Jealousy in Marriage: Understanding a Jealous Spouse

Q: I’m writing on behalf of my sister who is recently married. From what she’s told me, she may need relationship help. I’m concerned she’s going to face some serious marriage problems down the road. Her husband is jealous of her and she’s always having to reassure him. This is frustrating because she’s totally loyal and dedicated to him. Is there a way to overcome jealousy?

Also, what would make someone so jealous, even when there’s no reason for it?  Thanks for your relationship blog and all your relationship help!

A: Thank you for your question!  While I’m not able to speculate specifically on why your sister’s husband struggles with jealousy, I can discuss some dynamics about jealousy in general which may help.

We all have the capacity to become jealous—to feel a level of insecurity that unsteadies us. And for many, feelings of jealousy are often transient, eased by the obvious love and dedication our spouses/partners show us on a regular basis. Love, commitment and responsiveness build a level of trust that is often the antidote to mild to moderate levels of jealousy.

Many people enter relationships with the assumption that their new love will behave in a reliable,  consistent, trusting manner (the bar of trust is set high and can only be lowered). For others, suspiciousness is the starting point until trust is earned. 

Under normal circumstances, feelings of jealousy are usually fleeting and are easily quelled by a reassuring word or discussion with your loved one. Unfortunately for some, jealousy can become a permanent house-guest—a termite that erodes the very foundation of a relationship.

Jealousy at this level can be debilitating.

Jealousy and Marriage: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

The good

Jealousy actually has an important function in relationships. Like a warning light on your car’s dashboard, jealousy can inform you that something is wrong with the way your relationship is running.

Take Clare and Evan for instance. One night while out to dinner with several other couples, Evan—secure in his marriage and rarely jealous—was blindsided by jealousy. Evan’s jealousy was fueled by his wife’s playful interactions with Taylor, one of the other husbands. Clare and Taylor seemed to hit it off and enjoy each other’s company. During the meal one of the other women even joked that Clare and Taylor had a crush on each other.

In bed later that evening, Evan shared his feelings and the reason he was upset. To his surprise, Clare didn’t become defensive. Instead she told him that Taylor made her feel “like I’m interesting, like I have something worthwhile to say.” This opened the door to a conversation about Clare feeling lonely and under-appreciated in the marriage. Evan was shocked–he had no idea that his wife felt this way.

Evan and Clare are deeply committed to each other. This event motivated Evan to be more attentive to Clare and she began taking more initiative in directly communicating her needs. If it hadn’t been for Evan’s jealousy (and his ability to openly communicate these feelings in an appropriate way), Clare may have continued to feel under-appreciated and started to pull away from her husband..

Communication note: Communicating from feelings of jealousy isn’t easy and unfortunately, many fail to effectively communicate about their jealous insecurities; instead, the jealous spouse/partner often becomes reactive and defensive and approaches their partner in an attacking and accusatory manner. More often than not, this only leads to a counter-defensive reaction from their partner, which ends up further fueling the jealousy and emotional divide.

The bad and ugly

Some people become and remain jealous, no matter what their spouses/partners say or do. Their jealousy lingers and has no basis in the marriage or relationship. For the overly jealous person, these feelings don’t appear connected to a particular circumstance in the present tense. Many situations become excuses for a jealous tirade.

Someone who is jealous, independent of the realities of their marriage/relationship—someone who wears their jealousy like a weathered tattoo—usually brings to the relationship a debilitating level of insecurity (insecurities that often stem from unresolved family of origin issues).

This type of jealousy is erosive and causes high levels of distress for both parties. In a futile attempt to reduce the self-torture, the highly jealous person may attempt to control others. S/he frantically seeks solutions which only create self-fulfilling prophecies, inadvertently driving away those s/he loves. The real reasons behind the jealousy remain elusive, hidden within as s/he accuses others of disloyalty. If you are in a relationship with someone like this, it can be helpful to understand why your spouse/partner is so jealous.

Relationship Help:  Let’s peer into the mind of a jealous spouse/partner

The Inadequate Jealous.

This person feels extremely inadequate. Underneath his/her jealous tirades lies someone who feels unworthy and fearful. Never believing s/he can measure up, this individual exists in a world of endless comparisons. A world where everyone is more attractive, more skilled, funnier, faster, stronger, smarter, richer…In this world the jealous person believes that it’s just a matter of time before his/her partner takes off for greener pastures.

“Why would anyone want to be with me?” is the inadequate jealous’ punishing mantra.

The Wounded Jealous.

The wounded jealous have been betrayed in the past and the emotional scars linger. It’s as if this person can only view the world through a lens of betrayal—a lens that has permanently altered his/her perception. When past wounds color present-day circumstances to this extent, even an innocuous glance or comment by you to someone else can be viewed as an act of infidelity.

The unsuspecting partner is tried and convicted time and time again for allegedly having deceitful and lecherous intentions. The wounded jealous often don’t recognize how their past traumas impact their current perceptions and behaviors.

The wounded jealous’ hardened calluses have masked their emotional wounds.

The Projected Jealous.

This is the “I’d cheat so you’d probably do the same” dynamic. This jealousy is kept alive because of struggles with intimacy and commitment.

Unable to feel close to his/her partner, this person is prepared to abandon the relationship at a moment’s notice, and s/he projects this lack of commitment onto his/her partner. On the surface it may appear that s/he is dedicated to the relationship—why else would s/he be so tortured by jealousy? But this is an illusion.

This person doesn’t have both feet in the marriage/relationship (though s/he desires it). Constant doubts and mistrust act as an escape hatch that prevents him/her from dealing with underlying fears of commitment.

A real dilemma exists in this instance because s/he wants to be in the relationship but feels overwhelmed at the thought of fully embracing the intimacy that a long-term commitment entails.

The Abandoned Jealous.

This jealousy is connected to the anticipation of abandonment. Fear of loss can consume this person, since s/he has experienced significant loss in the past. It could have been the death or chronic illness of a parent, the experience of a parent’s difficult divorce, or removal from the primary caregivers due to issues of neglect.

Whatever the circumstances surrounding the specific loss, as an adult this person (unconsciously) equates intimacy and love with the disappearance or potential loss of a loved one. As intimacy and love deepen, so does the fear of being left behind.
Jealousy is just one way a heightened sensitivity to loss can manifest itself. In this instance, the pain and fear of loss leads to the fury of mistrust.

Remember that some amount of jealousy is to be expected in any marriage/relationship. You might feel mildly jealous of your partner and this feeling may vanish as the circumstances surrounding your jealousy change for the better (e.g., an attractive and charming coworker whom your wife has mentioned one too many times is transferred to Siberia).

Whatever the reason behind the jealousy, it is important to discuss your insecurities with your spouse/partner in a non-accusatory manner. If s/he is behaving in a way that is leading you to be jealous, find a way to discuss this issue in a rational way, with the goal of building a foundation of trust and emotional security.  

Wishing your marriage all the best!

Dr. Rich Nicastro

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