Have you seen your wife flirting with another man and felt your stomach tighten, your jaws clench, and your eyes narrow with an unspeakable rage?
Does the very thought that other women find your husband attractive make you feel like you want to hold on tighter than ever to your man?
Or perhaps you have been through the emotional devastation of an affair, and the images that continue to run through your mind of your spouse with another person make you sick to your stomach.
If you have experienced any of these situations (or countless others like them) you have felt one of the most potentially volatile emotions that a person in an intimate relationship faces .
That large, green, ugly monster that has been the downfall of so many. How many stories have been written about it? Since biblical times it has been one of the dominant themes in literature.
The answer is rather simple: It is one of the most fundamental human emotions-a “caveman” emotion-and it is one that has the potential to damage your relationship unless you understand why it exists and how to handle it.
To that end, in this article I am going to discuss what jealousy is. I will tell you what it is a sign of, why it is such a natural experience, how some forms of jealousy are actually good (if you can believe that), and give you some tips for dealing with jealousy when it becomes overwhelming.
Jealousy: A Sign Your Relationship is in Danger
Let’s imagine that you are walking down the street with your spouse. You are pleasantly walking along when all of a sudden you notice someone of the opposite gender giving your spouse “the eye.”
“Holy mackerel!” You think to yourself, “That person is attracted to my spouse!”
As this thought runs through your mind you feel your breath quicken, your stomach tighten, and you have the overwhelming impulse to pull your spouse a little closer to you, just to make it clear that you are a couple-and NOBODY better interfere.
You have just had an encounter with jealousy. That much is obvious.
But let’s take a moment to investigate what is really happening here.
When you saw someone eye your spouse, you detected a threat to your relationship. In most cases, there is no way to know the level of threat detected. But when someone else eyes your spouse, there is a potential threat to the integrity of your relationship. The possibility exists that this other person could come in and try to put a move on your spouse.
As a result, a warning signal went off inside you. This warning signal is manifested as jealous feelings.
In situations like these, the jealousy you experience is usually relatively low level. You feel a moment of jealousy, a desire to protect your marriage, then the feeling passes and you move on with your life.
In themselves, low-level jealous feelings of this nature are not a bad thing. They are simply a signal to you of how much you value your relationship and want to keep it intact. If you don’t have a jealous response, it does not mean that you don’t value your relationship-you just value your relationship from a different perspective.
If you have had mild jealous experiences like this it can actually be a good sign for your marriage. It means you have a healthy desire to protect your relationship, and that is a good thing.
When jealousy like this comes up, there are any number of ways you might respond to it. In the best cases, people reveal their jealous feelings to their spouse in a light, non-threatening way that shows they care.
For example, if you saw that person give your spouse the eye, you might lean over and say:
Man, I hope he can’t get your number by mental telepathy!
Did you see how that woman just looked at you? She gave you the eye! I better hold your hand to make sure everyone knows your mine!
Later tonight I’ll have to make sure you aren’t thinking about him!
Any responses like these, said in a light, non-threatening way, are appropriate responses to and expressions of your jealous feelings. These show your partner you care about your relationship and you want to protect it without coming off as threatening or intimidating in any way.
Jealousy felt and expressed in this way is what I call “good jealousy.” It is a warm, rational, fun response to an emotional reaction you have. It is a sign you want to protect your marriage. And, in general, it is an excellent sign for your marriage.
Stronger jealousy without cause is “bad jealousy.” Let’s look at what “bad jealousy” is and some of the problems it creates.
Bad Jealousy and the Problems it Creates
“Bad jealousy” is experienced in different ways: Either the jealous feelings you experience are more intense than what is described above, you react to your emotions in a way that isn’t “light and non-threatening,” you can’t release the jealous thoughts or feelings, or some combination of these.
When I refer to “bad jealousy,” I assume that there are no violations, threatened violations, partial violations, or other provocative or suspicious behavior by your partner. Reactions to these behaviors is in a different class of feelings.
Let’s go back to our example above and look at some ways you might experience bad jealousy in a situation like this.
Imagine for a moment that you noticed someone giving your spouse the eye, and you simply could not get the jealous feelings this created out of your mind.
You may not even want to experience these feelings, but no matter what you do, they don’t go away.
As you might imagine, this would show up in your behavior in some ways even if you don’t intend it to.
You may withdraw, get quiet, and sulk. Or you may become explosive and angry without any explanation. In fact, there are countless ways these unresolved feelings might be reflected in your behavior.
This is one way good jealousy can become bad jealousy. The intensity of the feelings is too high and you have a hard time letting go of them.
Obviously the problem only becomes more complex as the situation you are presented with becomes more complex.
And in some cases intense jealous feelings of this nature may even be justified. In the case described above, they probably aren’t. But what if your spouse has had an affair. Aren’t you justified in feeling intense jealousy then?
Of course you are, but even in situations when your jealous feelings are justified, they can (and usually do) cause problems in your marriage. The complexities of the relationship where jealousy or mistrust is truly warranted is too much to cover here.
Another possible form “bad jealousy” can take is inappropriate behavior.
Again, going back to the example above, if you were walking down the street with your spouse, noticed someone giving her the eye, and then proceeded to walk over to that person and either tell him off or knock his block off, I call this “bad jealousy.”
Similarly if you act in an aggressive manner to your spouse in a situation like this it constitutes “bad jealousy.” For example, if you started accusing your spouse of dressing proactively to attract the attention of other people, this would be a bad form of jealousy.
There are many potential variations on this situation, and in some cases your jealous feelings may be justified, as I mentioned above, but acting in an aggressive manner to your spouse or others is never the answer.
Even if your spouse is outwardly flirting with someone right in front of you, or has just admitted to something as horrendous as an affair, that still does not justify physical aggression.
There are healthier ways you can process jealousy, before it develops into “bad jealousy.” Here are a few tips on how to do that.
3 Tips for Overcoming Bad Jealousy
Tip #1: Act Like a Human, not Like an Animal
The very first thing to do when you experience jealousy that you are tempted to fuel into a raging fire is to stop, take a deep breath, stand up or sit up straight, and become your most adult, controlled self.
You need to do this whether or not your jealousy is justified. Remember, acting out your feelings in an aggressive way will only cause more problems in your marriage.
In short, you need to act like a human being; not like an animal.
As a human being, you have a choice about how you act. You do not have to respond to your feelings the way animals do. You have a choice about how you act.
When you experience jealousy, before the feelings become intense, you need to make a choice not to act on those feelings in an aggressive or otherwise inappropriate way.
Tip #2: Identify the Boundary that Was Crossed
When you feel jealous the tendency is to look at what the other person did to “make you” experience jealousy.
However, this is a fundamentally flawed way to understand your emotional responses.
Remember, you are an adult human being. No one “makes you” feel, think, or behave in any way. You are the one who has the jealous feelings. Nobody “made you” have them.
So instead of looking at what the other person did to “make you” feel jealous, look inside yourself and identify how you are hurting.
You probably want your spouse to take care of your hurt feelings rather than be angry with you. If you go into a jealous rage, your spouse will only see your anger and respond in kind. If you have any chance of having your hurt feelings taken care of, you need to talk to your spouse about how he or she has hurt your feelings.
For example, if your spouse was at a party flirting with someone of the opposite sex, that is crossing a boundary of propriety.
As the person experiencing the jealousy it is your job to identify your hurt feelings and start up a conversation.
How you do that is what we will address in the next tip.
Tip #3: Talk about Your Feelings
As you know, I am a big proponent of communication. The more you communicate with your spouse the better.
If you experience bad jealousy, instead of blowing up into a jealous rage, you need to talk about your experience of hurt feelings with your spouse.
If a boundary was crossed, you can include that as factual information in describing your pain. For example, you might say, “When you gave Suzie a full-body hug, I felt betrayed and put down, as if you were telling everyone there that you are now available and no longer in love with me.”
You are more likely to have your spouse respond caringly to your pain if you retain your adult perspective and you don’t blame or accuse your spouse of cheating or threatening to cheat. That means you don’t act aggressively, you don’t condemn anyone, and you don’t act defensively when your spouse communicates back with you.
In short, you should treat your spouse as your best friend and not as your enemy. Remember, you want your spouse to feel sorry for the emotional hurt you experienced and to work with you to find ways you can overcome this problem together as a couple.
Attacking, blaming, criticizing-are these actions you deliver to an enemy or to a friend? When you attack, blame, criticize, or use sarcasm, your message is that you identify your spouse as an enemy; and your spouse is likely to respond by identifying you as an enemy, also.
I know some of these tips are difficult to employ in the moment because it feels as if your emotions develop too quickly to think. And I know they are even more difficult when you feel justified in your angry reaction.
Nonetheless, I have found they are some of the best ways you can address bad jealousy. Even if they are hard, you can make them work for you if you choose to.
Of course, there are mental exercises to make these steps easier, but that is too much to cover here. For more information on these techniques you can see my books Surviving an Affair and Saving Your Marriage.
Remember, you don’t have to be a victim to your emotions. You are in control of your mind if you choose to be. You don’t have to let jealousy overwhelm you and eat away at your marriage.
In fact, you can turn bad jealousy into good jealousy by following the tips in this article.
I wish you luck in achieving your goal.
Let me know how it goes with you. I’d love to hear about your marriage. Post a comment to this blog by clicking the comment link below.
As always, I wish you all the best on your road to a wonderful marriage.
Frank Gunzburg, Ph.D.