Understanding and handling jealousy

Most of us have experienced Shakespeare’s “green-eye’d monster”–jealousy. In its intense forms, it is a horrible, tormenting obsession. jealousyOften in a crisis we’d like to kill the person who tries to take our lover away. It is estimated that 20% to 35% of all murders involve a jealous lover (White and Mullen, 1989; Pines, 1992b). A third of all couples in therapy have a problem with jealousy. It is common for a jilted lover to threaten suicide, and some do it. Certainly power is involved; we want the power to keep our lover to ourselves exclusively. Survivors of child abuse seem to suffer just as much from jealousy. It may be because they have had something taken away from them in the past or they just don’t want to lose what they have now. Just as falling in love seems “natural” and unlearned, so does jealousy. It just comes over us when someone or something (like work, TV, or sports) threatens our love relationship. Of course, it isn’t always painful and crazy-making, sometimes it’s milder and fun–a tease–and a sexual turn on, as in swapping partners. We will focus on the more intense, unpleasant kind. How does it differ from envy and rivalry?

There isn’t a clear-cut distinction between jealousy and envy but, in general, jealousy is experienced when something you have (e.g. a lover) is taken away or is threatened by someone else. Envy is when you do not measure up to someone else or you very much want something someone else has (e.g. an attractive lover, a sports car, success, a sexy build, etc.). Rivalry is when no one yet possesses the thing you desire (a particular person or position or status) and there is keen competition for the desired goal. Obviously, all of these feelings increase as our desire–our desperation–for the “prize” increases. Jealousy is the most intense. It involves having something highly valued and losing it to the competition–that hurts, angers, and shames us.

The greater the threat, the more intense the jealousy. Accordingly, a large Psychology Today survey (Salovey & Rodin, 1985) showed that separated and divorced persons suffered the most jealousy, followed by cohabiting single people, and married people the least. How we perceive the threat influences the jealousy; thus, men and women have somewhat different experiences. A jilted man gets mad at the other male; a jilted woman dwells on the loss of her partner’s commitment and love.

There are five stages of jealousy (White, 1981; Brehm, 1985):

1. Suspecting the threat: If you are insecure about a love relationship (not necessarily about yourself in general) and very dependent on your lover, you are likely to be jealous. You may see “signs” of disaster when none are there. Conversely, some people overlook very suggestive signals. In reality, 45% of the people in the Psychology Today survey had cheated on a partner while pretending to be faithful. Men are more likely to deny feeling jealous; women more readily admit it. If the threat to our relationship–the competitor–is attractive, intelligent, successful, etc., we will be more threatened and more disturbed. If we have or want an exclusive sexual relationship with our lover, we will be more threatened by a competitor than if we were in a non-sexual relationship. If we ourselves have been unfaithful to our partners, others might expect us to be less jealous if our partner also has an affair, but research shows that some unfaithful spouses are more jealous (perhaps, in these cases, the greatest threat to the relationship is when both partners have had affairs).

2. Assessing the threat: We may spy on our lover and the rival; we probably lie awake nights worrying about the situation and reviewing the evidence, “Did she come on to him?,” “I wonder if he has talked to her?,” “Does he love her?,” “Wonder if everybody but me knows about it?” Women are concerned about their partner becoming attracted to other women by sex, intelligence, and other attractions, and dissatisfaction with the current relationship. Thus, women feel multiple threats. Men are consciously more concerned about their partner finding someone who will offer a more secure, committed relationship. Men are more concerned (than women) about protecting or re-building their egos if they are “beaten out” by another man; they worry about their partner having sex with someone else (but they’d probably blame the partner if that did happen). Men see a threat and feel jealous first, then worry that something is wrong with them. Women are more concerned with maintaining the relationship; they worry about losing love; they feel inadequate first, then jealous. It is in this intensive worry and spying stage that we go crazy.

3. Emotional reactions: If we decide there is a threat to our love, we can have a very wide range of responses: clinging dependency (more women but many men too), violent rage at the competitor or the partner (more men), morbid curiosity, self-criticism, and depression with suicidal thoughts (more women), hurt and resentment of the partner’s lack of devotion and resistance, social embarrassment, selfish–sometimes realistic–concerns (“I’d better take the money out of the bank”), urge to “get back at” the partner, fear of losing companionship, loneliness, regrets at giving up all the future plans, etc., etc.

Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned,
Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.
-William Congreve, The Mourning Bride , 1697

In spite of Congreve’s famous quote, there is some evidence that men have a more intense jealousy response to losing a loved one than women do, and they take more time to get over it (Mathes, 1988).

The 1950’s advocated “family togetherness.” In the late 1960’s and 1970’s there was an “open marriage” movement (O’Neill & O’Neill, 1973); we were told that jealousy was a sign of inconsiderate possessiveness and immaturity, that we were selfishly restricting our partner’s love for everyone. Certainly many people tried gallantly to suppress jealous feelings while being open and modern “swingers,” but many failed. At the same time, there were arguments that jealousy was a natural, inevitable, and useful reaction (Mace, 1958; Harrison, 1974). Surely, a couple deciding on exclusiveness in their love and sexual life is not always a master-slave relationship, not necessarily one-sided possessiveness. Yet, love is scary. We can be hurt; the lover has power over us; we need to be #1 in his/her life. How does someone become so important in our emotional life? In the same way The Little Prince loved his rose bush (Saints-Exupery, 1943). It’s a neat part of the story; I’ll summarize:

The Little Prince lived on a tiny planet all his own. He had only one rose bush. He loved it. It was so beautiful, it gave him so much pleasure. He remembers tenderly planting the little bush in his richest soil, building a fence to protect it and a trellis to hold it, trimming it and watering it every day. With pride he watched his rose bush grow into a healthy, mature rose bush which faithfully produced beautiful blossoms year after year. Then he went to another planet, Earth, and saw thousands of roses, much bigger and more beautiful than his one little bush. At first, he felt foolish for having liked his rose bush so much. After all, there was nothing special about his bush. Then he realized he didn’t love his rose bush for its bigness or its outstanding beauty, he loved it because he had personally cared for his bush and because so much of his time and pleasure had been with only one rose bush, “his” roses. Like the Little Prince, we hurt when we lose “our” love. The hurting doesn’t necessarily mean we lack confidence or that we believe we possess the other person; it means we are human, we long for things we have lost.

4. Coping response: There are two basic choices–desperately trying to shore up the threatened relationship or trying to protect or bolster your sagging ego. Men are more likely than women to become competitive and/or have angry reactions, often including getting drunk or high. Women more often become weak and depressed; sometimes they act like they don’t care; more often, they cry, plead, and blame themselves (Brehm, 1985). Bar talk suggests that recently rejected lovers are sexually on the make and/or sexually “easy.” An interesting study by Shettel-Neuber, Bryson, & Young (1978) suggests that men and women, when threatened by an unattractive competitor, are about as likely to go out with “someone else” and be sexually aggressive. However, when threatened by an attractive competitor, men felt an even stronger urge to make it with “someone else,” while women didn’t want to get involved with any other men at all.

5. The outcome: It is important to know if particular emotional and coping responses help or harm threatened relationships. Also, do these responses build or destroy self-esteem? Both self-esteem and love are important. For instance, a threatened lover, who temporarily keeps his/her partner (and protects his/her ego) by threatening violence or suicide or by frantically begging, will probably lose the lover’s respect in the process. What are the best responses?

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Before looking at ways to cope with jealousy, let’s try to understand its causes better. Different therapies have different explanations of jealousy. Examples: Freudians say the overwhelming dread and pain of rejection originates in childhood when we discover that we are not Mommy or Daddy’s favorite (Daddy or Mommy is). Of course, this insecurity is unconscious. The Family Systems therapists point out that both partners contribute to the jealousy-producing situation. If one partner has an affair, it reflects a troubled relationship, for which both are responsible. Yet, behavioural therapists use psychological techniques to reduce one individual’s jealousy response–desensitization, flooding, and satiation (having the unfaithful partner “report in” every hour). Sociological treatments emphasize cultural influences. For instance, all societies tell us we should be jealous but in different circumstances, e.g. certain Eskimo men consider it a compliment if a visiting male wants sex with his wife but a visitor wanting to keep the wife would be highly resented. Thus, jealousy is a learned social reaction, not our innate nature. On the other hand, the sociobiologists, like Darwin, believe jealousy is innate and instinctive for genetic survival. Men want exclusive sexual partners (to pass on their genes) and women want devoted helpers (to help with the kids’ survival). Thus, after an affair, men want sexual details and women want to know how serious the relationship is. All these “understandings” can reduce intense jealousy and blaming each other (Pines, 1992a).

So, what can be done about jealousy?

Needless to say, the best protection against jealousy is a good relationship, i.e. prevention is better than a cure. If the love can be kept alive and exciting, that is much more effective than trying to revive a threatened love. Once jealousy has occurred, however, what works best? Salovey and Rodin (1985) asked 100 college students what had worked for them. Best was “tough it out ,” i.e. controlling their emotions and becoming even more committed to and attentive to the loved one. A second method was somewhat effective, namely, “selective ignoring ,” i.e. telling themselves that the desired object (the lover or some achievement) was just not that important. A third method, telling themselves their good qualities and doing something nice for themselves, was not helpful in this case. Read on.

Branden (1981) advocates an openly honest “I feel…” response. Example: you see your partner flirting with a very attractive person at a party. Rather than bitterly attacking the partner, what if later you said: “As I watched you with him/her , I immediately felt anxious. There were butterflies in my stomach and I started to imagine that you might try to see him/her later and get all emotionally involved. The idea of your touching and holding him/her really upset me. I’m scared you will leave me.” Such an frank, unattacking response, which discloses the true feelings underneath the jealousy, should make it easy for the flirting partner to response sympathetically and honestly to the heart of the matter, namely the jealous person’s hurt and fears. This honesty is usually the best way to handle jealousy.

What is the best protection against being devastated by an actual break up or the possibility of a break up? Self-esteem and a belief that your future will work out okay. But esteem has to be developed before the break up, not afterwards. Some simple techniques may be useful in reducing jealousy: stay active, distract yourself with friends, fun, hobbies, work, self-improvement, etc.; thought stopping (ch. 11) should reduce the jealousy arousing fantasies; desensitization (ch. 12) can reduce the emotional response of jealousy just as if it were a fear; venting (ch. 12) will relieve the hurt and angry feelings; seek support from friends and tell them how you feel. Also, you must challenge your irrational ideas that drive you “crazy” (ch. 14), including understanding that jealousy is probably unavoidable to some degree, that you are responsible for your feelings, that the thrill of a new love will initially overshadow a taken-for-granted relationship, that some “games” are played to make us jealous, that some partners are so self-centered they can not be faithful, that no love comes with a life-time guarantee, that there may be very good reasons for your former lover to be interested in someone else, etc. Most of us who have been deeply hurt by a rejection know, however, that little can be done about the pain during the first several days or weeks. You can try to keep busy and “keep your mind off of it,” but in the main you just have to tough it out.

Before long, the basic solution to these many irrational thoughts and expectations surely involves a counterattack with rational thinking. One important point to realize is that intense jealousy does not prove there is intense “true love ” between two people. In fact, jealousy only reflects your intense needs, your desperation to keep what you want (at the moment), and your unrealistic (perhaps) demands about what the future should hold. Thus, jealousy reflects self-interest and self-love, rather than mutual “true love.” A second important point is that your lover can decide to like or love someone else without that proving in any way that you are less worthwhile or less desirable or less lovable. There are hundred of reasons why people lose interest in others, including paradoxical reasons like “I’m not good enough for him/her,” “I’m just not as serious or ambitious as they are,” etc. And, there are many good reasons for changing partners that demean no one, e.g. “I have more interests in common with another person,” “Our cultural-religious backgrounds are so different,” “Our futures will take us in different directions,” etc. Being rejected doesn’t mean you are no good.

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For many hurting people, it is helpful to realize that the pain of childhood wounds may intensify your reactions to the hurtful situation. Sometimes, putting yourself in your partner’s shoes is very helpful. One partner can write a defense for the actions and feelings of the unfaithful or rejecting partner, while the other partner writes a description and defense of his/her partner’s pain and jealousy. It may also help if the jealous person acts as if he/she is not jealous. It will probably help to know that jealousy is common and normal, not a shameful personal weakness, and that jealousy is a result of the situation. Ask yourself: “Have you been constantly jealous in every relationship?” If no, then you aren’t an unavoidably “jealous person.” In short, your understanding of both the hurtful and the hurting person can be reframed, i.e. the unfaithful person may be seen as seeking a childhood dream or desperately signaling that the marriage is in deep trouble. There are many ways to reduce jealousy (Pines, 1992b). In any case, the pain will normally go away in a few weeks.

Unquestionably, it is often wise for lovers with doubts to break up. Considering the divorce rate, perhaps we, even in pain from rejection, should be thankful and accept it. Not likely! Yet, a person with “true unselfish love” would say, “I love you enough to let you do whatever you think is best for you, even if that means leaving me.” But, romantic love is selfish. Perhaps the best you can hope for is to learn from this relationship and select a better partner and be a better partner next time. If you break up, the most important thing to remember is: “I am a valuable, lovable person regardless of whether you love me or not. It hurts but I can handle it. I’ll get on with my life.” For me, the best way to get over pining for a lost love (after a month or so) is to begin carefully looking for a better relationship (Mathes, 1988, found several women reduced their jealousy this way, men did not). Other people need some time alone.

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