Dr. Carol Burns Stoney, LPC-MHSP, shared her take on jealousy in relationships.
HS: A lot of relationships involve jealousy, from either one partner or both. But is it ever a healthy part of the relationship?
CBS: I don’t know if it’s healthy, but it can be normal. We’re very territorial creatures and it’s normal once we’ve become attached to somebody not to want to share them with someone else. So I don’t know how healthy a feeling it is, but it’s a very normal feeling in a relationship. We’re built to detect threat. We’re built to say ‘is something coming in and destabilizing my stability here?’ The question would be how do you manage it?
HS: Since jealousy can be normal, how do you know when the line has been crossed between what’s OK and what’s too much?
CBS: If a partner is exhibiting a lot of restrictive behavior, that’s a sign you’ve crossed a line. In other words, saying ‘you know I’m a jealous person, so you can’t have friends of the opposite sex.’ That’s not OK. When the jealousy becomes something that restricts our partner, that’s when we know we’ve gotten unhealthy and probably need to seek some help to figure out where this jealousy came from.
HS: I’ve read that people often initially confuse jealousy with extreme affection and commitment. Why is that?
CBS: It’s flattering. They’re giving you what they want to receive all the time, like an IV. They need that reassurance. Very often jealous people will start a relationship by overwhelmingly flattering someone. They want early commitment. They want so much to feel that security and that safe bond. We’re wired for connection, we’re wired for safe bonds, but if you haven’t had that you have this incredible well of need for it, and you’re going to create it falsely. That’s why it looks like commitment and it looks like wonderful affectionate admiration, but it was really just an attempt to get security from that person.
HS: What are some reasons someone might be particularly jealous?
CBS: Maybe there’s some trauma in their background when jealousy gets really unhealthy. They may have had somebody cheat on them and it’s never quite been cleared. So they end up doing all these things that push couples apart when they get into stress. Or maybe they grew up in a home where they had really jealous parents with a lot of infidelity, so now they never feel safe.
HS: Even with a traumatic background and excessive jealousy, is it something that couples can ever fully resolve and move past?
CBS: Absolutely it can be resolved, but treatment depends on the depth of the injury. It’s important to be open and talk about it to figure out what happened that triggered feelings of jealousy. A loving partner is someone who is going to help you get through it. Jealousy when it’s unfounded is a horrible thing to carry around in your backpack all the time. It’s such a bad feeling, like a storm is about to hit. A big part of what it takes to resolve jealousy is to learn how to help our partner through it. As partners we have to learn how to soothe each other, but also how to do a lot of self-soothing – saying to ourselves ‘yes things happened in the past, but they’re not happening now.’
HS: What are some of the risks if jealousy is not addressed and resolved?
CBS: It’s catastrophic in the relationship for lots of reasons. The person who feels jealous is constantly looking for the next storm to hit. They’re scared and they’re not relaxing like they need to in a relationship. It should be a place of comfort and a place that feels secure. If it’s not, they’re going to become emotional terrors to their partner. If there is no reason for a partner to be jealous, the partner who is being accused is going to feel incredibly misunderstood and will eventually want to be with someone else. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
HS: Is overcoming jealousy ever a way to bring couples closer together?
CBS: Certainly it can be, but couples may need to reach out for help to find tools to work through the hurt and understand each other better. Jealousy is a big monster, but actually it’s a reminder to us of how much we can need each other and how much we depend on each other for a safe bond. I think it’s a really good reminder to us that we’re wired for connection and love with our partners, and everything gets shaken up if we feel like that’s at risk. Get through it before it comes this big tsunami.