might drift into a lazy period—not physically active, not very healthy, not looking their best—and then decide enough is enough and begin walking in the evenings instead of being a couch potato. These corrections restore balance in the relationship and give it energy. They are positive and healthy. If healthy steps are not taken, jealousy of outside relationships can be one of the results.
  • Anger. If you are quick to anger and have displayed inappropriate aggressive behavior in a relationship, there\’s a good chance you could be a jealous partner also. In both cases the behavior is about control and power, although anger and jealousy express different relationships to control and power. Anger puts a person in a superior position, since the emotion is physically threatening. Jealousy puts a person in an inferior position, since happiness is always dependent on the behavior of the other partner. The relationship between anger and jealousy is this: When jealousy seethes for too long without being expressed overtly, it can easily turn into an angry tirade. This raises the stakes of jealousy by a large amount, since angry, aggressive, or violent behavior are more difficult relationship problems to navigate than a more subdued jealousy.

It\’s good to keep in mind that the opposite of jealousy is trust. And that trust is built on a foundation of courage, self-confidence, and emotional control. But even trusting people can feel jealous at times. The key to maintaining trust is talking through the jealousy—the sooner the better.

Also, keep in mind that when other people find your partner attractive or interesting, you can feel flattered, not jealous. In receiving attention, your partner will feel validated and admired for his or her qualities (which you already know, intimately), and with a healthy attitude, will be a better partner and lover. What\’s not to like about that?

The great irony of jealousy is that those who are unafraid, self-confident, powerful, and in control of their emotions have far lower chance of being devoured by the green-eyed monster. Unfortunately, jealousy—the kind that lingers and grows, not the fleeting irritations at a casual flirtation—attacks the weak. My recommendation is to get strong.

Nancy Travers is an Orange County Counseling professional.  If you need safe, effective counseling services, please get in touch.  You can reach her here: https://www.nancyscounselingcorner.com/contact-us.