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Relationship Rescue: Jealousy Can Eat Away at Happiness

It's among the most human of emotions, but when unfounded, jealousy can wreck a relationship

By Terri Orbuch, Ph.D.

I was leading a marriage enrichment workshop in California last year, and this is reconstructed from notes I took at that time.

Sam and Chloe have lots of friends and an active social life, and on the outside appear happy and comfortable with each other. They told me that they like to spend their free time dining out with other couples and attending charity events.
Sam, 69, is a handsome man who has been the CEO of a large company since they got married 38 years ago. Chloe looks much younger than her 65 years. She never pursued a career, choosing instead to be a full-time mother, and when their two children went off to college, she became very involved in a children’s charity that she now manages on a volunteer basis.
As happy and well adjusted as Sam and Chloe seem, however, their marriage rests on an emotional fault line. Chloe gets extremely jealous whenever Sam so much as looks at or interacts with another woman. She says her feelings of possessiveness and mistrust first developed about a dozen years ago, around the time their children were becoming adults. She admitted to the group that she constantly accuses Sam of infidelity and can’t resist the urge to snoop in his emails and texts, even though he insists that he has been faithful for their entire marriage.
This jealousy has reached the point that it’s putting the marriage in jeopardy. They haven’t been to couples therapy, but Sam did tell the group, “I don’t want her to follow me around like a private investigator. I don’t want her reading my emails and texts, and I definitely don’t like how she lashes out at me with anger during these jealous spells!”
The couple would like to do something about their problem, but they don’t understand where this jealousy is coming from or how to deal with it. Even though Sam continually reassures Chloe that nothing is going on and she has no reason to be jealous, she isn’t convinced.
They came to the workshop warily — and only because another couple strongly recommended it — but now that they are here, Chloe feels ready to work on her issue. “I really need to figure this thing out,” she said. “What can I do to stop these jealous feelings?” 

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Distinguishing Different Kinds of Jealousy
Jealousy arises when you are fearful of losing a relationship you value. It is among the most human of all emotions, yet it can destroy the foundation on which healthy connections are formed. It often results in worried and mistrustful — even neurotic — behaviors, like Chloe’s spying on Sam’s private correspondences. It strikes men and women with equal fury and, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to mellow with age.
In my study of couples married 25 or more years, none (0 percent) of the husbands and wives who described themselves as happy reported being concerned that their spouse was attracted to other people. By contrast, nearly one in five of the unhappy couples in the study said they “often” or “sometimes” felt worried or mistrustful. Clearly, there’s a connection between trust and satisfaction in a marriage.
Jealousy comes in two forms: reactive, which you feel in response to an actual threat to the relationship; and suspicious, when your fears do not match the facts at hand. This distinction is important: Almost everyone feels reactive jealousy when they realize a partner has been unfaithful, but people differ in whether they feel suspicious jealousy. (Note: This is different from feelings of neglect, mistreatment or miscommunication.)
The suspicious kind occurs when your partner hasn’t misbehaved and the partnership isn’t at risk, as in the case of Chloe, whose feelings stem from her own insecurities and lack of self-confidence.
This insecurity may stem from something that happened in Chloe’s childhood (e.g., being teased, a lack of attachment to one or both parents, a traumatic experience) or something she is currently experiencing (body image issues, no longer having children who depend on her, feeling more dependent on Sam). In addition, the more a woman depends on her partner for feelings of self-worth, the more likely she is to always feel jealousy.

Regardless of the cause, Chloe needs to feel better about herself and her relationship. Here are some simple but effective strategies Chloe and Sam can work on together and individually, so Chloe can prevent an attack of “the green-eyed monster.”

(MORE: Generosity May Be What Matters Most in Marriage)

How Couples Can Deal With Suspicious Jealousy

1. Be honest and listen carefully. Schedule a heart-to-heart. Discuss the issue directly and really listen to your partner’s response. Chloe needs to examine whether she’s making something out of nothing. Even if she is convinced that Sam is up to something, if there's no evidence to support it — if it's truly in her imagination — it’s suspicious jealousy. At the same time, Sam needs to take a hard look at innocent behaviors that could trigger Chloe’s jealousy, such as talking at great lengths to other women at parties or events.
It is important that Sam not dismiss his wife’s feelings and fears. He should try to understand and empathize. Jealous feelings make Chloe feel vulnerable and not in control — we all have those moments. Sam needs to be compassionate and reassuring, not defensive or judgmental, to help her feel secure in her relationship and establish trust.


2. Build self-confidence in the jealous partner. It’s essential for the one afflicted by jealousy to recognize that his or her feelings may have absolutely nothing to do with a partner’s behaviors. I didn't do therapy with her, so I can't comment, but I strongly suspected that Chloe isn’t confident about the unique strengths she brings to the marriage. She would benefit from spending more time with friends and family who affirm her, or learning a new skill or activity that helps her feel masterful and accomplished.

3. Foster mutual independence. Jealousy also can occur when partners are too dependent on the relationship (and possibly the economic or social status associated with it) and don’t have a strong sense of self-worth. Chloe must gain some independence. She might want to take a class at a community college, get a job in the city, or work at a local food bank or YMCA — to take on projects beyond the familiar charity work she’s already doing. The more her definition of self is tied to her own accomplishments and experiences apart from the relationship, the less jealousy she will feel.

4. See a therapist. Insecurity may be easily treated when it is “cosmetic” in nature — if, for example, Chloe felt she would be more attractive if she lost a few pounds. But some expressions of jealousy, such as those that result in inappropriate behaviors like snooping or stalking, may be a sign of deep-seated insecurities (like a sense of worthlessness or not being lovable) that will likely require the help of a professional to resolve.

What Happened to Sam and Chloe
When they were leaving the seminar, Sam and Chloe said they “really want to work on this issue together.” I recommended a local couples therapist, since I thought face-to-face counseling would be a good next step.
It’s been a year since I’ve seen them in person, but Chloe emails me every now and then to let me know how they’re doing. She did get herself into therapy, and realized that her feelings of mistrust developed when she went through menopause and felt less attractive and sexual. And when her children became independent and moved out, that exacerbated her lack of confidence.

Last month she wrote, “We are much better. I feel stronger and more self-confident, and less dependent on Sam for how I feel about myself. Sam, well, he has figured out that when he talks with other women for 15 or 20 minutes, it can still make me really insecure because I interpret it as 'interest.’ But now he and I have the means to talk it out.”

Terri Orbuch, Ph.D. (aka “the love doctor”), is a relationship therapist, professor and an author of five books, including Finding Love Again: 6 Simple Steps to a New and Happy Relationship. She is also the project director of the largest and longest-running NIH-funded study of married and divorced couples ever conducted. Read More
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