Jealousy is one of the most powerful emotions we can feel in a relationship and, if we’re not careful, it can rage completely out of control and do irreparable harm. The problem is, that feeling of jealousy and possessiveness is hard-wired into our survival instinct and the fear of losing our mate can trigger that.
“For most people, jealousy is fear of their partner leaving or being taken away,” says Aricia Shaffer, MSE, coach, counselor and author of The Timeshare. “This is misplaced, however, because your partner has free will. They can come and go as they please. And if they know they have that choice, they’re actually more likely to stay.”
However, jealousy doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. When focused the right way, it can actually produce positive results.
“Jealousy is often a reminder of what you could potentially lose and therefore a reminder of how you must work to make your partner understand how loved and valued they are,” says Dr. Kimberly Ciardella, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. “If you can channel the energy that jealousy so often churns up into shows of affection or gratitude to your partner, then it can be an incredible tool used to strengthen your marriage.”
For Shaffer, the key to keeping jealousy under control starts with shifting one’s focus to how his or her partner is making them feel rather than the behavior itself. “When you go to your partner and say ‘You spend too much time with friends — or at work or doing a hobby — and it makes me feel bad. Stop it!’ the discussion won’t go well,” she says. “When you tell them, ‘I’m feeling jealous and it’s not your fault, but I need to talk about it’ you’re more likely to have success.”
Additionally, she says that, even before you broach the topic with your partner, it’s important to look inward and square away your own feelings on the issue. Are you upset over what your partner is doing? Does it somehow make you feel disrespected? And if so, why? “Jealousy is most often fear-based,” she says. “Are you afraid they’ll leave? That you’ll feel inadequate? That they’ll have less time with you? That they will become ‘too good’ for you?”
When jealous feelings arise, one could use it as an opportunity to see those feelings as a good sign that you care about your partner and feel connected to them. “[Jealousy] is fueled by passion and a fear of losing your partner,” says Ciardella. “Two things that, when lost in a marriage, are more worrisome than the jealousy that you sometimes feel. You often only get jealous in relationships in which you feel a very deep-rooted connection and love for the other person.”
To try and manage these feelings, Shaffer says that it’s important to first realize that your partner is with you because it’s her or his choice and that putting demands on a relationship will only make the relationship unsustainable. Coming to these understandings, she says, is very liberating and can allow a jealous person to reframe the relationship in a much healthier way.
“We get jealous when we feel entitled to something,” she says. “By releasing that and realizing that when it comes to other people, we have no control over them — and we shouldn’t — and no one owes us a thing, it creates this incredible feeling of freedom and choice. Things flow better and it’s less stressful for everyone.”
All that said, even in the healthiest of relationships, jealousy can still show up. And, when that happens, Ciardella says to use it as an opportunity to have a meaningful conversation with your partner. “It is not necessarily about keeping jealousy at bay but how you deal with jealousy when it comes knocking,” she says. “If you have the tools to communicate to your partner in a productive way that you are feeling jealous it can breed further connection and closeness. Sharing with your partner that you are jealous can oftentimes help them further understand how much they are loved and valued.”
Shaffer agrees that a shift in approach when it comes to jealousy can, if handled correctly, reap much greater rewards. “If people can rewire their thoughts to say, ‘I’m feeling jealous — worried I’ll lose my partner — and I’m worried because she or he’s so wonderful. I love this and that about him/her,’ and then bring them flowers and add a note telling them what you appreciate,” she says. “That would certainly make a marriage healthier than expressing jealousy in a rage!”
Ultimately, the key to overcoming jealousy is coming to the realization that you can’t be everything to your partner and that you have to give them the space and the time that they need to connect with other people and interests. Even though it might seem at first like you’re letting them go, Shaffer says that by giving them the freedom to be themselves, you are actually laying the groundwork for an even stronger relationship.
“If you’re supporting their interests and they can talk with you about that, it creates a strong bond of intimacy and love,” she says. “Everyone has their own dreams and if they can pursue those within their relationship, the relationship is more likely to last.”