I got an email from Rick the other day. His girlfriend just broke up with him, saying his “over the top” jealousy was one of the big reasons for leaving. She saw his behavior as controlling and felt it was a warning sign that he was going to become abusive if she didn’t get out.

Rick was hurt and confused. He admitted he could be somewhat of a jealous person, and that he probably went too far when he was feeling that way. On the other hand, Rick saw jealousy as a good thing and “what you’re supposed to feel when you love someone.”

Jealousy is a particularly important topic for those of us who have been violent with our partners.

Since jealousy is so often a trigger in domestic violence, it is a particularly important topic for those of us who have been violent with our partners. Rick asked me some really good questions—ones that are good for all of us to consider:

  1. Is jealousy normal?
  2. Isn’t jealousy a good thing to have in a relationship?
  3. How can we know if we carry jealousy too far?

Jealousy as a normal and healthy emotion

The answer to Rick’s first question is yes, jealousy is a normal human emotion. It even has a good purpose – to protect relationships we care about. Jealousy is also a common emotion, one we see portrayed in movies, on TV, and in the dramas played out in many people’s lives. Just because it’s common, however, doesn’t mean it’s always healthy.

Jealousy has a destructive side

His second question has that squishy “it depends” answer. We’ve already acknowledged jealousy has a good purpose. However, it should be something we experience in small quantities—think a drop or two in a big bucket of water. Too much jealousy, especially the unfounded kind, hurts our relationships. That’s not what anyone wants.

Too much jealousy hurts our relationships.

Imagine being on the receiving end of a jealous partner’s behavior. Maybe you, like me, can relate to this without needing to imagine. You really do like and love your partner. Outside of your relationship, you are going about your life, interacting with both men and women in very normal, nonsexual ways. Now imagine that your partner thinks you are cheating on them, but you’re not. They accuse you of flirting or sneaking around. How does it feel?

When I was in this situation, it felt pretty crummy on several levels. First, I got defensive, which led to an argument. Not fun. Then, I started to second-guess myself. Do I lie about who I’m with or what I’m doing, even though it was harmless, just to duck another argument, hoping I don’t get caught? (By the way, this is not a recommended choice!) Should I avoid certain people and situations because I don’t want to upset my partner? Doing that to keep the peace feels like a loss of freedom. Having my partner falsely accuse me of betrayal feels like them betraying me. None of these are a recipe for a close, loving relationship, which is our real goal.

Jealous behavior boundaries

Rick was wondering with his third question, what’s okay and what’s not. Since we don’t want to damage our relationships, when does our jealous behavior cross the line?

Going through your partner’s phone, mail, emails, or social media accounts without his or her permission is not okay. Incessant questioning about where they were or who they were with, accusing them of giving attention to others, or checking up on them is going to feel controlling. Similarly, doing something that might prevent them from going out, like taking their car keys, money, or clothing will violate their sense of being an individual, free to make his or her own choices. Any of these are going to really harm our relationship.

In a healthy relationship, both individuals should encourage each other to have outside friends of any gender.

In a healthy relationship, both individuals should encourage each other to have outside friends of any gender. It’s good to talk to your partner and agree on what boundaries might constitute cheating, but not allowing harmless interactions is showing you that you don’t trust your partner, which damages your relationship with them.

Yes, these interactions could even include people who might be attracted to your partner or people who they find attractive. These situations are the ones most likely to make us uncomfortable, but we must allow them. If you are really worried about your partner’s faithfulness, talk with them about how you are feeling. Approach it as a conversation rather than an accusation.

Understanding jealousy at a deeper level

While reacting to jealous feelings is something to be avoided because it can get us into trouble and damage our relationships, we may still feel jealous. Being able to reduce or eliminate unfounded feelings of jealousy would be great. But how do we do that? Think of feeling jealous as an opportunity to look at what’s going on behind the scenes.

It’s helpful to understand jealousy for what it really is—a fear of loss. With persistent and unjustifiable jealousy, we have an exaggerated fear of loss. We think we are going to be rejected or abandoned, even if that’s not really the case. Peeling our thought layers back further, we see the root cause of jealousy is insecurity.

The root cause of jealousy is insecurity.

Reducing unjustifiable jealousy

Feeling jealous on a regular basis is highly stressful. The cost doubles if it leads to reactions that hurt our relationship. What can we do? How we deal with our jealous feelings determines whether our behaviors are healthy or unhealthy. And our behavior determines whether we get the best possible outcome, or we make the situation worse.

Before you act, start by remembering that your thoughts may be quite different than reality—a case of distorted thinking. Remind yourself that you can get by without your partner, even if that’s not the outcome you want. See your partner as a nice addition to your life, but not an essential one. See yourself as enough—desirable enough, good enough, worthy enough of your partner being in a relationship with you.

The more confident you are to handle these negative thoughts and situations, the more you’ll allow yourself to trust your partner without experiencing jealousy. From there, you’ll be able to build trust and negotiate reasonable expectations for your relationship.

I’m jealous because he or she cheated in the past

What if the stakes are higher? What if your partner cheated or lied in the past? Not trusting him or her now isn’t fair to them or you. Of course his or her cheating or dishonesty hurt you. Think about what it would take for you to trust your partner again. Work to adjust your jealous feelings, then you may be able to go on to have a healthy relationship.

If you make the decision to trust again, then don’t check up on them or use the past against them. If you feel you have to, then you don’t really trust. Trust takes time to build and rebuild. If you can’t ever get to the place of trusting, end the relationship because your lack of trust (or their lack of trustworthiness) will poison the ties between you.

I found out he or she really is having an affair

What if your worst fear is really true? Of course this is going to hurt. The same thoughts I suggested earlier when you just have the worry but no evidence of infidelity apply here, too: remind yourself you can get by without your partner, see your partner as a nice addition but not essential to your life, and remember you are worthy of love and being in a relationship, even if it is not going to happen with your current partner.

Remember you are worthy of love and being in a relationship, even if it is not going to happen with your current partner.

Jealousy is a powerful emotion and these are difficult situations. Developing constructive thoughts and responses is a hard thing to do. Speaking with supportive friends, a mentor, or seeking professional help can really benefit us as we learn the skills we need to get better results.

Faith note

The threat of abandonment and rejection is a big one for all of us, me included. When I started attending a church, I heard that God, the creator of the universe, loved me and was with me always. This was a surprising message because I thought of God as being far off and unconcerned for what I was thinking or feeling.

After I put him in charge of my life, I started seeing God differently. Suddenly, I sensed his involvement in my thoughts. I felt comfort at times when I would have otherwise felt fear or loneliness. While not there in the flesh, I still sensed his presence. I can’t explain why this happens, but the closeness I felt was real. Other Christians consistently report similar experiences.

My relationship with God helps me to never fear being alone and never dread rejection.

My relationship with God helps me to never fear being alone and never dread rejection. When my wife told me she wanted a divorce, and later when the marriage ended, I felt sad and disappointed. I was not devastated, however, like I would have been without a relationship with God.

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