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Clinical Psychology Associates of North Central Florida

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double-edged sword

Jealousy is a Dangerous Sword – Are You Ready for Some Tips?


by Shauna Springer, Ph.D. , Licensed Psychologist

Associate, Clinical Psychology Associates of North Central Florida

All Rights Reserved


Jealousy is increasingly recognized as a fairly universal experience across cultures.  Various theories have evolved with many focusing on various forms of jealousy or hypothetical differences between male and female jealousy.  Some differentiate between emotional jealousy which may involve a real or perceived rival for an emotional bond, and sexual jealousy which involves real or imagined potential infidelity.  Freud and others have long made a distinction between pathological jealousy, which is very destructive and some form of normal jealousy, which is more common and serves to activate partners in a relationship to protect their bond.  Thus, a mild degree of realistic jealousy may serve to protect a relationship, but the other edge of the sword is that individuals consumed or obsessed with jealousy may become destructive of themselves, the relationship, or their partner. 


Destructive forms of jealousy may stem from low self-esteem and insecurity.  This is further magnified by the real or imagined threat of losing the object of one’s affection.  Other forms of destructive jealousy involve possessive forms of jealousy, where the primary motive is not the preservation of the relationship, but one of control.  Some have said that jealousy can drive people “mad”.  In extreme cases the anxiety, upset, and insecurity commonly felt in jealousy can be magnified in a syndrome similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Sleeplessness, hypervigilance, irritability and obsessive thoughts can develop.  Some individuals may become suicidal, and sadly, jealousy is often a factor underlying homicides of women by their spouses or partners. Cultural factors add to the emotional mix of jealousy as individuals may fear shame or humiliation caused by the real or perceived infidelity of a spouse.


While sexual rivalry is likely to be a factor in many of the emotions involved in jealousy, another dimension involves issues of trust and betrayal of a bond which we perceive as essential to our well being and the security of our family and children.  Issues of loss of a partner as well as loss of our closest bond can trigger anxiety as well as depression.  Accusations of betrayal or even elaborate loyalty tests such as checking cell phone numbers, e-mail, following or spying often backfire and may provoke self-fulfilling prophecies.  Others experiencing painful jealousy may go to the opposite extreme, becoming withdrawn, avoidant and resentful in a pattern that also can undermine the valued relationship.


Obviously, such behaviors are likely to be destructive to the relationship, since trust is necessary for sharing and intimacy.  The individual engaging in such behavior also often ends up feeling even worse about him or herself (“I never thought of myself as an insecure type of person before, and I can’t believe I was willing to hack into her email account”).  Those caught in the throes of an irrational jealous fit are likely to feel fearful, panicky, suspicious, and angry – all feelings that often lead to poor decision making, impulsive behaviors, and ultimately, a generally miserable relationship.


While is it normal to feel mildly jealous on occasion, if jealousy is a frequent emotion or something which is irrational, this may reflect the carryover of past real or imagined traumas and betrayals.  Intense or pathological jealousy may also be the product of low self-esteem, or overcompensation for insecurity through attempts to possess or control.  Seeking counseling or psychotherapy may assist in exploring and resolving past traumas and develop better means of coping with insecurity.


Certainly, as described above, many types of intense and extreme responses or reactions to feelings of jealousy are very maladaptive for relationships and worthy of psychiatric and psychological evaluation and psychotherapy.  However, might it be possible to understand this common yet uncomfortable feeling into something productive instead of destructive?


Part of the emotion of jealousy originates from a fear of losing something that is of value to us as well, as the yearning to ensure the fidelity of a desirable mate.  If we go beyond pathological forms of jealousy and pathological reactions, milder experiences of jealousy may reflect a sign that you care about your relationship, and that your feelings for your partner are alive (albeit painfully).  Jealousy may also serve as a signal about the state of our own emotional health or the health of a close relationship.


Within the more normal range of jealousy, these feeling might indicate that you have not been feeling very good about yourself recently.  Or, jealous feelings may simply be a cue that your relationship has started to become too distant and that you have been drifting away from each other.  In these cases, jealousy can tip us off, acting as an early warning sign that we need to attend either to ourselves, or to the level of closeness in the relationship.


Because jealousy may be related to feelings about your own worth, do a self check-up and look for any areas where you have not been feeling good about yourself lately. So often in magazines, the advice one gets related to improving one’s self-esteem equates with improving self-image. For example, update your wardrobe, get a make-up consultation, get a new haircut, hire a personal trainer to help you develop “six-pack” abs, treat yourself to a day of pampering at the local spa. While these activities may temporarily prop you up, these interventions may be short-lived and are nearly always painful to your wallet. Similarly, reading books on self-esteem and practicing self-affirming statements may help some people, but the most effective long term intervention for increasing self-esteem is to analyze the degree to which your choices and behaviors are aligned with your values.


Important insights for understanding self-esteem problems may be gained by assessing the degree to which decisions or actions conflict with one’s core values and ideals. Practically speaking, if you say that you value your health and fitness, how much time and energy have you actually been investing in health or fitness activities?  If your faith or your sense of right and wrong are important parts of your convictions, are you actions consistent with your morals?  If you say that you value your relationship with your spouse as a top priority, do you devote the quality and quantity of time to connect and remain connected with your spouse? Have you been an enjoyable companion lately, or one who is prone to criticize or belittle your spouse?  Taking an inventory and acting in a manner that is consistent with our values and ideals can be a powerfully effective way to improve self-worth and grow as a person. Handling life with integrity, and living up to the values and standards one has for oneself, is certainly something to feel very good about.


As mentioned previously, jealous feelings may signify that you and your partner have recently been drifting apart. If this is at the root of jealous feelings, the best intervention may simply involve spending more quality time together.  Sometimes jealousy may stem not from a sexual rival, but from competition from our partner’s time.  Without being controlling, establishing some mutually agreed-upon boundaries on competing activities and outside relationships could help.


Emotional jealousy may also stem from differences in each partner’s interpersonal boundaries.  It is often helpful for a couple to establish understandings about how opposite sex relationships will be handled as a couple.  A couple might find it helpful to agree that efforts will be made to introduce to each other any opposite sex friends that become important in each of your lives.  Discussing and coming to agreements about business trips that make both partners comfortable is also likely to allay fears.  Communication and reassurance are often keys to establishing and maintaining trust and intimacy.


Honest communication about our fears, faults and vulnerabilities assist in establishing trust whereas accusatory behavior, resentment and mistrust can be a recipe for the opposite.  Attractions to other people can be a real threat to a relationship.  The author of The Monogamy Myth, Peggy Vaughn, notes that “real honesty means more than just ‘not lying’ – it means not withholding information that may threaten the security of your relationship.”  If a couple is able to develop the security and ability to discuss these sometimes threatening issues of attraction to others, this can enhance the level of trust and intimacy in the relationship.


While ideal, it is always important to realize personality factors, psychological insight, communication skills as well as each partner’s personal history of past (sometimes traumatic) experience can pose obstacles to reaching the goal of very honest communication.  Trust is established when reasonable risks are taken in communicating vulnerabilities and a positive outcome is achieved.  This is usually established with time. Judgment is required, since self-disclosures that are met with accusations and hurt may lead to less open communication in the future.


In summary, it is important to note we are probably wired by nature to struggle with jealousy at least some of the time.  Mild or infrequent bouts of jealousy may be perfectly normal, may indicate a bit of temporary insecurity, or may be a helpful cue to attend to our relationship. Pathological jealousy can be quite destructive in a relationship, and, in extreme cases even dangerous in terms of assaultive behavior, suicide or homicide.  Sometimes past traumas, needs to control, or personality factors can lead to highly obsessive and even extreme behaviors.  In cases of extreme jealousy, when individuals become obsessed, depressed, overly controlling, or extremely anxious, psychological or psychiatric consultation is very important.


In cases where there is a desire to improve the relationship and to deal with normal feelings of jealousy, it is often not the feeling of jealousy that is harmful for our relationships, but the way in which we respond to this very natural emotion that matters. Communicating about jealousy is a two-edged sword. If you communicate in a way that is perceived as accusatory, or as possessive and controlling, this can drive a relationship farther apart. In a mature relationship, sharing insecurities, attractions, and the vulnerable feelings associated with jealousy can help increase the trust and intimacy of the relationship.


Shauna Springer, Ph.D., was an Associate with Clinical Psychology Associates of North Central Florida in Gainesville, Florida (352) 336-2888 when she contributed this popular article.  Her areas of specialization and research include marital and relationship issues.



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