Being at the other end of the jealousy spectrum

Many of us will have experienced jealousy and its associated behaviours. Somehow we know that jealousy is not a positive, desired feeling without being able to explain it in words. 

These notes are an attempt to understand jealousy and to arrive at a more helpful approach when jealousy is experienced.

Often jealousy is accompanied by other unpleasant feelings such as shame (being seen as inadequate in the eyes of others). This may be the reason why we rather hide the feeling than talk about it. It can feel like jealousy says something bad about us.

If we take a look at the children’s literature such as Sown White and Cinderella, we get familiarised with the meaning of jealousy through negative characters. Cinderella’s step mother is portrayed as jealous because of the loss of attention from husband when Cinderella is around and this jealousy continues after her husband’s death. Snow White is the story of a step-mother being jealous of her step-daughter because she is ‘the fairest in the land’.

Therefore we learn that jealousy is related to a fear of losing something that we value and posses - whether this is a quality we have or a significant relationship.

Indeed, jealousy is hard to define. Its closest feeling is envy and therefore differentiating between jealousy and envy brings us closer to understanding jealousy:

  • Jealousy involves the wish to keep what one has and possesses.
  • Envy involves the wish to get what one does not have.

If we take this reasoning further using the cognitive behavioural model, a jealous person would hold beliefs/assumptions that:

  • relationships are possessions
  • one might lose the possession/relationship
  • the threat is posed by a better quality of a different relationship.

The triad in jealousy involves the jealous person, the partner and the person who is seen as a potential rival/threat.

In Greek mythology, Zelos is the God of rivalry, associated with zeal, strife and spirit of competition. These qualities are also associated with Hera, Zeus’s wife and sister. Hera's marriage was founded in strife and continued in strife. Zeus courted her unsuccessfully and so turned to trickery - changing himself into a bird to win her affections. Hera felt sorry for the bird and nursed it, but Zeus quickly returned to his human form and raped her. She then married him to cover her shame. Zeus frequently took lovers in addition to Hera and in turn she took jealous revenge against her romantic rivals.  

We learn from the Greek mythology that the relationship where jealousy is experienced is not a healthy one. One might assume that there is an unhelpful dynamic between the jealous party and the partner. We learn from here to pay attention to the circumstances around the foundation of the relationship itself.

The jealous partner brings to the dynamic of the relationship the following unhelpful assumptions, beliefs and responses:

1) Beliefs that relationships are possessions, threatened by a better quality of other relationships.

2) Fear-based, anxious predictions such as worrying about being cheated upon, not bring wanted, or loved, or cared for.

3) Assuming danger until proved otherwise.

4) Not trusting their partner.

5) Fear-based, unhelpful behaviours, such as making sure/seeking with certainty that the threat is not present by taking control over the relationship.

These include:  

  • Keeping notes of their partner’s movements.
  • Keeping their partner close/placing restrictions on what they can do and where they can go. 
  • Not accepting what the partner says.
  • Questioning their partner constantly.
  • Not accepting what their partner says. 
  • Regularly checking on their partner.
  • Following their partner.
  • Getting reports on the partner from friends.

6) Hyper-vigilant to discrepancies. 

7) Focus of attention on and processing primarily information about potential rivals, including past relationships.

8) Interpreting ambiguous information such as talking to someone else or going out for a drink with friends as dangerous.

9) Compare and despair behaviour - discounting the negatives and focusing on qualities of the potential rival. 

10) Constantly seeking reassurance.

11) testing out/setting traps. 

12) Punishing their partner through not talking to them (punishment by sulking)

13) Punishing the potential rival.

Unfortunately, the costs of such behaviours outweigh the benefits because:

  • No reassurance is enough reassurance.
  • Not being trusted can cause partners to be defensive or concerned about being questioned, monitored or checked.
  • The partner is likely to withdraw from the relationship.
  • No matter how flattering the expression of love is, jealousy brings about suffering and eventually the ending of the relationship.

Although all these behaviours have the function of making sure that the threat is being attended to, unfortunately the result is that the actual relationship is constant under threat. One could wonder who is more vulnerable/likely to develop such extreme emotional experiences. Jealousy is linked to core beliefs of not being worthy of cared for, loved. Experiences of severe, persistent neglect, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, unavailability of the carers can contribute to the development of a sense of not being worthy of cared for - particularly where there is a better relationship with a third party, either the other parent/carer, sibling or significant other.

We learn that engaging with such behaviours will bring about exactly what the jealous person does not want to experience - the loss of the relationship.

To overcome jealousy, the following aspects of the jealous person’s psychological functioning need to be attended to:

1) Recognising that certainty is impossible to attain. Nothing is certain; no one can guarantee that the relationship will not come to an end. It may or it may not.

2) Dropping the unhelpful behaviours. Resisting the urge to check and seek reassurance is at the heart of breaking through this unhelpful habit. Little is known about urges, but the literature, research and my clinical experience support the view that the more we resist the urge, the less urge we going to experience.

3) Challenging one’s anxious predictions. Recognising mind reading, reading into the future, black and white thinking as errors/biases in thinking. 

4) Developing a different relationship with our own thoughts, as mental events, views, opinions, beliefs, assumptions rather than reflections of the reality. 

5) Assume and celebrate safety until proved otherwise.

6) Attending to the relationship in a sensible way - negotiating boundaries in the relationship is crucial for clarifying ‘the bottom line’ and what is important for both people. Making plans together and supporting each other will help the relationship to develop and evolve.

7) Realising that relationships are not static but fluid entities. They take different shapes for forms - sometimes we are closer, other times more distant. And this is okay too.

8) Our emotions are signals - they signal that there is something in our environment we need to attend to. This environment can be internal (a thought, belief, assumption, prediction) or external (a matter we need to problem solve with).

9) Finally, but more importantly the driving force of jealousy sits within its meaning. We recommend ‘Blind to our own psychological functioning’: as further reading.

The moral/key message of these notes is that jealousy is helpful in negotiating ‘the bottom line’ - what is acceptable, not acceptable in a relationship. It is also helpful when solid evidence of the partner cheating is present as it prepares us to defend ‘the bottom line’ and adhering to the values in our life.

If jealousy is based on the felt sense, not supported by evidence and accompanied by the above behaviours, jealousy is counterproductive and can bring about exactly what we do not want - loss and rejection. If jealousy interferes with normal life and takes over the relationship, we strongly recommend support from a counsellor or a therapist.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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