This article is based on the Reimagining Love podcast episode “Working Through Jealousy as a Couple.” To listen to this episode, click here.
I love getting to do deep dives into a specific topic where I get to focus on an important relationship topic. And this topic is the green-eyed monster: jealousy. If this is something you’re dealing with in your intimate partnership, I’m really glad you’re here. I think you’ll come away from this with a deeper understanding of yourself and your partner along with tools for how to address jealousy as a team.
Here’s what we’ll cover in this piece:
- What jealousy is, and how we can talk about it in terms of Relational Self-Awareness
- The internal dynamics of the person who is experiencing jealousy.
- The internal dynamics of the person whose partner is experiencing jealousy
- Tools and strategies for dealing with jealousy as a couple.
My intention is to move us away from relating to jealousy with judgment or fear and move us toward relating to jealousy with curiosity and skills! As always, I want you to pay attention to the thoughts, the feelings, the sensations in your body as you’re reading, because these point you toward what you may need to attend to and heal inside of you.
Psychologists are a bit split over whether jealousy is an emotion or a cognition. Certainly there are both emotions and thoughts attached to jealousy. The emotions can be feelings like fear, anger, or shame, and the thoughts may sound something like, “I think my partner might have a crush on their coworker,” or “I think my partner finds him more attractive than me.” These emotions and thoughts fuel each other to create an urge to engage in a behavior like asking questions, checking your partner’s phone, or withdrawing.
Psychologist Dr. Robert Leahy defines jealousy as “angry, agitated worry,” and I want to highlight how this is different from envy. Envy, according to Merriam-Webster, is a “discontented longing for someone else’s advantages.” Envy is most often used to refer to a covetous feeling toward another person’s attributes, possessions, or stature in life, whereas jealousy is “an unpleasant suspicion, or apprehension of rivalship.” Really, what this boils down to is that jealousy is a threat of loss.
Jealousy often takes the form of a bell-shaped curve. On one end of the spectrum, the curve is flat and disengaged, because there is no investment in the relationship which means there is no jealousy. On the other end of spectrum, there is a profound threat that creates risk for acting out via control and violence. Someone’s jealous feelings never ever ever justify controlling behavior, stalking, or any form of abuse. People are responsible for regulating their emotions rather than acting out on them. Here we will be discussing the shades of gray between these two extremes, but in the notes below you’ll find some links to resources if you are in a relationship with someone whose jealousy is fueling abusive behavior.
So let’s talk about those shades of gray. In my TED talk, I describe how all of our choices are guided by one of two energies, love or fear. So these shades of gray are various blends of love and fear. Love consists of things like investment, care, or attachment, while fear is built on scarcity and a need for control. The experience of jealousy fueled by love sounds like, “I cherish you,” “I want to be special to you,” “I want to continue building this relationship with you,” or “I don’t want this to end.” The experience of jealousy fueled by fear sounds like, “I’m scared to lose you,” “I’m scared of being made a fool,” or “I don’t want you to have other important connections.” Can you hear the difference between these two energies?
The One Struggling with Jealousy
Jealousy reflects insecurity, or thoughts like “I don’t feel safe or at ease”. I am not saying that we deserve or are entitled to feeling safe or at ease at all times. In an intimate relationship, we are challenged to figure out how to tolerate the fact that loving someone requires investment. The more we invest, the more we fear losing them. We are confronted with the paradox of love and loss that makes us feel so darned vulnerable. Is it our partner’s job to offer reassurance through affirmation (I’m here, you are special to me, I have your back)? Yes! And, is it our job to self-soothe (to tolerate the deep truth that our primary trusting relationship is with ourselves, that we will not abandon ourselves if our worst fears come true)? Also yes!
Jealousy in an intimate relationship arises in response to a real or perceived threat of losing someone who matters tremendously to us. Jealousy is a flashing warning light. A piece of data. The feeling might tell you to leap into action, but when you feel jealousy arise in you, our work is to pause. It’s hard to pause, and lots of us have the urge to do one of three things instead:
- Because some of us equate jealousy with weakness, some of us push jealousy away. Any cognitive-behavioral therapist will tell you that suppression does not work. When we push any of our feelings away, we lose out on the lessons and possibilities for healing.
- Some of us withdraw, shut down, or numb out. Numbing out doesn’t serve you and it doesn’t help your relationship. Plus, as Brené Brown taught us, we cannot selectively numb. When you numb out what you call “bad feelings,” you also numb out “good feelings.”
- Some of us turn our feelings into actions. We act out, becoming critical, controlling, or accusatory. We blame our partner for doing things that “make us jealous.” If you do this, you lose out on the opportunity to talk with your partner about insecurity in a way that deepens intimacy. This coping mechanism also creates the conditions for resentment.
So as I mentioned earlier, when you feel that jealousy bubbling up inside you, just pause. Turn your attention inward— listen, feel. Imagine jealousy is a troubled kid who needs some tender loving care.
The topic of jealousy stirs up lots of talk about attachment styles, which are both valuable and only one piece of the puzzle. You are more than an attachment style. Certainly, one’s attachment style will shape how someone feels, thinks, or behaves when they experience a threat in their intimate relationship. We won’t dive into this in depth because it is an entire body of relationship science. Research by Lindsay Rodriguez and colleagues found that individuals with an anxious attachment style “experienced much higher levels of cognitive and behavioral jealousy when reporting lower levels of trust.” I want to remind you here that “I’m anxiously attached, that’s why I get jealous” is the beginning of a conversation, not the whole conversation. How might this relationship become a crucible for healing an insecure attachment style rather than a context in which you are wounded again?
The one who is faced with a jealous partner
My first point is my most confronting point of this whole episode, and it may be a difficult question to contemplate: If your partner reports they are experiencing jealousy, can you be brave enough to check in with yourself and see if perhaps a part of you is seeking to create the conditions for them to feel jealous in order for you to feel safe? Creating the conditions for a partner to feel jealous can be a way for us to manage our own insecurity– if you’re jealous, I am safe. One way of dealing with insecurity is to project it onto someone else.
Our culture is a dominance culture so we are all at risk of playing into the idea that relationality is a one-up, one-down arrangement. If you grew up in a family system where you saw dominance and subjugation, you’re at risk of recreating that in your intimate relationship—ot because you suck, but because you were a good observer! This was the model you saw. If this lands, your work is to find deeper pathways toward feeling safe, valued, seen, and worthy.
Perhaps your partner who is jealous struggles because they bring an old wound into your relationship—being cheated on or abandoned by their last partner, for example. It is not your job to pay for a crime you didn’t commit. But you can be an ally in their healing. How can you offer reassurance and reality testing and feel proud rather than diminished for doing so? Those experiences of your partner feeling your trustworthiness offer powerful healing.
Furthermore, look for progress! Perhaps your partner who is jealous struggles because you have a history of boundary violations (with your partner or prior partners). If you are clearly committed to staying in your integrity, which I hope you are, you can talk with your partner about what you’ve learned from your past and what commitments you make that help you stay in your integrity. Highlight the progress you have already made and the progress you will keep making. Here are some ways you can talk about boundaries as they relate to jealousy:
- I will continue to carve out autonomy and I want to be responsible to you. So if or when you feel activated, let’s talk.
- I commit to not taking things off the table in order to placate you, I risk feeling resentful and that will harm our relationship. Me taking things off the table also deprives us of the chance to have a synapse to cross—opportunity to feel my trustworthiness.
- I commit to not hiding or sneaking in order to avoid a fight.
Make a conscious effort to offer reassurance and accountability to your partner, because trust is bedrock. You want your partner to feel safe with you and experience your own security as well.
Working Through Jealousy as a Couple
Jealousy is an opportunity to practice Relational Self-Awareness: to reflect on what’s going on inside of me, to approach my partner for a conversation together. Frame it according to The Golden Equation of Love: My Stuff + Your Stuff = Our Stuff. We must run jealousy through that equation. Not in order to solve it, but to figure out what each partner might do in order to hold the tension between autonomy and responsibility, between self-soothing and seeking reassurance.
Let’s take an example. Examples are tricky because they are stripped of context and nuance, but they allow me to highlight the “my stuff,” “your stuff,” and “our stuff.” Let’s suppose Partner A is friends with their ex. When they go out for a beer, Partner B feels jealous. There are several options of what could happen next.
- Option #1 is Partner B stuffs their feelings down and says it’s fine.
- Option #2 is Partner A stops meeting up with their ex.
- Option #3 is Partner A and Partner B use Partner B’s jealousy as an opportunity to do some work together as a couple.
The benefit of Option #1 and #2 is they solve the moment. The “problem” is off the table. But these options trade a short-term fix for an opportunity to grow as a couple. So let’s take a deeper look at Option #3. Below are some questions you could ask when you are trying to work through the jealousy together.
- What is important to Partner A about the friendship with their ex?
- What feels scary/upsetting for Partner B about this friendship?
- Who is Partner A afraid they become if they move away from the friendship for the sake of the relationship? (Was there someone from Partner A’s family of origin who gave things up or shrunk?)
- Who is Partner B afraid they become if they “allow” the friendship to persist? (Was there someone from Partner B’s family of origin who got blindsided / was made to look like a fool?)
- What larger cultural stories create the context for this knot? How do gender role socialization, race/ethnicity, religious beliefs, etc., shape each of our experiences of this relational challenge? (Spoiler Alert: with jealousy, one common cultural story is the impact of romanticism, the notion that “if you love me, I should be your everything. You shouldn’t need to source your life from anyone else.”)
- Why is this happening now?
Why now? Stress
When any of us are under stress, we regress a bit, falling back on less healthy ways of coping. Insecurity can spike, and if you’re not particularly comfortable in your own skin, you’re more likely to want to control the world around you. But let’s zoom in on that last question more with a developmental context. Why now? It’s important to look at when and how jealousy creeps into a relational dynamic.
Some research has indicated that jealousy seems to be less common early in a romantic relationship when there is little investment. Couples often see increases over time when commitment is higher (remember our bell curve from earlier). What we know to be true is that transitions spike insecurity. Encountering the outer edge of prior experience activates us. There was a study conducted of jealousy in straight folks with an opposite sex best friend. The group most likely to feel threatened was engaged couples. Gottman’s trust research shows that newlyweds are high in trustworthiness and untrustworthiness. There is a lot of testing going on because of a transition. So if you notice jealousy becoming a more frequent emotion or cognition, get curious about what transitions may be going on in yours and your partner’s lives.
Things to Remember
If you are the one feeling jealous:
- Pause. Remember that feeling jealous and acting jealous are very different.
- Take responsibility for your feeling. Responsibility and blame aren’t the same. Responsibility and shame aren’t the same. Don’t say, “You make me jealous.” Instead say, “I am feeling jealous. Can we work on this together?” In a healthy intimate relationship, we turn toward each other when we are hurting, struggling, or suffering. I want your partner to be an ally to you in understanding and addressing your insecurity.
- Ask for reassurance! Notice what happens when you are reassured. Let that feeling of relief land. Note it. What does it feel like? How long does it last?
- It’s no fun to feel jealous, but you are most likely to enlist your partner’s support and empathy when you can turn toward them and say, “I’m struggling here. Can we talk together about the fact that I’m at war with the green eyed monster?”
If your partner turns to you with jealous feelings:
- Reflect on whether you are engaging in behaviors (intentionally or unintentionally) that reflect fuzzy boundaries.
- Resist the urge to become defensive.
The bottom line is to face jealousy as a team!
- Clarify the boundaries around your relationship.
- Explore your values as a couple.
- Develop practices that allow you to embrace both self-soothing and reassurance.
Remember that Golden Equation of Love: My Stuff + Your Stuff = Our Stuff. Working on our stuff together requires a gentle and curious reflection of your own stuff. When we recognize how we ourselves contribute to the conflicts that arise, we can both honor and hold the parts of us that contribute to the golden equation in ways we want to change, and we can shift the way my stuff contributes to our stuff, which ultimately changes our stuff! And even the green-eyed monster of jealousy is no exception to this rule.