Is Jealousy Healthy in a Relationship?

Nobody wants to be a “jealous person.” But we all experience periodic waves of jealousy, and they can be surprisingly powerful when they wash over us. 

When your girlfriend spends a little bit too much time hanging out with her hunky coworker, or your husband’s “friend” comments one too many times on his Instagram posts, jealousy can strike — no matter how secure you are, or how healthy your relationship is. 

You might be gripped by feelings of anger, fear, and sadness as you think about your partner connecting with someone else. You might feel compelled to take action to prevent that from happening… or you might suppress your jealous feelings altogether because they don’t match up with the cool, confident person you want to be. 

As a longtime marriage counselor and relationship coach, I know that jealousy in a relationship is not just natural and normal — it's also quite adaptive. Feelings of jealousy can bring you and your partner closer together, and both protect and strengthen your attachment bond. 

But jealousy also has the power to damage relationships, depending on how you handle it. Managing a white-hot feeling like jealousy and communicating about it in a vulnerable, emotionally-safe way takes a lot of self-awareness and self-control. Then, jealousy becomes something that helps you preserve and strengthen your relationship, and create an even deeper bond between yourself and your partner. 

On today’s episode of the podcast, we’re discussing how you can do that. You’ll learn all about why we feel jealous, when jealousy in a relationship is healthy and when it’s a problem, and how you can use feelings of jealousy to tune into what’s happening, start important conversations, and take positive action that helps your relationship grow. 

You can join me on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. 

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Is Jealousy Healthy in a Relationship?

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Is Jealousy Healthy in a Relationship?: Episode Highlights

Jealousy gets a bad rap. It belongs to the family of “ugly feelings,” like rage, loathing, and disgust. “Jealous people” are often labeled possessive, paranoid, or insecure. 

When you think about someone who’s jealous, you might imagine someone who obsessively monitors their partner’s Instagram likes, or accuses them of flirting with Uber drivers and waiters. This kind of jealousy certainly happens, and it can fuel some pretty toxic relationship dynamics. In its extreme form, jealousy can lead to nasty fights, controlling behavior, or even abuse. 

It’s no surprise, then, that many people consider romantic jealousy categorically unhealthy, and that we’re so eager to distance ourselves from it. When we’re feeling jealous, we might shove those feelings down rather than talking about them with our partner. Or, we might translate our jealousy directly into anger, blaming our partner for “making us feel” an unpleasant, shameful feeling. 

But, like all feelings, jealousy is natural and normal, and when managed in the right way, it can even be good for your relationship. If you can accept your feelings of jealousy and listen to what they’re trying to tell you, without judgment or blame, it can prompt important conversations and help you build a closer, more secure connection with your partner. 

To do that, it helps to understand what romantic jealousy is and why we experience it. 

What Is Romantic Jealousy?

We can feel jealous in just about any relationship, but romantic jealousy is a uniquely powerful force. Even the most easy going people can surprise themselves by how overwhelmed they feel when the conditions are right to trigger it. 

From an evolutionary perspective, these feelings serve a very good purpose. Humans evolved in a context where sticking together meant survival, while rejection and abandonment meant death. People dominate the planet because we form powerful attachment bonds and work hard to preserve them, not because our ancestors were super laidback about their mates wandering off into somebody else’s mud hut.  

In the modern world, you probably wouldn’t starve to death if your partner left you for somebody else. But we still attach to our partners in the same way and have the same emotional and physiological response when those attachments feel threatened. When you sense a “rival” moving in on the person you’re attached to, some deeply hardwired machinery starts whirring in your brain, and a complex mix of fear, pain, anger, and suspicion washes over you. 

This is romantic jealousy, and it’s designed to motivate you to take action to ensure that your attachment bond is stable and that your partner isn’t going anywhere. Whether your jealousy is “healthy” or “unhealthy,” or “good” or “bad” for your relationship, depends on how you manage those feelings, and how you and your partner are able to communicate about them. 

How to Deal with Jealousy in a Relationship

When handled well, feelings of jealousy can lead to a conversation that brings you and your partner closer together. 

Here’s how that would play out, in an ideal world: 

You express vulnerable feelings → Your partner responds with validation, empathy, and reassurance → You understand each other better, and you feel more secure and connected. 

Scenario #1

But, this is not an ideal world, and often the conversation plays out more like this: 

You’re emotionally flooded, so you come in a little bit hot → Your partner feels attacked, so they get defensive → You end up having a fight, and the opportunity to connect is lost. 

Scenario #2

To avoid scenario #2, lead with vulnerability when you’re talking with your partner about feelings of jealousy. Tell them you’re feeling worried about the situation (because you love them and they mean so much to you) and ask them for what you need. 

You might just need a little reassurance, or to set some boundaries together for your relationship. For example, you may have never talked about what’s appropriate when it comes to spending time with friends of the opposite sex. If you’re in the early stages of dating, you may have not yet had a conversation about exclusivity or your commitment to each other. If this is the case, your feelings of jealousy are your emotional guidance system’s way of telling you that it’s time to talk.

These conversations can be scary, and if you’ve been avoiding them, there may be a reason for that. Maybe you’re afraid of seeming needy, or you’re afraid of what you’ll hear. But you get to have needs in your relationship, and gaining more information about whether or not your partner is able or willing to meet those needs can only be a good thing. 

And if you’re on the other side of this conversation, try to hear the vulnerability underneath your partner’s words when they’re feeling jealous. They may sound angry or accusatory, but they’re really trying to say, “I’m feeling scared right now. Please reassure me that I’m safe.” 

Jealousy and Relational Trauma

Sometimes jealousy pops up because of things that are happening in the present moment. But other times, jealousy has more to do with things that happened in the past. 

If you’ve been cheated on, abandoned, or rejected in a particularly painful way, that creates an emotional ripple effect that carries on long after the relationship in question is over. This is relational trauma, and it makes you hypervigilant about all the possibilities for getting hurt again. You might get carried away with a story about who they’re talking to every time your partner gets a text notification, or feel a little bit obsessed about where they’re going and who they’re with. 

This is a totally normal reaction to being traumatized; it’s your brain’s effort to keep you safe from being hurt again. Unfortunately, it can cause a lot of problems in your relationship, making it difficult for you to relax, to enjoy the positive connection you have with your partner, and to trust them. It can be frustrating and hurtful for your partner as well, especially if they’ve been nothing but trustworthy for you. 

Of course, if your partner hasn’t been entirely trustworthy, if they have perhaps cheated on you in the past, then your feelings of jealousy are totally expected and appropriate. Moving forward after infidelity requires a process of healing and repairing trust

If you suspect old wounds are at the root of jealousy in your relationship, then reading articles and listening to podcasts won’t fully solve the problem. A good couples counselor or individual therapist can help you both heal from trauma, rebuild trust, and feel safe and secure in the present. 

When Jealousy Is Not Healthy in a Relationship

There’s nothing wrong with feeling jealous from time to time. But when jealousy is left unchecked, it creates problems. 

Jealousy is often the driving force behind abusive relationships. In an effort to manage their own anxiety about losing the relationship, an abuser may monitor their partner’s communications, threaten them or the people in their life, use physical force to stop their partner from leaving, or “punish” their partner for “making them jealous” with physical, emotional, or verbal abuse. 

We can understand the feelings that lead to abusive behavior, while recognizing that abuse is never ok. If you’re in a relationship that sounds like this, visit thehotline.org for great resources that can help. 

Is Jealousy Healthy in a Relationship?

Jealousy is a normal and adaptive emotion. If you can manage your jealousy with an understanding of what’s really happening, it can lead to positive things for you and for your partner. 

Paying attention to your feelings of jealousy and communicating them in a healthy way can open up new opportunities for connection, and can be the catalyst that helps you to get on the same page about boundaries, commitment, and expectations for your relationship

Episode Show Notes

[03:23] Jealousy in a Relationship

  • Jealousy can happen in any relationship, even non-romantic ones.
  • Many people believe there should be zero jealousy in a relationship.
  • Jealousy can set off a chain of assumptions about ourselves and our partner.

[09:49] What Causes Jealousy in a Romantic Relationship?

  • Jealousy is a complex and powerful emotion rooted in primal human instincts.
  • Our brains interpret threats to our attachments as threats to our survival.
  • Although it hurts, jealousy is part of an emotional guidance system that identifies threats.

[17:49] Healthy Jealousy in a Relationship

  • Jealousy motivates specific behaviors and puts us on alert.
  • It serves a purpose: to warn us of problems so that we can take action.
  • You might feel jealousy even for relationships that you no longer want.
  • It’s critical to talk about your feelings to create emotionally bonding conversations with your partner.

[23:56] How to Handle Jealousy in a Relationship

  • Your partner or you may have deeply-rooted relational traumas or attachment wounds.
  • Relational trauma has similar symptoms to PTSD, even if not to the same level of intensity.
  • People with these wounds may be hypervigilant and constantly anxious, but it’s not about their partner, it’s an artifact of their trauma.
  • Unfaithful partners may not understand the legacy of the trauma they inflicted.

[33:25] How to Work on Jealousy in a Relationship

  • It’s vital to approach traumatized partners with compassion, intention, and sensitivity. 
  • They may need a significant amount of reassurance and time.
  • Jealousy can create trust issues, damaging an emotional bond.
  • It’s essential to communicate clearly: don’t be defensive, and practice emotionally safe communication.
  • Professional help is likely your best option if one partner has deep emotional wounds.

[41:56] Abusive Jealousy in a Relationship

  • Your partner’s past traumas are not your fault, and you do not have to participate in them.
  • Trauma might be why your partner acts abusively, but it does not excuse their behavior.
  • If your partner exhibits abusive behavior, it’s critical to connect with a therapist or look for assistance.

[46:01] Learning From Jealousy in a Relationship

  • Pay attention to your feelings of jealousy and be honest about how you feel, your values, and your intentions for the relationship.
  • Jealousy can be a good warning system for problems in your relationship.

Music in this episode is by Gloria Ann Taylor with their song “Jolene.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://nightbeats.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.

Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to The Love, Happiness and Success Podcast. What we are currently listening to together is the most delightful cover of Dolly Parton's Jolene that I think I've ever heard. The artist is Gloria Ann Taylor. And she is so phenomenal. Listen to this. Sorry. It's just so good. So Gloria Ann was a contemporary, actually, of Dolly Parton's. And this is from an album of hers that came out, I think, in the mid-70s. She has several others, and they are just phenomenal. So, Gloria Ann Taylor, you can find her work on Bandcamp. I'm sure you can stream it anywhere music is available because she's a legend. And it's such good stuff.

I went for this song, in particular, today because this is like the battle hymn, the empathetic “Yes, this is how I feel” for anybody who is one, human because two, they have struggled with feelings of jealousy in a relationship. It's so hard. And when you're going through it, it is absolutely agonizing. And that's what we're tackling on today's show, we're going to be talking about jealousy in relationships. And when jealousy is actually healthy and appropriate, what to do with jealousy when it comes up, you know, signs that jealousy is problematic and what to do with it if that is the case.

All good stuff, important stuff, and all for you on today's episode, because you've told me that this is a topic that's important to you. I so appreciate it when you get in touch with me. through Instagram at @drlisamariebobby through our website growingself.com. You can email us at hello@growing self.com with your questions and the things that are on your mind so that I can design podcast episodes that speak to you specifically because that is why we're here.

If this is your first time here, welcome. I'm Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, I'm the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching and I am here every week talking about love, happiness, and success and how to achieve more of it in your life. I have a background as a licensed marriage and family therapist. I'm a licensed psychologist, I'm a board-certified coach and I draw from all of these different orientations as an experience as a therapist, as a coach, also as a lifelong learner. And also as a fellow traveler. The things we talk about on this show are, I think, relevant for all of us, self included. So thank you for being here today and joining the conversation.

Jealousy in a Relationship

Let's talk about the green-eyed monster, shall we? Jealousy? And let's start by tackling one central question. Is jealousy healthy in a relationship? If so, why, when? And when is it not healthy? When is it a problem? When do we need to try to resolve it? All important questions and questions that I know come up a lot come up for couples. I hear this from listeners writing in counseling and coaching clients. Many people struggle with feelings of jealousy, it can happen in romantic relationships. And hey, jealousy can also raise its hand in our friendships and our relationships with family members sometimes. And I think it's important to talk about because, among other things, attitudes about jealousy can be pretty extreme.

It's not just that jealousy happens, it is how do we feel about jealousy? Do we have judgments or values around the experience of jealousy, all kinds of stuff. So on the one hand, I talk with people who believe that jealousy is just a bad feeling that they should not have healthy people do not feel jealous, is it one of the seven deadly sins it might be I think it's right up there with sloth, avarice, greed, jealousy, right? So if I am feeling jealous, or if my partner is feeling jealous, it means something is wrong. There's something wrong with them. There's something wrong with me, there's something wrong with our relationship, there's a problem.

That is actually a common attitude, an unfortunate attitude as we will discuss, but it is common. And interestingly, it is not just my observation that that is common, so harboring negativity towards jealousy. We actually have numbers on this, the dating app OkCupid, which interestingly, the organization behind it does a lot of pretty cool big data. It's the same group, I believe is still match.com, OkCupid, I think they have other horses in that stable, but because they have access to so many people and opportunities to send polls and quizzes and responses, they have a lot of data on attitudes, dating behaviors, and that's very interesting. 

I've talked to representatives from their organization on previous episodes of this podcast about their findings. But more recently OkCupid has found that 1.6 million of its users say that jealousy in a relationship is unhealthy, categorically. So not sure what percentage — see, I'm getting all, like a nerdy psychologist here, I want to know what their sample size is, right? But anyway, nevertheless, it is a lot of people, okay, who believe that jealousy is wrong. Now, on the other hand, though, I also hear from a lot of people, many of whom I've worked with in counseling and coaching, who struggle with feeling jealous, but who experience these feelings as something that is a reaction to something that their partner is doing or not doing.

They don't perceive their feelings as being unhealthy or wrong. They're saying, I am having this feeling because something bad is happening to me. So for example, my partner is making me feel jealous, because when we were at the coffee shop, he had his eyes all over the 22-year-old barista, right. So he made me feel this way. And I am entitled to feel this way because he was being wrong. And there's also a lot of meaning around these kinds of jealousy experiences. So it's not just for example, that my partner is looking at the barista and making me feel jealous, I am feeling jealous because of how I am interpreting his behavior. He's looking at her and I'm standing right here, he's looking at her, because he doesn't respect me. Or he is more attracted to her than he is to me, or this is an indication that our relationship is not fundamentally secure. Because if it was, he wouldn't be doing this.

To have an experience of jealousy can also like set off this chain of core beliefs and assumptions about ourselves about our partner about, you know, the way things should be, they get very complex. And this creates a lot of stress for both people in the relationship. Not to mention the barista who is also probably not having a good time in this scenario I would imagine.

This episode is really about, you know, talking through the complexity of jealousy, in order to discuss all of its nuances. And I think also because the experience of jealousy is a very interesting entry point, to talk about a lot of other things that are common even in really healthy relationships. I mean, when jealousy is present, it sort of begs a conversation about things like attachment, boundaries, trust, et cetera. And my hope that is through this episode, we'll come to understand jealousy differently through a new perspective. And you will be ready to navigate jealousy when it comes up in your relationship, because it will, but always does.

What Causes Jealousy in a Relationship

Alright. So to start, what is romantic jealousy? Again, as I mentioned at the very beginning of this episode, jealousy can come up in all kinds of situations with, friends that we’re envious of in work situations, you know, all kinds of stuff. But for today's conversation, I do want to limit the scope to romantic jealousy, which is jealousy that comes up in the context of a romantic relationship, right.

This is a very complex emotion. I mean, I don't know if you've ever sat with the experience of feeling jealous long enough to notice all of the facets, because, again, many of our negative emotions are not comfortable, and we want to push them away as quickly as possible. So we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to really just like notice what is happening when jealousy is present. When you take the time to do that, and give yourself permission to sit with it for a little while, you notice that it has lots like it's a mixture of things, there is a lot of fear in jealousy. Right? There's also pain, like hurt feelings are happening in jealousy. There's often anger, suspicion, even kind of rage-y sorts of feelings, right.

Everybody has felt this way. If you know you've been with somebody long enough, sooner or later, you're going to feel at least a whiff of this in a situation where all of a sudden, you're feeling a little worried, or hurt, or angry, or suspicious, or all of the above, right. And even people who are, quote, aren't jealous can surprise themselves when conditions are right to trigger jealousy. And when it happens, it is a powerful experience, very easy to get swept away in the heat of the moment, when jealousy is activated.

It's not uncommon at all for people to feel a little out of control, they’re like gripped by the intense jealousy might even look a little nuts, no judgment, it's like it just is what happens to us. When jealousy has taken hold of us, it's very easy to get carried away with a story about what is happening right now, what is going on between my partner, and this real or imagined rival that I suddenly have here. So it's all kinds of things are happening internally in the moment when your partner glances at the barista.

What causes romantic jealousy, what is going on here. So when jealousy flares up, it is always due to a real or perceived threat to your secure attachment bond. Your attachment bond, as we have discussed in previous episodes of this podcast, is your emotional and physiological bond to your partner. That is very real. And it has biologically-based components as well as emotional components and psychological components. But when there is a circumstance that all of a sudden makes that attachment bond feel less secure or threatened. Jealousy wooshes in. And there are really good reasons for this evolutionarily.

As you may remember, from previous discussions on this topic, humans are built to bond to other people. And these attachment bonds are evolutionarily necessary to the survival of our species. So our attachments our need to attach, are, you know, related to fundamental survival drives. They're very, very deep. They're very powerful, and they exist for a reason. So if we take ourselves back to 200,000 years ago, if a rival lures away your mate, and they go wandering out of the mud hut, into their mud hut, and they're not your person anymore, it actually, evolutionarily speaking, will threaten your survival and the survival of your offspring.

Remember, humans are a collective species. We survived by organizing ourselves into tribes with kinship relationships, and we stuck together, we helped each other, we defended each other. And that is why I am here today talking to you is because our people stuck together. And it worked well enough to ensure that, that all of our ancestors had at least one child that survived long enough to reproduce. And then people can't do that alone, right. So, deep stuff, old stuff, powerful stuff. And because this is so fundamentally important, our attachments to each other, or something that needs to be protected, any ruptures to our attachment, or threats to our attachment, need to be prevented and repaired no matter what. And this is not conscious. 

This is stuff that is so old and so deep, and so baked into the machinery that when your partner glances at the barista, it sends a danger signal into a deep old part of your brain that the does not have language even it's just this like, kind of feeling that is involuntary. It's immediate, if you are interpreting that on some level as a threat.

I personally have been married so long, and my husband is a ladies’ man. And he'll be like, that barista was hot. And I'll be like, yeah, she was hot. And we go and we have our coffee, because it's like, not a threat to me at this point in my life. But I will tell you that there have been other situations that have felt more threatening to me relationally, the 22-year-old barista does not feel like a threat. But there have been other situations where, you know, if my husband is developing a friendship with somebody and they seem to be — like a lot of emotional intimacy, you know, that, that feels different for me. And we have had conversations about that.

I know that, you know, he has his, his own triggers, too, because we're human, and we're attached and we love each other. And these are feelings that come up, it is part of our emotional guidance system, informing us that our attachment is all of a sudden, not in question in you know, like a very real way, but like there's a threat, the shadow of the hawk is flying over. And we need to talk about those feelings. Because if we don't talk about those feelings with our partner, then what happens, you know, we internalize it, we get angry, we get hurt, often, with no reason for getting angry or hurt. We're making assumptions.

Healthy Jealousy in a Relationship

The other thing that is so important to understand about feelings of jealousy is that like all other emotions, they motivate certain behaviors. When we feel jealous, all of a sudden, we are on red alert, we're paying attention to what's going on with our partner, and the emotion motivates us to reach out to connect to get more information. And if you handle it, well, what it turns into is a bid for connection that stabilizes your attachment.

It leads to an authentic conversation that is vulnerable, that is emotional. And that ideally, when that vulnerability is met with responsiveness and empathy and kindness, there is not just a repair, it doesn't just soothe the jealousy, it actually strengthens your relationship because you felt vulnerable, you reached out and there was reassurance, there was kindness, and your bond is strengthened because of it. So in that way, jealousy is very functional.

Also in the same way it can be very healthy, because all emotions are functional. Our feelings serve a purpose. When you put your hand on a hot stove, it hurts and because it hurts, you remove your hand, thereby solving the problem. And the emotions that come up in relationships, particularly that relate to our attachment bonds work very much in the same way. Our emotions guide our attention and they also motivate action and so your feelings of jealousy can help you be alert for possible problems and take action that will restore your bond before a problem occurs.

It's also important to understand that because the origins of these feelings are so deep and so automatic and so you know, a part of our emotional kind of animal mind they are not even remotely rational. They're not things that are typically reasoned or considered in language, they just flare up. It's not like you're kind of consciously connecting dots, something like, “Oh, I think I should feel jealous.” By Jove, it's not that it is something that is immediate.

It is also irrational in the sense that it happens anytime we have an attachment bond to somebody, even if it's an attachment bond that we don't want anymore. So for example, I hear this all the time, probably, nine out of ten of the comments on my blog are a question related to the phenomenon of having broken up with a person and feeling intense feelings of jealousy. Now that that person is dating someone new, and it's Dr. Lisa, we broke up three years ago, I initiated the breakup. Because of all of these, let me tell you all the ten good reasons why we broke up and was moving on with our life, everything is fine. And then I saw a picture of him with his new girlfriend, or vice versa. And I am out of my mind, I can't sleep. It's all I'm thinking about what is happening to me, I'm going crazy. Please help me in the comment section of this blog. And I'm just kidding.

Valid question, because people are genuinely like, puzzled. This doesn't make any sense. Why am I feeling this way? And the short answer is because this goes back to that really old deep part of your brain that flares into action whenever it perceives a threat to your survival. Whether or not you are objectively in any danger from like your conscious, rational thinking brain who we're sitting here, in the year of our Lord 2022, which, you know, is not a fully safe place. But generally speaking, if a partner or ex-partner gets a new partner, you're not going to starve to death in the woods somewhere, right? That doesn't happen anymore. But the part of your brain that evolved in that context, doesn't know that and still has the same feelings of I'm about to die, I'm going to do something. So that is where it comes from. And that is why you feel the way that you do.

Those are some reasons why jealousy happens. I hope you understand the anatomy of jealousy in a different way. It's related to our attachment, it is a largely biological process, there is nothing wrong with you, because you have those feelings. And in certain contexts, really many of them. It is related to attachment-promoting behaviors, connection-promoting behaviors, because when you are tapped into your feelings of jealousy, you notice what's going on. And it leads to hopefully, productive and emotionally-bonding conversations about your commitment to each other. It helps you have productive conversations, if maybe there's some boundary stuff going on that you would like to have be different.

By both of you adopting the stance that jealousy is healthy, it's telling us something important that we need to listen to about our relationship and be able to talk about it together. That can be a really positive thing for both of you. And as part of you know, a living, breathing normal relationship when these feelings come up from time to time.

How to Handle Jealousy in a Relationship

Now, there are also some other situations that as I'm sure you know, where feelings of jealousy can come up, and we need to handle them differently. Because sometimes feelings of jealousy can be maladaptive in the sense that they're not actually reliable sources of information about your relationship in the present moment. They are more artifacts of perhaps past relational trauma, or, you know, the biggest relational trauma which is attachment wounds from very early in life.

For example, in situations where someone has been betrayed, cheated on abandoned or emotionally harmed by someone who they had, perhaps believed was committed to them and who ultimately wasn't, you know, because again, our attachment bonds are so vital. When those attachment bonds are injured, it actually does create a trauma. So we think of trauma as being, you know, if you flip open the DSM and look up post-traumatic stress disorder, what you see is a cluster of symptoms that is related to actual neurological changes that occurred in humans, who have been exposed to very, very scary, life-threatening kinds of things.

In the DSM, it's, you know, a car accident, being in combat, sexual assault, somebody dying or afraid that somebody's going to die. I mean, like, you know, really serious stuff. And so it can be easy, then to miss the fact that there are other things that create trauma responses in humans that are not like the threat of death in an objective sense the way they know it now. But going back to that conversation about how elemental attachment is to human survival on an evolutionary sense, our brains and bodies register attachment trauma as being just as significant of a threat, whether or not our, you know, rational minds like that idea, it still happens. 

What you see is that when people have endured relational traumas, when they've been abandoned, cheated on, you know, those kinds of things, they will experience essentially symptoms that are, you know, milder versions, but still very present of actual post-traumatic stress disorder. So they will have nightmares, intrusive thoughts about bad things happening, they will experience heightened anxiety and hypervigilance, they'll also have, like, some emotional dysregulation kinds of things going on and there is also avoidance can go along, along with that, too, I think, to a lesser degree than actual PTSD, which often has a lot of avoidance associated with it.

Okay, tangent, coming back to the point, which is that if you have been cheated on, or if you have a partner who has experienced relational trauma in the past, it is very normal for them to have that they're hypervigilant, they're anxious, they're worrying about things that are maybe kind of surprising, or that don't make sense. And just like a lot of anxiety because of what they've lived through. And so what this can look like in relationships is a lot of jealousy, because their threat sensors are like, cranked up to 11. And they don't feel safe in situations where they are safe.

As you can imagine, this can create a lot of problems in a relationship. If one partner is constantly anxious, and, you know, frankly, like accusatory about “You looked at her, I know what you're thinking and let me tell you what's happening because I feel scared, therefore, I know that something bad is happening.” And I mean that that can turn into very difficult relational dynamics because the other partner is like, “Maybe I glanced at her but I'm alright, we're okay. I love you.” And, you know, trying to show their partner that they're safe. I'm committed to you, I love you, you can trust me. But because of that attachment trauma, the person who's having that flareup. Information doesn't touch that feeling like you saying, I love you. I'm committed to you. You can trust me, it doesn't change the way they feel because the way they feel is not actually coming from anything that's happening in the relationship with you. It's an artifact of that trauma.

I did a whole podcast on this topic, trust issues in relationships. And for more information on this topic, you can listen to that podcast. And I would also like to add very explicitly for any interested parties that if you are in a relationship where cheating did happen between the two of you, it is normal and expected for your partner to now be very hypervigilant because of the trauma they experienced with you, I have also spoken at length on this subject, I'll refer you back to some of my past podcast episodes about, you know, affair recovery.

One of the biggest challenges even for you know, like, myself as a marriage counselor and repairing this dynamic is that one person has been thoroughly traumatized by what they experienced but the partner on the other side, who did the cheating, and who is now not, does not understand the legacy of the trauma that they inflicted. And so they will then take the perspective of that's in the past, you shouldn't be upset about that anymore. I'm not doing anything these days here, let me tell you all the reasons why. And that can start to feel very frustrating for them, because they expect that they're, you know, I said I was sorry, like, you know, that there has been forgiveness, they decided to stay together, let's let it go. Let's have it be in the past.

It is crucial to understand the legacy of trauma, and to understand what is happening inside of their partner in terms of those big intense feelings of jealousy, anger, fear, all that stuff that comes up is not under their partner's control, because they have been traumatized. And we have to handle that very, very differently and intentionally. And if there has been an affair or some kind of betrayal in a relationship, you can expect, the other person might be having these traumatic you know, flareups, these anxious thoughts and feelings, and that it is the job of the person who did the betraying to very consistently and intentionally be responsive to that, be empathetic to that be everything that they need you to be whether it is providing information, emotional reassurance.

It's just like, you know, attachment is broken through trauma, attachment is repaired through empathy, validation, and responsiveness. And so it is now your new job to be doing all of those things consistently and reliably forevermore with your partner. Because even once that trauma has been healed, to a degree, it never goes away forever, there will always be a little bit more anxiety because of what they experienced that will need to be managed very intentionally, and very sensitively and with a lot of compassion.

We can certainly repair and strengthen relationships after affairs, but there will always be a scar. And that scar often looks like jealousy, and anxiety in reality, so I just wanted to mention that in case that was salient for your circumstances.

How to Work on Jealousy in a Relationship

There's that kind of attachment trauma. And also I think this does relate to somebody who has a very anxious attachment style, which is different than a relational trauma, which is often something that was you know, an isolated event, you can kind of identify what happened, yes, when I was in college, this boyfriend cheated on me, and you know, it really hurt me. And now this is why I feel the way I feel like with those kinds of things, you can kind of connect the dots and see that like traumatic response, but attachment stuff that is even on a deeper level.

As we've discussed in previous podcasts, attachment styles in relationships develop in our first few years of life typically, in response to the way our caregivers interacted with us and in people who have inconsistent or had inconsistent caregivers where, you know, they've kind of ran hot-and-cold, they weren't sure if their parents were going to show up for them or not. Or even sometimes, if there was a lot of like conditional love like if they had to perform to win their parents’ approval. I have to be the best at gymnastics or ice skating or the best grades or the best athlete you know.

If their love was kind of performative, from a very early age, it can leave people with an anxious attachment style where they're never quite sure, if they are good enough, they kind of worry that they're not. And they don't assume that other people love them automatically, the way that you know, somebody with a more secure attachment style has a core belief of I am okay, I am worthy of love and respect. And I can expect good things from other people, I can know that somebody loves me and has positive feelings for me, even if they're not always telling me that or you know, that calm connection endures inside of them psychologically, whereas somebody with an attach an anxious attachment style does not view themselves or other people in that same way.

In that sense, they do not feel secure in relationships, or in themselves, fundamentally, they need a ton of reassurance that they are loved, they are good enough, you think they're great, you're saying the right things, doing the right things, but they're also very, very, very vigilant, any signs that you aren't committed to them? That you might like somebody else better than you like them. And so there can be a lot of maladaptive jealousy that happens in relationships with somebody who has an anxious attachment style, they're very preoccupied with it.

The reason why I bring this up and wanted to talk about it a little bit is because you know, either of these are problematic in relationships, because it very easily turns into conflict where one person has all this anxiety, they're accusing the other person and, you know, I'd like to reframe accusation, air quote, as an expression of anxiety, and a bid for reassurance. So when somebody says, I saw you looking at her, you know, they're really trying to communicate, I'm feeling scared right now, I feel worried, please reassure me but because of this, like big emotional flareup, that's not always how it comes out. It can feel oftentimes, like an accusation or, or anger that for, you know, the person on the receiving end of that can be very, very difficult. 

It can also get kind of exhausting, like, if it's just all the time and it feels like nothing I can say or do can make you believe that you can trust me. So, you know, that also turns into a trust issue. I don't trust you, to think well of me, or to believe in my commitment to you like that, in itself can start to damage an emotional bond.

If these things are coming up in a relationship, the first thing to understand is that these are always safety-seeking behaviors. The person who is feeling jealous and who is communicating these feelings wants reassurance, wants to strengthen the connection, because they're feeling scared, or worried or potentially harmed. And so to understand this, and be able to address that core need and have compassion for what they're communicating, is, you know, my first piece of advice, it's easy to get defensive when it feels like somebody is accusing you of something, you're not doing and getting defensive is not helpful. So try to understand how they're feeling and attend to those emotions.

You may consider listening back to some of the podcasts I've recorded on topics of emotional intelligence, empathy in relationships, emotionally-safe communication, how to not invalidate your partner's feelings, all of those would be helpful to you.

If what the engine of jealousy actually is, is related to old attachment wounds, or past relational trauma, that would be an indication that you guys should probably get some professional help to work through this because it's very difficult just between you and your partner to kind of get to the root of it. It's hard to do because, you know, you're not a trained professional, you don't know what questions to ask, you can't provide psychoeducation about how trauma works, you know, and be able to see it when it comes up.

It's like, you know, you guys are sort of swimming in that pool together. And in this case, a couple's camp counselor or a marriage counselors like, you know, somebody like riding in the boat on the surface who can look down and kind of see what is happening in terms of that dynamic and be able to provide coaching and guidance about how to handle these moments, not just differently in terms of your interactions or communication styles. But the really cool thing is that particularly with evidence-based forms of psychotherapy that are designed to heal and strengthen attachment bonds, so emotionally-focused couples therapy would be one of them. 

Being able to work through these feelings of jealousy, through something like emotionally-focused therapy, again, will not only help the interactions feel better, it will actually heal those attachment wounds in the process. So it is truly psychotherapy in the sense that it is healing, something that hasn't been wounded. And it's really worth doing, if you're in a relationship where there's a lot of jealousy. And it's, it's coming out in maladaptive ways, that would maybe be my advice to you. Look for a licensed marriage and family therapist who does emotionally-focused couples therapy, specifically, because they'll be able to help you dive into the emotions and the reactions and those attachment bonds.

Other forms of marriage counseling are also very effective. There are many other kinds of evidence-based couples therapy, but some of them can be more behavioral, you know, like talking more about what we're doing, or, you know, try saying that differently. And it doesn't really get into that attachment trauma, the way emotionally-focused couples therapy does. So just wanted to offer you some guidance there.

Abusive Jealousy in a Relationship

One other piece that we should probably talk about. So another component of jealousy is that there can be sometimes when there's a lot of anxiety in relationships, there can even be like abusive components there. For example, if somebody has a ton of anxiety, and it's turning into really intense feelings of jealousy, that can also turn into controlling behaviors where the other partner is being limited about like what they can do or can't do, in unhealthy ways.

In many, like relationship abuse situations, domestic violence situations, if you really crack into that, at the core, there is profound anxiety and jealousy in the partner who is the perpetrator of abuse or violence from their perspective, they're trying to control their partner in order to manage their own feelings of jealousy or anxiety and that is not okay, ever even though we can you know, kind of intellectually understand it. Not appropriate, not okay. And you do not have to participate in that it is not your fault, or in some ways your problem if your partner is struggling to that degree with unresolved anxiety, attachment injuries, and it's coming out as a lot of jealousy and controlling behaviors that are directed towards you.

My advice to you would be to get connected to a great therapist who conducts therapy that is centered around abusive relationships and the cultivation of healthy ones. You can go to thehotline.org is a free resource where they have a ton of information about abusive relationship dynamics. And they also have hotlines and even text chats where you can get in touch 24 hours a day with a counselor who has specialized training and experience in domestic violence and they'll be able to help you right then and there. But also get you connected with local resources in your area. Like if you have to get out of there. They can help you. Legal resources too so thehotline.org. It's great stuff. Great stuff.

Okay. So we talked about a lot of things today. But to summarize, some kinds of jealousy are normal and very healthy. To be able to manage this with an understanding of what's really happening, can lead to actually very positive things in your relationship. But you first have to understand that these feelings of jealousy are actually healthy and adaptive. They're your emotional guidance system giving you great information that strengthens your relationship and leads to a stronger attachment bond. So this is a good thing. And, and lots of good can come of that when you're conceptualizing jealousy in those ways.

Maladaptive jealousy happens as a result of relational trauma, or attachment injuries and needs to be handled differently, that is a situation where you're going to want to get a therapist involved. And at its most extreme cases, it can be a component of abusive behaviors, which are never okay. And I gave you some resources for what to do, if that is actually the case.

Learning From Jealousy in a Relationship

Very lastly, I think there's a third piece of this that we should talk about as well. And that comes from being able to pay attention to your feelings of jealousy or insecurity in a relationship, as well as those of your partners, and use it in order to have increased awareness. And also, I think, increased honesty, about how you're both feeling, where your values are, what your hopes and dreams are for your relationship, and what you're doing together.

An example of this, I have also, you know, been involved in conversations, either a couples counseling, or more commonly, you know, with an individual clients, I'll see where they're telling me about their own feelings of jealousy, or those of their partner. And as we are talking, I am understanding that there is a difference in the level of commitment between two partners, or there can be a difference in the level of co-created understanding about what the boundaries in our relationship are, or should be.

For example, I have had clients who have complained to me about you know, how jealous their girlfriend is, and always wants to know where I am and what am I doing. But I also happen to know that this person is not really fully committed to their partner, is actually spending time with other people. And so what I hear in that story is that their partner’s air quote, jealousy is not inappropriate. It is actually their emotional guidance system, telling them that there is a problem in the relationship. They need to listen to that because they are having a connection with somebody who is not as committed to them as they are.

Again, it's functional and so to be paying attention to feelings of jealousy and to saying, What is this telling me about the situation? If you're dating somebody and you're feeling jealous and kind of worried about it, you know, that? Pay attention to that? What are we doing? Are we committed to each other? Where's this going? Like, let's have a conversation about it. Your feelings are telling you that you need your connection affirmed.

If you're, you know, long-married and starting to feel jealous about a certain situation, that can be a good opportunity to say what is going on, you know, we have been disconnected lately. My partner is spending more time away. I feel like maybe they are developing a friendship with somebody that I'm not entirely comfortable with. And to be able to honestly and compassionately examine those feelings and use them as a window into yourself to say, I want more connection. I want to spend more time with them. I want to do more fun things with them. I feel jealous when they're always running out the door to go do stuff with their friends. I want us to be doing stuff together like you know not to push away or reject our dark emotions that are uncomfortable.

We don't like those feelings, but they are such a wealth of information, when we're able to allow them and really understand what they're trying to communicate to us and then use that information to have meaningful and emotionally intimate conversations with our partner that help us create positive change in our relationships.

Similarly, there can also be feelings of jealousy that come up, that are related to differences in expectations, or sometimes values. So, for example, you know, we are all carrying our little handbooks about the way things should be, that were assigned to us pretty much at birth, and over our life experiences and our family of origin. We all inherited these core beliefs about what relationships are, what is okay, what is not, okay, what people should do, what they shouldn't do. And these are largely subconscious, we're not aware of them in ourselves, until we are in a relationship with somebody that has a different operating manual than we do, because, you know, we all come from different places, right?

There can be things that come up that, you know, jealousy is the first indication, you know, it's almost like your, your sense of smell, I smell smoke is there a fire those feelings of jealousy are, oh, there, we have a difference in expectation around some boundaries situation, you know, my partner grew up in a family where it was absolutely common to have, you know, maybe friends of the opposite sex, or to spend more time away from home or to, you know, have a different kind of orientation towards a social life or, or maybe even it's around, you know, communicativeness around where I'm going and what I'm doing, you know, there are these just unspoken ways of being that are very much inherited from our families. But that can feel like a boundary thing to your partner.

Those feelings of jealousy can again, just alert you to a difference there. And the need to have a conversation about it so that you can create a shared reality and shared agreements around you know, how we are operating together, what have we decided are the boundaries, and this relationship that feels good for both of us, because that is something that's really important for every couple to do.

Similarly, it can also be helpful for couples to have open conversations about how we will maintain our agreed-upon boundaries together. So for example, you know, I have also worked with couples where feelings of jealousy are emerging in one partner, not because of something that their partner is doing necessarily, but because of a third person's involvement. So maybe a co-worker is being inappropriately flirtatious, you know, they are feeling threatened by a certain situation, the partner isn't doing anything wrong, necessarily. But maybe their partner isn't handling that in a way that would feel appropriate and safe for their partner.

The emotion of jealousy is coming in, that's communicating, we need to have a boundary here, I need to have an agreement and a commitment from you about how you are going to handle these situations when they come up. That helps me feel more secure and safe. And that strengthens our attachment bond to each other. And I think that that is an appropriate conversation for a couple to have, in a situation where an attachment bond is being potentially threatened by an outside source. And that can look like a lot of different things. But again, you know, the path forward is just having an open conversation that is productive, and that helps each person understand each other's perspectives and feelings and needs. And that ideally creates a stronger, deeper, more secure connection to each other. That is the hidden gift of jealousy when you know how to use it.

I hope that this conversation was helpful for you and kind of, you know, understanding what jealousy is, how it works, and kind of mapping out some of the differences between healthy helpful jealousy and jealousy. That is, that is problematic. Thank you so much for spending this time. With me today. I always enjoy the time we spend together and I will be back in touch with you next week with another episode of the podcast in the meantime, Here's more Gloria Ann Taylor.

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