How to Keep Jealousy From Sabotaging Your Relationship
by Allison Abrams, LCSW-R
Is there a cure for jealousy, and can it actually bring couples closer together?
We are all born with basic instincts and tendencies that drive our behavior. Some of these instincts are essential to our well-being, such as the drive for love and belonging. Others are not so desirable, such as rage or addiction. However, all of our drives — the good, the bad, and the ugly — are an innate part of the human experience, and each serves a purpose.
One of the most potentially destructive of instincts is jealousy. It is also one of the most universal, spanning cultures and species, and dating back to the beginning of time. From the book of Genesis to the tragedies of Shakespeare to the many domestic tragedies we see in the news today, jealousy has long been a cause of human suffering.
But what if jealousy isn’t just a “neurotic weakness”? What if it actually serves a purpose, by signaling that your relationship matters to you? These are some of the questions that psychologist Robert Leahy, addresses in his new book, The Jealousy Cure. Leahy offers valuable insight into the age-old phenomenon, offering helpful suggestions for how to cope with jealousy and not let it get the best of you.
Jealousy vs. Envy
Although the terms “envy” and “jealousy” are often used interchangeably, they are not the same. Jealousy exists within relationships, which can include romantic relationships, friendships, or any other interpersonal relationship, and involves three or more individuals. Envy, on the other hand, refers to the coveting of what someone owns; for example, you might feel envy for a colleague who gets the promotion or recognition you’d been hoping for, or the friend who has more money. On a larger scale, envy can lead to violence and hatred among societies. Alternately, it can lead to increased motivation and a drive to work harder and succeed. Similarly, jealousy can yield either negative or positive outcomes — depending on how one responds to it.
Feeling Jealous vs. Acting on Jealousy
Jealousy encompasses a multitude of emotions, from intense anger to sadness and anxiety. Leahy makes it clear that the jealousy he refers to is the feeling of jealousy, and that it is the response to those feelings that can get us into trouble and, if not kept in check, sabotage our relationships.
Although it is a natural, and sometimes healthy, emotion depending on how it is acted upon, jealousy can also be one of our most destructive feelings. Below are a few of the steps Leahy offers to help cope and learn how to not allow jealousy to hijack our better judgment.
1. Understand that jealousy is normal.
Leahy looks at the evolution of jealousy from a Darwinian perspective. In the days of our ancestors, when resources were scarce and only the strongest mates survived, jealousy served an essential purpose — the survival of our genes. Understanding this helps normalize, rather than pathologize, jealous feelings. We can’t fight hundreds of thousands of years of evolution (our feelings); however, we can decide how we respond to those feelings.
It is also important to understand our own personal histories. Factors such as our attachment styles and relationship histories can greatly impact how we function in our current relationships, and how we relate to jealousy.
2. Practice mindfulness.
Each moment we spend ruminating and imagining the worst, we rob ourselves of the present moment and, potentially, our happiness. Noticing and accepting what arises (including all thoughts and feelings) without harsh judgment is at the core of mindfulness. When we are mindful, we are able to step out of autopilot and into the present moment. Here, we are less vulnerable to being emotionally hijacked by distressing feelings, such as jealousy.
Although it’s important not to allow our thoughts to take over, we can’t ignore them either. Leahy tells his patients to imagine their thoughts as house guests who have come to visit. Try as hard as you may to keep the unpleasant ones out, they will eventually find their way in. He also suggests watching the thoughts go by as if they are cars on a train. We can choose to hop on, or let them pass by.
3. Challenge negative thoughts.
As in his previous book, The Worry Cure, Leahy provides an overview of the techniques used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help cope with painful emotions. Here, he applies them to jealousy. One of the key elements in CBT is identifying and challenging negative thoughts. They have more power over us than we realize. When an emotion seems to “suddenly” appear to come out of “nowhere,” if we look closely enough, we’ll usually find that a thought or thoughts we were having triggered that feeling.
Our beliefs about ourselves and the world also have an effect. For example, if you believe that all you have to offer your partner are your physical attributes, then anyone he or she comes into contact with who appears to be more attractive may be perceived as a threat and may trigger jealous feelings. If we think something often enough, we start to believe it. This is why it’s essential to “fact-check” our thoughts and not believe everything we think.
4. Become bored with your thoughts.
One technique that Leahy uses with his patients is the “bored technique.” He suggests choosing one triggering thought — for example, “She is going to leave me for her coworker,” or “I know he finds her more attractive than me” — and then repeating that thought 500 times. Though your anxiety will likely spike the first 10, 20, or 50 times you repeat it, eventually, Leahy says, you will become bored, and the thought will begin to lose some of its power. It is like exposure therapy for our thoughts.
5. Keep your expectations realistic.
Everyone sees the world and interprets situations through their own lenses. What one person finds acceptable, another may find appalling. Some have perfectionistic beliefs about love and commitment, which, according to Leahy, can cause us to suffer more than we need to. It’s important for couples to come to a mutual understanding about one another’s needs or expectations. If yours are too high or unrealistic, you may have to come back to earth and make some adjustments.
“Reality is not based on purity or perfection,” says Leahy. “It reflects that we are all fallen angels, all in need of improvement, all seeking understanding, and — if necessary — forgiveness. Everyone has a past, including you, but it is the present and future that will matter most.”
6. Remember that you are not responsible for another’s behavior.
If you find yourself struggling with intense feelings of jealousy, it’s important to look at the underlying fears and the implications of being betrayed. Leahy asks his patients what meaning they make out of being cheated on. For example, do you believe it would be a reflection on you? Do you think, “If she cheated, then that means that I am ________”? Leahy again suggests identifying and then challenging these thoughts and beliefs, remembering that a partner’s decision to lie or cheat is more about them than it is about you.
7. Communicate with your partner.
According to Leahy, jealousy can provide an opportunity to improve mutual understanding, build greater trust, and help partners become clearer about their commitment to one another. Jealousy is a couple’s issue, he says, and as such, both partners can work together to find a solution. As Leahy writes, “Love means walking together in the dark.”
Working together can bring partners closer, so long as both partners are respectful and validating of one another. Feelings of jealousy should not be condemned or shamed. They are not indicative of one’s shortcomings, nor are they necessarily indicative of any problems within the relationship.
8. Know your worth.
In coping with painful emotions, self-compassion is key. Validating feelings means acknowledging them and understanding that they are just feelings and not facts. We have the right to feel what we feel. This applies to jealousy as much as it does to having a headache! Unfortunately, jealousy has been pathologized so much that it is often accompanied by shame. Recognizing that these feelings are often rooted in fear (such as the fear of being abandoned) can help us cultivate more compassion, rather than shame and judgment.
When our sense of worth is not contingent upon the approval of others, including our partner, our fears will have less of a hold on us. Even if the worst-case scenario proves true, remember that in the end, you will be okay. Leahy advises, “Consider the possibility that you could survive.”
Where there is love, there will be jealousy, says Leahy. However, what drives us does not have to destroy us:
“Relationships are about the capacity to feel everything — and to still go on. The key is to recognize, validate and accept these feelings as normal. Once you do that, you can let them quietly pass by like moving trains. It is your choice whether or not to board that train.”
Leahy, R. L. (2018). The Jealousy Cure: Learn to Trust, Overcome Possessiveness & Save Your Relationship. New Harbinger.