Jealousy. This can drive some people absolutely nuts – and their spouse feels completely justified.
It’s a real conundrum. And it’s particularly worse when the jealous spouse has had prior reason to become jealous — a betrayal has occurred.
What does a person do?
Healthy And Unhealthy Forms of Jealousy.
Research shows that jealousy can have positive or negative effects on a relationship, depending on the type of jealousy that is being displayed.
There are three kinds of jealousy:
- Reactive jealousy: the degree to which individuals experience negative emotions in reaction to a betrayal/unfaithfulness.
- Possessive jealousy: the effort jealous individuals can go to to prevent contact of their spouse with individuals of the opposite sex.
- Anxious jealousy: a process in which the individual ruminates about and cognitively generates images of a mate’s infidelity, and experiences feelings of anxiety, suspicion, worry and distrust.[i]
It is important to note that, in contrast to reactive jealousy, neither possessive nor anxious jealousy actually need a rival or a betrayal to be triggered.
Results from the same research showed that individuals high in anxious jealousy had lower relationship quality, as did individuals married to spouses who were high in anxious jealousy.[ii] Remember, anxious jealousy is just about rumination thoughts – there isn’t necessarily any reality to it.
The conclusion here was that anxious jealousy is bad for your marriage. Other clinical studies show that this type of thinking is characteristic of pathologically jealous individuals who, in general, experience great relationship distress.
If you’re the anxiously jealous individual, I’m guessing that you’re not enjoying being that spouse any more than your spouse is enjoying your jealousy. Ruminating is not fun. It takes a lot of energy and creates a lot of negativity. I want to encourage you to get some help. Life doesn’t have to be this way.
You’ve probably had some very real, even traumatic experiences or really, really significant disappointments in very important relationships, but there is healing. It doesn’t have to go on like this. The best thing you can do is take this to a good therapist and work with them towards finding a less anxious way to evaluate the world around you.
The study also found positive associations between relationship quality and reactive jealousy.[iii]
When a spouse reacts jealously to a betrayal, it is likely to be interpreted by their offending spouse as a token of love and caring and can even enhance the relationship. While reactive jealousy is good – you should be jealous if your relationship is threatened, we don’t recommend inducing reactive jealousy as a way to enhance your relationship. There are many other, safer ways to work on your marriage!
Another finding from the study was that possessive jealousy was not found to be consistently related to relationship quality.[iv] Remember, that possessive jealousy is considerable effort a person goes to in order to prevent contact with the opposite sex. What the researchers felt is that this depends on how this jealousy was expressed.
If you are buying flowers or romancing your spouse to keep them interested, it may help your marriage. In contrast, when you use threats or violence or debasement to prevent unfaithfulness, that will reduce the quality of your marriage.
In either case, you need to ask yourself if this possessive jealousy is coming out of a place of fullness or a place of neediness. Fullness is – I appreciate what we have so much, I’m going to guard it. Neediness is – I can never be sure of what we have so I’m going to keep slapping romance Band-Aids on my anxiety to try to reduce the pressure. That is not healthy.
Relabeling Jealousy in Your Relationship
If your spouse is jealous and you have found this frustrating in the past, you might consider reframing it. For example, if you understand that reactive jealousy does not negatively affect the quality of your marriage, you may choose to see this reactive jealousy on the part of your spouse as a sign that not all love is lost and they really want you, and the relationship they have with you.
You probably don’t want to do that with anxious jealousy, which could lead to accepting conflict or demanding or nagging which really isn’t good for you. The same goes to possessive jealousy. Is it really adding to your marriage, or is it just adding a burden?
Not all jealousy is bad, but some of it is definitely unhelpful.
Communicating Jealousy in Healthy Ways
What happens with jealousy in particular is that it often is communicated in a way that undermines the security of the relationship. This is so ironic, as jealousy is about protecting but it is actually having the opposite effect.
How you express any concerns you have to your spouse is so important. Just looking jealous, or appearing hurt, or crying, or acting all anxious, or accusing, or using sarcasm is all unhelpful. Clear, open communication is what is helpful – direct, non-aggressive disclosures and assurances.[v]
If you have concerns, we don’t want you to feel you have no voice or that you cannot express them, just be mindful of how your express those concerns. As you’re expressing those concerns, another thing you need to look at is how your boundaries differ.
Defining Healthy Boundaries
Some researchers recently stated that “jealousy is usually an indicator of incongruous definitions of boundaries by the two partners.”[vi] Given that statement, we have a question that you need to think about: Have you two defined what monogamous means to you?
Each couple needs to define monogamy. You need to define what fidelity looks like in your own marriage. This varies from marriage to marriage. Even with the moral boundaries of a lot of our listeners who self-identify as Christian, and want to honour the marriage standards of the Bible, there is a lot of grey area. Think about these questions:
- How much separateness and togetherness do you tolerate? (In some marriages, one spouse travels a lot for work. For other couples, they don’t even like to be apart for one night.) What works for you?
- What is private and what can be shared?
- What do you consider acceptable social behaviour with the opposite sex? What one person considers being friendly, another might think of as flirting. You need to find the boundaries for your marriage.
The same researchers also stated that jealousy often comes about because “individuals vary a great deal in terms of how much freedom they expect for themselves and their spouses.”[vii]
Determine what this balance will look like in your relationship. “Most couples need a balance of security and freedom to maintain vitality in their long-term relationship. However, couples struggling with jealousy end up in polar opposite positions with one partner feeling threatened by separateness and the other insisting on the right to freedom.”[viii]
This is an area where a couple needs some give and take. Perhaps the more anxious spouse will need to realize that when his wife is being friendly with another guy, she’s only showing basic human courteousness – there’s nothing more there. For that wife though, she may need to be conscientious about her husband’s fears and maybe be a little more conservative with the opposite sex than she would naturally be. Perhaps she can find her outlet with same-sex friends.
Both spouses need to be careful to build and strengthen their own marriage bond so that this internal sense of safety and security is very robust.
Distinguishing Between Past and Present
Finally, we need to talk about the possibility that something may have happened in the past to trigger this jealousy.
Jealousy often arises out of memories of a past event that become entangled with the present.[ix] This is a rather tangly situation!
The researchers explain it like this: “Jealousy is usually multilayered. For both partners, there are aspects of the present situation that instigate the pattern. However, there are fears from the past, or other contexts, that also inform the meaning of what is happening. These ‘remote files’ containing images, beliefs, sensations, and fears tend to quality and distort the present situation.”[x]
Couples can learn to identify when current jealousy is being influenced by past experiences in the current relationship or other significant past relationships and begin to untangle the two.
This is where it is very easy to get upset and lump things together, but you really need to go slowly and tease things apart in your own mind. This is where couples get really frustrated because you’ll have on jealous spouse and one not.
For example, let’s say the spouse who is not jealous actually had an affair a while ago. It’s extremely difficult for the betrayed spouse not to get triggered into jealousy now, but you have to do the work of removing the past event from who your spouse is today. Yes, if your spouse is still a philanderer, I can see why you’d be jealous, but if they have grown and learned from that unfortunate experience, there there’s a good possibility that today’s jealousy is no longer necessary and may, in fact, be dragging you and your betraying spouse backwards.
Which brings us back to where we started: even though jealousy feels like you’re protecting your marriage, it’s probably having the opposite effect and is eroding the bond between you.
We need to challenge ourselves about distinguishing between past and present and make sure we’re thinking correctly today.
5 Steps to Help with Jealousy
If you are dealing with a jealous spouse, here are 5 Steps you can take to make life easier. This will be a huge help in helping you deal with their jealousy.
[i] D. P. H. Barelds and P. Barelds-Dijkstra, “Relations between Different Types of Jealousy and Self and Partner Perceptions of Relationship Quality,” Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy 14, no. 3 (May 1, 2007): 176–88, doi:10.1002/cpp.532.
[v] Jennifer L. Bevan, “General Partner and Relational Uncertainty as Consequences of Another Person’s Jealousy Expression,” Western Journal of Communication 68, no. 2 (Spring 2004): 195–218.
[vi] Michele Scheinkman and Denise Werneck, “Disarming Jealousy in Couples Relationships: A Multidimensional Approach,” Family Process 49, no. 4 (December 2010): 486–502.
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