Relationship Help: Is Jealousy Ruining Your Relationship?

Q: I’m in need of some marriage advice. I’m dealing with a jealous wife! We’ve been married for about three years and over this time period she has become increasingly jealous. It’s gotten so bad that I don’t even want to go out with my friends to play golf because I know it will unsettle her… I try to help her overcome her feelings of jealousy, but nothing seems to work for very long. I’d like to better understand what’s going on for her and what I can do. ~Fernando, Santa Fe, NM

Thank you for your question, Fernando. As you’re learning firsthand, jealousy can be very disruptive to a relationship, causing both partners considerable distress. And overcoming jealousy can be a challenge for many of us.

Let’s look at some of the underlying dynamics behind jealous reactions. (I hope this helps.)

Jealousy often results from an interpretation that some threat to the security of your relationship exists – your status as a spouse/partner is in jeopardy, possibly because of the way your partner is acting (flirting with another; sharing very personal information with a coworker), or this threat is the result of the actions of another (the new, attractive neighbor is having way too much fun talking to your partner).

When feelings of jealousy take hold, a motivational force is stirred within us to re-establish a greater sense of relationship security by correcting or undoing the perceived threat. In essence, the jealous partner or spouse is feeling some level of emotional distress because s/he is feeling insecure. How couples communicate about jealousy is essential to correcting any mis-perceptions and/or re-establishing a sense of relationship security.

Too often, the jealous partner is so upset that s/he is unable to communicate his/her concerns effectively, and a major breakdown in communication occurs when the jealous partner either verbally attacks the other person or makes ironclad accusations that leave no room for discussion.

Jealousy and Your Relationship: Two Possible Sources

It’s important to point out that periodic feelings of jealousy are common in intimate relationships (and mild levels of jealousy can actually strengthen a marriage or relationship – I will discuss this issue in an upcoming article). It’s when feelings of jealousy and mistrust become overly intense and/or a constant in the relationship that problems result.

1) Relationship Insecurity

Relationship security emerges out of the development of mutual trust—couples have an agreed-upon vision of their relationship (what the expectations are around commitment, exclusivity and faithfulness, emotional and physical intimacy, what are appropriate boundaries of a relationship, etc.). This arrangement is akin to having a verbal contract (“I expect you to be faithful”), even though the details of this relationship vision may never have been directly articulated (it is assumed that certain relationship conditions would exist).

It’s when our relationship expectations are violated in some way (“You were flirting with a coworker, and I expect my husband not to be flirtatious”) that jealousy may arise. In these instances, a shift has occurred from relationship security to relationship insecurity. As many couples find out, relationship security isn’t a given—it needs to be maintained and discussed as the marriage or relationship evolves. And there is no standard formula that works for every couple: What one spouse might view as “innocent” flirting may feel egregious to another.

Typically, feelings of trust deepen relationship security and reduce jealousy. Such trust arises out of a sense of shared values (we want the same things for our relationship/marriage) and knowing that your spouse/partner will be responsive to your concerns and emotional needs (for example: “If I ask him/her to stop drinking, I know s/he would”).

But sometimes, identifying the “cause” of jealousy isn’t so straightforward.

2) Self-Esteem Insecurity

Our level of self-esteem (how we feel about ourselves) dramatically affects how we experience others and the world. When you don’t feel good about yourself (for instance: You don’t feel attractive or smart or engaging…; You hate your body; You’re not confident in your abilities to achieve what you want out of life, etc.), you might be more prone to feelings of insecurity about your relationship. In other words, feelings of inadequacy as a spouse/partner can make you feel less secure about your relationship or marriage, even when there is no objective indication that your spouse/partner is unhappy or having regrets about you and the relationship.

We all feel insecure at times (self-doubting; wishing we can find a new and improved version of ourselves), and these same insecurities surface again and again in our relationship. The challenge is to understand the ways in which your insecurities bias your relationship experiences (and your perception of your partner)—one example is a husband who felt threatened each time his wife received a work promotion. Since he equated making money with being a good husband, once his wife’s salary surpassed his salary, he felt he was inadequate as a husband and concluded that she couldn’t be happy with him (and that she would want to be with someone “more successful financially”).

Without insight into how his insecurities were leading to increased levels of jealousy, this husband might have reacted in ways that would have undermined the very foundation of the marriage that he wanted to so desperately protect. Instead of acting irrationally from his jealousy, he shared his concerns with his wife. She was shocked to find out he felt this way, and she explained all the reasons why she loved and respected him (none of which involved him making money!).

Part of the challenge with managing jealousy is that once it reaches a certain intensity, we’re likely to lose perspective about ourselves and our partner, and as a result, become closed off to our partner’s perspective (especially if his/her perspective differs drastically from our own). When dealing with feelings of jealousy, it’s important to objectively identify the relationship conditions that you (or your partner) find troubling without attacking one another. Also, it can be just as important to identify any long-standing insecurities that you struggle with prior to your relationship/marriage, insecurities that may be stirring the pot of jealousy from behind the curtain of your mind independent of your partner’s actions.

All best,

Dr. Rich Nicastro

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