Jealousy is one of the most misused words in the English language. Sometimes, I seriously think that the entire English-speaking world would become instantly happier and more sane if we just deleted the word from our vocabularies.
Let me give you some real-life examples of people I have counselled in the past year, who thought they had a problem with jealousy.
Is this jealousy?
Kerri had been married for nearly 20 years, and for the last four of those years, she and her husband had been experimenting with consensual non-monogamy of various kinds – going to play parties, having threesomes and foursomes, and taking turns to babysit for each other so they could go out on one-on-one dates.
Kerri was confused and frustrated with herself, because when she was together with her husband, she actually enjoyed seeing him making love with other women. She couldn’t understand why she got so upset on the evenings that he was out on a date without her.
When I asked exactly what it was that triggered her bad feelings, it turned out that her husband had a habit of staying out later than he intended when he was on a date, and that she started to get upset when the expected time for him to come home has passed, and he wasn’t there.
“I keep imagining he has had a motorcycle accident, and he is lying in a ditch somewhere,” she said. “I know it’s ridiculous, but then I get angry with him because he doesn’t answer his phone, and then I can hardly bear to talk to him when he finally gets home. I have to learn how to be less jealous.”
I asked a few more clarifying questions to be sure I had understood, and then I gave Kerri the good news.
“It doesn’t sound like you are jealous,” I explained to her. “It sounds like you are worried, and then you are angry. Worried that something might have happened to him, and then angry that he didn’t let you know he was going to be home later than he planned.”
To test the theory, I asked her to imagine he had gone night fishing with a male friend, and he hadn’t come home on time, and then he had not answered his phone when she tried to call him.
“I would feel exactly the same,” she said, sounding surprised.
“Of course you would,” I reassured her. “It is completely valid to be worried when someone doesn’t come home at night, and it is completely valid to be angry when someone causes you unnecessary worry.”
We did a bit more work on what requests she might make of her husband to reduce the amount of worry she felt, and, just like that, her “jealousy” problem was solved.
What the situation involves a third party, almost any bad emotion can be labelled “jealousy”. The problem with this is two-fold: first, it makes the third party the problem (spoiler – they very rarely actually ARE the problem), and second, it stops people from looking any further for the root cause of their unpleasant emotions.
This is why I often wish the word “jealousy” didn’t exist.
Is this jealousy?
Aisha had been with her boyfriend Amir for five years, and except for a six-month period of monogamy when they first decided to commit to a long-term relationship, they had always been polyamorous.
Aisha had another boyfriend, who she saw once or twice a week, and Amir had a variety of casual lovers.
Aisha had never had a problem with jealousy, but over the past year or so had started to suffer from it.
When I queried her about the triggers for her jealousy, she gave a few examples. The time he took one of his lovers away for a romantic weekend because it was her birthday (“… but for my birthday he bought me a box of chocolates and a new toaster,” she sighed). There was the time he spent half of their anniversary dinner texting with one of his new loves, and three or four times when he had said to her “you just don’t appreciate me the way (lover) does”. And there were the days when he had stayed up late with another lover the night, and then was tired and grumpy with her all day.
“It’s not that I am afraid he will leave me,” she explained. “I just feel that if these other women didn’t exist, he would treat me better.”
“Do you wish he would treat you as well as he treats them?” I asked.
“Of course!” she said. “That would be amazing!”
“Then I would suggest that what you are feeling is envy, rather than jealousy. It’s not that you want him for yourself; it’s that you want what they are getting. And, you are probably hurt and angry that you are not getting the best he has to offer.”
This pattern is very common in established relationships, when one partner falls in love (becomes infatuated) with a new partner. Their brain chemistry goes haywire, and the new love triggers massive doses of reward chemicals in their brain, while suppressing serotonin, which is necessary for logical thinking. The existing partner seems bland, dull, and uninspiring by comparison, and their normal and legitimate desire for time and attention seems irritating and unreasonably demanding.
Polyamorous folk refer to this dangerous biochemical cocktail as “New Relationship Energy” or NRE. Aisha and Amir were familiar with the concept, and Aisha was able to show Amir, without blame or criticism, how he was prioritising his other lovers and taking her for granted. He was a little shocked when he realised what had been happened, and promised to put in extra effort to treat Aisha as well as he treated his other lovers.
Dealing with jealousy
The first step is always to establish whether you are feeling jealous (“that’s mine, and I don’t want to share it”), or some other emotion, for example:
- Am I feeling lonely, because my partner is out with someone else, and I am home alone?
- Am I feeling worried, because my partner was due home an hour ago?
- Am I feeling frustrated, because my partner isn’t doing things with me that they promised to do?
- Am I feeling anxious, because I have an unresolved issue with my partner and we haven’t had time to discuss it?
- Am I feeling sad, because my partner and I haven’t had much fun together lately?
- Am I feeling envious, because I wish my partner would look at me the way he/she looks at this new person?
- Am I feeling confused, because I don’t have enough information about this new person’s intentions?
- Am I feeling afraid, because something seems to have changed, and the relationship might be in trouble?
- Am I feeling insecure, because I am not sure how much my partner values me?
What if I’m really jealous then?
If you have established that you really are jealous, that is, you really feel possessive about your partner and you don’t want to share their time, attention or affection with others, then you can work on overcoming your jealousy in a number of different ways.
1. Spiritual practice
Yoga, Tantra, and meditation practices that are heart-based can cultivate unconditional love and selflessness.
2. Psychological approaches
Counselling or therapy can help you to uncover the roots of your jealousy and bring forgiveness and self-acceptance, or you can follow Kathy Labriola’s desensitisation program, which treats jealousy as a form of irrational fear, like a phobia.
3. Skills approaches
You can take courses in how to cure yourself of jealousy, which teach you new skills for managing yourself and your relationships.