This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday morning Click here for the original article…
“My boyfriend gets really jealous, and at times can’t even tolerate me talking to another man. He wants to change, but why does he get jealous?”
The green-eyed monster: the ruin of many relationships. Jealousy isn’t inherently destructive, however as an emotion it can flare up even when we know it’s completely irrational.
It serves to alert us to the possibility that we’re losing a relationship we value. But if our partner is actually having an affair, we don’t think of that as a jealousy problem. In that case the problem is much more obvious. Jealousy is only a problem when the feeling isn’t warranted.
So what makes people feel that they’re at risk of losing someone, even when another part of them knows it isn’t real?
The old cliché that jealousy arises from insecurity doesn’t tell us very much, because calling someone insecure is little more than an insult these days.
But it is true that jealousy arises from sensitivity to disruptions in relationships.
Jealous people are sensitive people.
We learn the subtle and complicated dance of close relationships early in life: some are born more emotionally sensitive and, for some, the disruptions that happen in their early “attachment” relationships leave them more sensitive to feeling left or ignored as adults.
For some both are true.
Jealousy arises out of these small disruptions in relationship, feeling the absence of our partner’s attention, like they’re momentarily interested in something, or someone, else. The problem with sensitivity though is it turns the volume up on the feeling, and turns a moment of disconnection into full-blown anger and fear of being cheated on or abandoned.
The green eyed monster can be very destructive, and over time become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we are regularly upset and angry at our partner’s perceived indiscretions, it can drive people away and make that which we fear more likely.
And this is the real problem with jealousy. It makes us attack the person we care about. It’s what therapists refer to as “projection”: we blame someone else for how we feel, and attack them for it.
Dealing with irrational jealousy requires us to slow down and recognise that our feelings aren’t the other person’s fault.
Learning to overcome jealousy means becoming more comfortable with feeling vulnerable, and recognising that the green-eyed monster feeds on fear. It requires us to trust our loved one, and embrace the idea that we have to share them with the world.
It can also be helpful to reflect on what our unmet needs were, what those early scars and disruptions were that allowed jealousy to take hold. Because wanting to be close to someone, and feel loved and cared for, is about as human as it gets. We never stop needing that.