Occasional jealousy is natural and can help keep a relationship alive, but if it becomes intense and irrational it can very destructive. Relationship psychotherapist Paula Hall explores what you can do to reduce the impact.
What is jealousy?
We've all experienced jealousy at some time in our lives, although the reasons why each of us gets jealous and the emotions we feel may differ.
According to clinical psychologist Ayala Malach Pines, "jealousy is a complex reaction to a perceived threat to a valued relationship or to its quality". Unlike envy, it always involves a fear of loss and three people.
Jealousy is a "complex reaction" because it involves such a wide range of emotions, thoughts and behaviours.
- Emotions - pain, anger, rage, sadness, envy, fear, grief, humiliation.
- Thoughts - resentment, blame, comparison with the rival, worry about image, self-pity.
- Behaviours - feeling faint, trembling and sweating, constant questioning and seeking reassurance, aggressive actions, even violence.
How jealousy protects love
In relationships where feelings of jealousy are mild and occasional, it reminds the couple not to take each other for granted. It can encourage couples to appreciate each other and make a conscious effort to make sure the other person feels valued.
Jealousy heightens emotions, making love feel stronger and sex more passionate. In small, manageable doses, jealousy can be a positive force in a relationship. But when it's intense or irrational, the story is very different.
How jealousy damages love
Sometimes jealous feelings can get out of proportion. For example, when a man makes an embarrassing scene at a party because his wife accepts an invitation to dance with an old friend, or when a woman is overwhelmed with jealousy because her husband's company appoints a female boss.
These kinds of reaction can put a huge strain on a relationship, leaving the other partner feeling as though they're constantly walking on eggshells to avoid a jealous reaction. The jealous partner, often aware of their problem, swings between self-blame and justification.
If you're the jealous one
Overcoming jealousy takes patience and hard work. If you feel your jealousy stems from issues in childhood, you may find counselling useful. If you're recovering from an affair, you'll need to deal with those issues first.
Here are some things you can do for yourself:
Give yourself a reality check - take a good look at those things that trigger your jealousy and ask yourself how realistic the threat is. What evidence do you have that your relationship is in danger? And is your behaviour actually making the situation worse?
Use positive self-talk - when you start feeling the twinges of jealousy, remind yourself that your partner loves you, is committed to you and respects you. Tell yourself you're a loveable person and that nothing's going on.
Seek reassurance - one of the best ways to beat jealousy is to ask your partner for reassurance. Make sure you don't nag or bully, but rather share your insecurities and ask them to help you overcome the problem.
Living with a jealous partner
Having a jealous partner can be exhausting. Here are some ideas that may help ease their jealousy:
Think of the problem in a different way - remember that jealousy is a sign of love. If your partner didn't value your relationship, you wouldn't be having this problem. Rather than becoming defensive, try to be understanding and supportive.
Check your behaviour - if you know that certain behaviours trigger your partner's jealousy, change them if you can if only until the problem has been overcome. Be sure to stick to any agreements you've made, too, but avoid making promises you'll find difficult to keep, such as always being contactable.
Build your partner's confidence - be sure to take every opportunity to tell your partner how much you love them and why you wouldn't want to be with anyone else. Give lots of compliments and talk about the wonderful future you're looking forward to spending with them.
Occasional jealousy is natural and can keep a relationship alive, but when it becomes intense or irrational it can seriously damage a relationship.
If you have concerns, try talking it through with your partner or a trusted friend. Or, you might want to consider seeing a counsellor.