The Green Monster: Jealousy
In my therapy practice I hear people acknowledge their feelings of romantic jealousy in a relationship, quickly followed by the revelation, "I know it is bad" or, "I shouldn't feel this way." But that isn't really always the case. Jealousy, like each of our other emotions has a role to play in our functioning. Maybe because like anger, it is often seen as a negative emotion, we just don't get much practice with managing jealousy - or seeing its gifts. We aren't taught the useful side of our jealous feelings being stirred. We are taught instead that secure people don't feel jealous, or that feelings of jealousy mean that you're being needy or unreasonable. Neither of these is true. In fact, healthy jealousy can be a very helpful emotion.
Like many other emotions there is a healthy and useful version, as well as a toxic version of jealousy. The healthy version is sparked when we perceive that someone is interested in our partner, or that our partner is interested in another. It is natural human behavior to want to protect that which we hold valuable. And this natural, healthy version of jealousy will drive us to hold our mate a little closer, or use other reinforcing behaviors. These are generally welcomed, affectionate advances, meant to stabilize our standing in the relationship. Jealousy may also be an indicator that you are in a relationship with someone who has a different level of commitment than you do. This can be very helpful information to have! Healthy jealousy can also reignite interest that may have become staid over time, reminding our partner that they have our attention, and that we welcome theirs. When properly managed, the green monster can become quite a good little friend.
The unhealthy version of jealousy, on the other hand, is the one we think of as the the green monster. This version comes with a full cadre of intense feelings, deep fear and anger. The influence that this one has on our relationships and self image is toxic. It is often the basis or arguing or outright battles extraordinaire! Toxic jealousy, like any toxic version of emotion is rooted in complex etiology. Toxic jealousy may be born out of modeled behavior of parents, or from a lack of distress tolerance skills, or from hypercritical self judgement. It may even be used as a way to compensate for insecurity. See? Complex stuff. And once we are in its grip, it can feel completely out of our control-as though our thoughts, feelings, and circumstances have all conspired to create a repetitive drum beat of suspicion that only distances us from ourselves and our partner. We may find ourselves acting like someone we don't even know! Maybe the worst part is that when we get caught in this spiral, each feeling feeds on the one before and creates a situation that gets worse and worse as it drives a wedge between us and our loved one.
Toxic jealousy can be managed, and even healed. I will return to a familiar thread here. Putting it bluntly, the answer and healing of your toxic stuff resides in you investigating yourself, rather than blaming your partner. One method involves you returning to the a-b-c's of your behavior. In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) we think in terms of antecedents triggering beliefs that in turn result in consequences. So, the first step is going to be able to see your jealousy as being based on forces that you generate. Let's say that something happens (A-antecedent), a friend is leaning in too close to your partner and crossing some comfort boundary. If you believe (B-belief) that your partner has no interest in this person, and that the whole scene was a little creepy, you are likely to have a good laugh about it (C-consequence). If, on the other hand, your belief is that he/she would happily advance on an invitation, then you are likely to flair green. A-B-C, once we recognize the problematic belief, we can challenge it. A counselor can be a good resource to help you work through this. A good counselor will help you to discover when these patterns started for you, what mistaken beliefs you are operating under, and how to heal those pains you are using the green monster to guard against.