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When Jealousy Knocks, Should You Answer?

Published:
December 14, 2023
June 26, 2023
Read to learn about how to deal with jealousy in any relationship.|Learn how to love others by following these three ways.|Read the poem "How to Stay Friends With an Ex".|Read the poem "How to Stay Friends With an Ex".

“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-eyed monster.” —Iago, in Shakespeare’s Othello

We think of jealousy most often in the context of a romantic relationship, but it can rear its head in close friendships, too, whenever we feel threatened that someone we care for deeply may be becoming “too close” with someone else, leaving us behind.

We know instinctively that relationships can’t survive sustained feelings of jealousy (hence the apt analogy to a “monster” that devours), but what can we do when that heartsick feeling of jealousy occurs? Here are some tips.

1. Be aware of your triggers.

As with so many things in relationships (and life), whether and how intensely we feel jealous has a lot to do with our past experiences. Have you been cheated on before? Treated callously by a previous boyfriend or girlfriend? Has a friend or romantic partner lost interest in you before, seemingly out of the blue?

Deeper still: Did you experience abandonment as a child, especially from a parent who left the family? Did you feel passed over, undiscovered and forgotten in the midst of childhood family chaos?

Any or all of these painful experiences can re-surface in a flash if a current significant other even gives the impression of being interested in someone else, or losing interest in you. We know from our outreach to adult children of divorce that even a spouse going on a business trip can trigger a panicked sense of abandonment and a need to check in constantly. “Out of sight, out of mind” is hard to do when people have ghosted you before.

We always filter the present through the past, so if there are unhealed wounds of abandonment or deep hurt in relationships, take this as an opportunity to examine those — perhaps in therapy — in order to be able to see this partner and his/her actions for what they are, not as a recall of past experiences.

2. Assume the best of the other person.

When we can stay in the present moment, and stay focused on the present person, it’s easier to develop a habit of assuming the best about the other person’s actions.

Did your boyfriend take longer than you’d like to get back to your text? Instead of assuming that he’s losing interest in you or is with someone else, practice mental scripts that assume the best: he may be busier than usual at work, or maybe he forgot his phone at home, etc. Did your girlfriend seem to laugh even harder at the other guy’s jokes? Instead of thinking immediately that she has a crush on him (and thinks you’re boring), consider that she just thought the joke was really funny, or that she laughs when she’s nervous.

In short, try to resist any urge to go into full panic mode when there’s a disconnect in the relationship, and let it play out. If there is an innocent reason for whatever distance or unease you are feeling, great — and you will have saved yourself the exhaustion of a frantic emotional downward spiral. And if there is indeed something to address, you’ll be in a calmer position to have that hard conversation.

3. Talk about it!

In even the best relationships, there can come a time to have a difficult conversation if one or both people is feeling a twinge of jealousy that won’t go away. If you’re concerned on a consistent basis about your SO’s behavior, or if things keep happening that make you feel unappreciated or overlooked, talk about it!

It’s definitely scary to bring up our relationship needs and vulnerabilities — we hesitate in order to avoid the possibility of rejection. But these conversations are also crucial growth moments for any relationship. If your connection has long-term potential, it can weather deep and heartfelt sharing. In fact, a good relationship depends upon that level of sharing.

How can you start that conversation? Here are three things to keep in mind:

  • Always start from a place of assuming the other person’s best intentions.
  • Be direct about how a certain action or behavior made you feel: “I know you probably had good reasons for not getting in touch while you were away all weekend, but I want to let you know that it made me feel anxious not to hear from you at all.” Or: “I know you and Jackie have been friends for a while, but I felt uncomfortable when you talked with her all evening.”
  • Give the other person a chance to share their perspective, and really listen. Their response will reveal a lot! Ideally, they’ll be considerate and calm, not blustery or extremely defensive. After all, two people in a healthy relationship care about how the other person feels and want to grow in loving each other better — that includes mutually finding ways for each person to feel connected and appreciated.

(A note of caution: Be especially aware if the other person gaslights you, meaning attempting to convince you that it’s “all in your head” and your feelings of discomfort are invalid. As we said above, it’s important to know how a current situation may be triggering a painful past memory – but that’s different from the other person trying to prove that nothing happened or it’s no big deal.)

4. Know your worth, and don’t settle.

That brings us to our final point. Even after recognizing your own triggers to jealousy, assuming the best intentions of the other person, and having the courage to share your feelings, there will be some relationships where the other person consistently treats their partner with disrespect and doesn’t give them the attention or priority they deserve. Examples would be having frequent communication with former romantic interests; overtly flirting with other people at parties; being unreachable for days at a time without apology; etc. (and resisting changing these behaviors even when requested to do so).

In situations like these, that feeling of jealousy that is triggered turns out to be extremely helpful, alerting the other person to some seriously disrespectful behavior. For some of us, especially those with deep relationship wounds from their past, it can be tempting to think that this is how all relationships are, or this is the best we can do. But that’s just not true. You — everyone! — is worthy of a healthy relationship where each partner honors and prioritizes the other. The feeling of jealousy can be exacerbated by a sense of low self-esteem (which in turn can come from experiences of abandonment), but we encourage you to know your inestimable worth and not to settle for a relationship where you’re consistently wondering whether the other person really sees your worth.

Relationships are hard work, and jealousy can be a tricky thing to deal with. We encourage you to seek out trusted mentors and friends to talk through issues that come up in your relationships; such a support network can go a long way in addressing the issue of jealousy.

Creators:
Dr. Daniel, Bethany Meola
Published:
December 14, 2023
June 26, 2023
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