I’ve already gone into depth about retroactive jealousy here, so check out that podcast for more. In this post, I’ll be exploring jealousy at a more general level, and trying to find a solution to this relationship-poisoning sensation.
We often use the word “jealous” to describe a sense in a relationship that your partner is at risk of cheating or leaving you for someone else, based on risk factors like their attraction to another person, their lack of loyalty, their gullibility and the ease of which they can be lead astray, or their growing lack of interest in or attraction to you. It’s a worry about potential future behaviour, or that you’ve overlooked past behaviour.
Jealousy nearly always refers to worrying that your partner will start behaving in a sexual manner with someone else and/or leave for them, but can sometimes also refer to fears of a deeper emotional connection with another, or even the threat of just spending time away from you with others (e.g. jealous of their new friends).
Interestingly, the word “jealousy” is defined by dictionaries as being more about possessiveness than anything else, and isn’t specific to romantic relationships. It refers to a fierce sense of ownership and protectiveness of what one perceives to be mine.
This it’s why it’s always important to clearly define problems before you solve them. In this case, you might tell yourself a story about your partner leaving you, but what lies underneath this story is a sense of your partner first belonging to you, as if they are a possession, and as if you have some rights of ownership. Jealousy is predicated on entitlement.
Jealousy has thousands of causes. Some people never experience it. Others only start to get it after they are painfully betrayed by someone. Some people have never been betrayed but have a vicarious fear based on what they’ve seen happen to others. Some people have Personality Disorders which come with jealousy as a chronic symptom. And some people have always had it as long as they remember, regardless of how rational it is, due to some forgotten childhood trauma.
Present vs Retroactive Jealousy
From what I’ve seen in my work as a coach with couples and jealous clients, there are two main types of jealousy.
“Present” jealousy is where you’re currently concerned that your partner will be disloyal to you or give themselves more to someone else. This is based on their current behaviour (e.g. flirting with someone, hiding their phone etc.) without much consideration of their history. If anything, someone who regularly suffers from present jealousy is more concerned about their own history, in that they’ve either been cheated on before, or they themselves have been unfaithful and project that inability to remain loyal onto others.
“Retroactive” jealousy is more of a constant underlying sense of threat based on ruminating about your partner’s past, specifically: their sexual history. They may or may not be engaging in concerning behaviours right now (probably not), but their history gives you a sense of jealousy as if they are at risk of cheating or leaving simply because they’ve had sex with others before you.
And of course, many people experience both types. They get a flare of flight/fight response when they hear about something their partner did with someone else in the past, and they get that same response when someone shows interest in their partner presently.
Rational vs Imagined Jealousy
One of the most important considerations when dealing with jealousy is trying to separate fact from fiction, and be honest and truthful with yourself about whether your jealousy is justified. Is there a real risk, or are you suffering only in your imagination?
Unfortunately, the trend I’ve observed in my life is that the people who should be worried are often ignorant to the concerning behaviour happening right in front of them, while on the other hand, constantly jealous and suspicious people are usually wrong.
What’s even worse is the self-fulfilling prophecy effect. If you’re paranoid and suspicious about a faithful partner – if you treat them like a cheater – you will actually drive them to do it. They will eventually go, “Fuck it, if I’m going to be accused anyway, might as well!” You’ll think this proves you right, when actually you turned a faithful person away.
This is where retroactive jealousy can be such a mind-fuck. People conflate previous sexual history with risk of cheating or threat of leaving for another man, but these things don’t actually correlate well. It is possible for even a promiscuous person to maintain loyalty to one person at a time, just as it is possible for a near-virgin to cheat. Sexual history alone is not a reliable factor to predict risk of infidelity.
The best predictor is past infidelity. I wouldn’t say “Once a cheater, always a cheater”, but I would say that if someone has been unfaithful to previous partners (or yourself) before, and has not taken significant steps to change themselves (promises don’t count), then that person is highly likely to repeat old behavioural patterns.
So, she may have slept with seven guys before you, but if these were all committed boyfriends who she was faithful to, then I would rate her at a very low risk of cheating, and wouldn’t be concerned about her ability to resist temptation. In fact, she’s proven her ability to be faithfully monogamous seven times despite obviously being desirable to men.
However, if she’s only had two boyfriends and cheated on both, and hasn’t undergone measurable long-term self-development work like relationship therapy and coaching, I would consider her to be very high risk.
Your partner’s beliefs around things like monogamy, loyalty, respect, honesty etc. are also more reliable indicators. If someone thinks sex is a meaningless behaviour and scoffs at the idea of monogamy, they are probably going to be unlikely to remain faithful. On the other hand, if someone shows that sticking to an agreement, no matter the cost, is something they place a high value on, they are unlikely to be led astray.
So look for patterns of behaviour. If they stand up for their friends when they aren’t around; if they stick to their promises consistently; if they prefer honesty over comfort; if they tell you when someone was trying to get with them; if they get upset with people keeping secrets; if they have no fear of you borrowing their phone; these are all signs that someone is unlikely to be unfaithful.
On the other hand: if they constantly tell small lies to avoid getting in trouble; if they bad-mouth and backstab their friends; if they show a willingness to break rules to win and get their needs met; if they constantly prioritise their short-term pleasure over doing what’s right; if they are secretive and deceptive and non-transparent; if they often criticise you and talk about how much others desire them; if they’ve cheated on people before in various ways; these are all signs that they are someone you should be concerned about.
Try to make a rational assessment of your partner’s behaviour and history before deciding how you should act on your jealous feelings. If you can’t trust your partner, at least rationally, then leave them. If you can see that rationally they are probably loyal, then you’ll still feel jealous but it’s worth staying in the relationship to work through it together.
What are you worried is going to happen?
Once you’ve decided that it is worth staying with your partner, you then need to explore the jealousy. You’ve now established that it’s probably irrational (there’s no evidence to support feeling this way about this partner), so you need to start treating it like a delusion, or a mental illness.
Taking it seriously is dangerous unless there is clear evidence, in the same way a schizophrenic taking their paranoia about the FBI chasing them seriously is dangerous.
So start with this mindset frame: I’m irrationally threatened. I’ve imagined there’s a threat despite the evidence to the contrary. I’ve got no rational reason to be worried. So what is it that I’m actually worried about?
When I dig into this with clients, I’m often surprised at how vague their fear is. I’m always expecting a clear answer, but what I usually get is random imagined examples of behaviour, e.g. her kissing someone else, without a clear understanding as to why this is perceived as a threat.
When I ask What are you worried will happen?, I’m not asking what behaviours you think your partner or someone else will do, I’m asking what the harm or damage will be to you.
If, for example, you’re worried that she’ll find another guy really attractive, how does that harm you? Is her attraction toward him itself something that wounds you? Or is it the forecasted beahviour of her eventually leaving you for him? And if so, why is this something you feel threatened by?
You might think the answers are obvious. But consider this: if someone no longer wants you and prefers someone else, is it not healthier to let them go rather than trying to control them into staying? If someone is at high risk of hypergamy (leaving you for a better deal as soon as they can), would it not be better to find another partner than try to keep the leash on this uncontrollable nympho?
When I get to the bottom of it with my clients, what they’re usually really afraid of is themselves. They’re worried that they’ll tolerate cheating. They’re scared that they will be unable to trust their own judgment again if they are betrayed. They’re worried that they’ll consider infidelity as proof that they are totally unlovable.
Facing your fear is the key to moving on. Having a committed relationship requires risk taking, and jealousy is a resistance to that taking that risk.
Choosing the right person in the first place
The best jealousy-reduction technique is to choose healthy partners. Rather than repeating patterns of choosing people who are likely to harm you, do the work on yourself before getting into a relationship.
I won’t go much further into this, however, as I know most people reading this will already be in a relationship.
Healthy expressions of jealousy (talk rather than control)
Learning to express jealousy in a responsible, healthy way will help you manage the sensations as they arise.
Most people express jealousy poorly. It either comes out as accusations and blame as if your jealousy is rational, or it comes out as weak and shameful as if you’re a bad person for having this emotion, or it doesn’t come out at all until you explode with rage after a thousand wounds.
Remember, if you’ve established with evidence that your jealousy is justified (i.e. your partner is indeed highly likely to cheat), then you shouldn’t be with that person anymore. So if you’re going to express jealousy in a relationship, we’re talking about irrational emotions that do not relate to evidence.
So, no blaming. You don’t say, “You make me jealous”, because they are not doing anything wrong. Them laughing at another guy’s jokes is not infidelity. Even if they do something that makes you suspicious, your suspicion does not equal evidence.
Next, no apologising. It’s not “wrong” for you to be jealous, even if it’s irrational. You can’t stop a feeling from arising. You haven’t harmed them. Indeed, you’re only jealous because you’re possessive – you wouldn’t be jealous if you didn’t care about them and want them in your life. So as long as you’re not harming them with your reaction to jealousy, there’s nothing to apologize for.
And no holding it in. Make it a normal thing to talk about as soon as it comes up. Even better; get to the point where it becomes an in-joke between you, where you feeling jealous is something that actually shows you love her.
Say it matter-of-factly, as if you’re commenting on the weather, but with full responsibility for you being the cause of the feeling. For example, “I got jealous when you talked to that guy, even though I totally trust you, it was just my insecurities popping up for a minute there. I guess that means I still like you.”
And you can have entry-level conversations about jealousy in general, such as sitting her down early in the dating phase and saying, “I sometimes get irrationally jealous, and I’m working on it. You don’t need to do anything differently or stop what you’re doing to keep me happy. All I need from you is the safety to express it when it comes up, and not make a big deal about it. Do not tolerate me accusing you or blaming you for this feeling, because this is about me, not you”.
Letting go of entitlement and ownership (agreements rather than expectations)
On a deeper level, letting go of “owning” your partner will go a long way to reducing jealous feelings.
Even if you’re married, you have to understand that no one “possesses” another person. Even if someone committed to you in the past, there’s nothing you can do to force them to honour that commitment.
Rather, try to focus on a greater goal, and that is only having healthy connections with others. If someone is likely to be unfaithful, you should be pushing them away rather than clinging to them. Ironically, letting someone feel free from pressure and control encourages the best behaviour from them, while trying to possess them only provokes them to act out in defiance.
Rather than saying to a partner, “You must never cheat on me,” try saying, “I only want a monogamous relationship, so if you can’t do that, then let’s end this. I’d rather you dump me than cheat on me”.
If you’ve shown what makes you feel jealous, and your partner doesn’t want to work on it with you in any way (e.g. they deliberately provoke your jealousy as a means of controlling you), just break up with them.
Knowing that you’re willing to lose someone who’s unfaithful is the best prevention of jealousy. I’m not jealous of my wife because I know if she cheated I’d just end it and move on. So until that actually happens, there’s nothing for me to worry about. And then if it does happen… there’s nothing for me to worry about.
Complete transparency and honesty
A healthy couple should have no resistance to being fully honest and transparent with each other. There’s really no need for secrecy between partners.
My wife knows all my passwords and can access my phone, messages etc. any time she wants. And I have the same access to her information. This isn’t a defensive measure (e.g. caused by one person being unfaithful previously). No, before any jealousy even had a chance to arise, we agreed on complete openness in all things.
Focus on shameless honesty as a greater goal in your relationships. Not just about sexual stuff, but about everything. You’ll find that you’re much less worried about your partner when you have a history of complete transparency with each other. And this shared intimacy of honesty creates strong bonds between people, ensuring even deeper levels of loyalty.
Put it this way; your partner should feel safe to say that they felt attracted to someone else. This will make it much less likely that she dwells on this feeling and follows through with negative actions. It also makes it more likely than any potential issues in your relationship will be addressed early on, well before they lead to something like cheating (which is never truly impulsive and always has a build-up).
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