The Green-Eyed Monster: Understanding Jealousy in Your Relationship

The following is the first in a two-part series on the subject of jealousy, or as many refer to, “the green-eyed monster.” The blog is based on a couple I will call Bob and June.* June is dealing with strong feelings of jealousy. To begin with, let me qualify this blog by saying that I would be writing an entirely different blog on jealousy if in fact the partner was having an emotional or physical affair. For the purpose of this discussion, we will assume that the jealousy is baseless. Although one can never be 100% sure, however without any factual evidence it is best to accept whatever your partner is telling you.

What is Jealousy?

Jealousy is a complex emotion that often finds its way into my office as the key concern a couple presents. Jealousy encompasses feelings ranging from fear of abandonment to rage and humiliation. Jealousy strikes both men and women – and is most typically aroused when a person perceives a threat to a valued relationship from a third party. The threat may be real or imagined.

Bob and June, a couple in their 40s, came into my office for counseling. June has strong feelings of jealousy about her husband’s relationship with his coworker Lori. June had been trying to discuss it unsuccessfully with Bob. Bob denies that he is having a romantic affair, either emotionally or physically with Lori his coworker. Bob rejects the notion that anything romantic is happening between the two of them, and insists his relationship with Lori is purely platonic. Rather than calmly and rationally discussing her concerns, June expresses herself with anger and sarcasm through accusations and questioning Bob about his actions and whereabouts. Due to June’s steady barrage of questions, Bob feels interrogated – and is on the verge of leaving the relationship.

June is experiencing a range of emotions including rage, fear, hurt, insecurity and self-doubt. She is very threatened and fearful of her husband’s relationship with Lori now, and potentially in the future. Regardless of her husband’s denial of any wrongdoing, June appears consumed by her jealousy.

Jealousy: The Stories She is Telling Herself

Typically when there is jealousy in relationships, there is a story that we are telling ourselves which may or may not be true. June is telling herself one or more of the following:

• Her husband’s friendship with Lori will eventually lead to romance or sexual intimacy.
• The type of attention Bob is giving to Lori is inappropriate.
• Lori is more of a priority than she is.
• Too much of her husband’s time and energy is going to Lori instead of her – and this is time and energy that should be invested in their relationship.
• Her husband is having certain needs met by Lori, which she is not meeting. (This is perceived as a threat.)
• Her husband wishes he were single and would be with Lori if he could.
• Her husband is not making an effort to be with her the way he does with Lori.
• Spending time with Lori is easy for Bob while spending time with her is hard.
• Her husband is asking Lori for her opinion about things he should be asking her.
• She may lose her husband to Lori.
• She will only be happy when her husband stops seeing this woman.
• She will only be happy when her husband needs only her.
• She will be happy when her husband sacrifices his own needs for hers.

7 Causes of Jealousy

It’s important for you to recognize the source of your feelings of jealousy and insecurity. There are at least 7 primary causes of jealousy which include:

1. Childhood memories. Jealousy may be related in part to strong childhood messages, which may predispose a person to hypervigilance. For example, June’s mother always told her “You cannot trust men, and especially your husband.” This early childhood message from her mother may have set up a pattern of being threatened.

2. Cheating in prior relationships. Jealousy can be caused due to prior cheating in a previous relationship. It is possible that June has experienced cheating from a partner in other relationships.

3. Cheating models at home. If cheating was seen at home between a mother and father, this may predispose a person to mistrusting their partner without cause.

4. Anxious attachment style. Many who suffer from severe jealousy have an anxious attachment style, which creates a sense of inadequacy and feelings of chronic anxiety and insecurity. These feelings of chronic anxiety and insecurity are fueled by thoughts that our spouse is going to leave us or doesn’t love us enough.

5. Mate retention behavior. Evolutionary sociologists and psychologists have attempted to normalize jealousy as an emotion that has evolutionary purpose. Evolutionary psychologists describe jealousy as mate retention – or mate guarding behaviors – and believe that jealousy is related to an interest in ensuring that their mate is emotionally invested enough to stick around and help raise their offspring. In other words, jealousy discourages desertion by a mate and thus enables the survival of the young. Some examples might include making friends with the threatening person, losing weight and paying more attention to your partner, or dressing provocatively.

6. Positive attributes of the other. Another aspect of jealousy is that it often has to do with qualities about the other person that are viewed as positive attributes – such as his/her looks, and ability to communicate effortlessly, enthusiasm, and of course, their interest in your partner.

7. A belief that men and women can’t be platonic friends. Many believe that any male-female friendship will inevitably turn into an affair or romance. Those that take this position believe that sexual tension almost always exists between a man and woman. Our culture feeds that it’s impossible for men and women to have a platonic friendship and that it will eventually and inevitably lead to them sleeping together.

Finally, there may be other issues going on in the relationship which have nothing to with the jealousy directly, yet are contributing to jealousy. For example, one can only imagine that for any couple in a long-term marriage, that sex can become quite routine and perhaps nonexistent. Additionally, because of the unstable situation with the marriage, the couple may be questioning the long-term viability of the relationship, and thus putting any plans on hold. Or, the relationship may have entered a new stage. One partner may be evolving and growing –personally and/or professionally – while the other feels stuck and uncertain of their direction in life.

Whether you or your partner (or both of you!) are the jealous one in the relationship, really spend time considering the seven causes from which jealousy typically stems. Can you identify the cause in your life? Read my next post, which covers how to address your own jealousy. I also discuss what, if anything, can be done to deal with a partner’s jealousy.

* All names and circumstances have been changed for privacy.