Don't let jealousy ruin a good relationship
By psychologist Angie Willcocks
Jealousy is one of those relationship issues that can definitely be made worse when one partner works away. I’ve had a few questions about the green-eyed monster here on Mining Family Matters and it’s a common theme in relationship counselling.
Research shows that jealousy is more of a problem for women than men. I was surprised to learn this because it certainly isn’t what I see in my office: as many men as women report jealousy to me. I wonder if men are less likely to admit that they’re jealous to researchers, or perhaps my experience is different because I work with lots of FIFO families.
As far as I’m aware, there is no research yet into jealousy and FIFO families. In my experience, jealousy is just as likely to occur among those working away as those remaining at home.
What is jealousy?
Jealousy refers to the thoughts, feelings and behaviours that revolve around fear and anger about your partner forming either an emotional or physical connection with someone else. A touch of jealousy can be a positive thing for couples because it keeps each of them on their toes, wanting to please their partner. But too much jealousy can lead people to do some crazy things, like checking their partner’s phones and computers, following, stalking, monitoring, investigating, questioning and harassing. In some cases it can even lead to verbal or physical abuse. Obviously, these sorts of behaviours can cause permanent damage to a relationship, and they also have a pretty negative impact on both the accuser and the accused.
Out-of-control jealousy is often part of a negative relationship cycle. In some cases this jealousy cycle can even become self-fulfilling. For example, someone can feel so smothered, harassed and accused of cheating that they start withholding information or lying to their partner, even about totally innocent situations, to gain a sense of freedom. (Freedom is very important for all of us, even when we’re in a committed relationship.) If the lies are found out (which they often are) it looks like there was something to hide, which leads to more insecurity and checking and so it goes on.
If you feel insecure in your relationship, you’re more likely to experience jealousy. I know this seems like a pretty obvious and simple fact, but the reasons that people feel insecure in relationships are wide and varied. For some, the fear of loss and abandonment, the sense of not being 'good enough' or worthy enough to hold their partner’s attention, comes from childhood experiences, or from early romantic relationships. For others, insecurity is triggered by their current partner's behaviours. Successful treatment starts with finding out more about the origins of your own jealousy.
What causes it?
Psychologists think about 20-25 per cent of people feel insecure or overly anxious in a relationship because of their childhood experiences. These people probably experienced a childhood with some sort of difficulties: a poorly handled parental divorce; parental infidelity or other secrets; a distant or unavailable parent; or a parent who betrayed or let them down frequently. I know a lot of people think this sort of thing is rubbish, and that we aren’t (or shouldn’t) be affected by our childhood. But please believe me, we all are!
Acknowledging how your childhood affected you is the first step to overcoming the hold it has on you in adulthood. Partners of people who experience this kind of insecurity will often be much more understanding once they realise that the jealousy isn’t really about them. In many cases, a secure, honest and loving partner can go a long way to helping someone with this sort of relationship insecurity (but only if the jealous person is willing to take responsibility for their jealousy, of course).
Sometimes jealousy is triggered by a betrayal in an early romantic relationship, though I don’t think this is often the case. Most adults can understand that first relationships are full of mistakes and can rationalise what happened in a reasonable way. Occasionally, a permanent scar is left if the betrayal was really huge or shocking (like your girlfriend sleeping with your Dad, for instance!)
There are other situations in which jealousy is triggered by the current relationship. In my experience, some people can feel secure and happy in one relationship, yet insanely jealous in another. In this case, the jealousy is triggered by something their partner does or doesn’t do. For example, a partner who frequently looks at members of the opposite sex in a longing way, or comments on how desirable they are, is very likely to trigger jealousy in even the most secure person; as is a partner who is dishonest, secretive, distant, or frequently unreliable. Obviously, these behaviours are controlling and problematic and not part of a healthy relationship.
Of course, a combination of all of the above factors can also lead to problematic jealousy. For example, a childhood experience of being let down or betrayed might raise its head if your partner is someone who is by nature less than reliable.
How to deal with jealousy
Here are some tips to help you get a handle on problematic jealousy:
- First, commit to gaining an understanding of your own jealousy. You could do this yourself, or you could seek some counselling to help you.
- Think about your background, including your childhood and early romantic relationships. Can you find any possible reasons for your jealousy? Remember, coming up with an answer there does not excuse your jealousy; it simply explains it better so you can deal with it better in the here and now.
- Next time you experience jealousy, try to step back from the heat of the moment and ask yourself:
- What was the situation that triggered jealousy?
- What was I thinking when that situation happened? (this takes some practise)
- What did jealousy feel like in my body?
- What actions or behaviours did jealousy have me doing?
- The exercise above should help you to start understanding the origins of your jealousy.
- If your partner is supportive, you could try tackling jealousy together, as a team. This approach works better when you know more about jealousy and are willing to take responsibility for managing it. For example, if you struggle with your partner working away because of childhood issues, you could both come up with ways to manage this, like talking on the phone each day.
- If you’re the partner of a jealous person, take a look at any role you might be playing in the cycle, and stop playing it, even if it will cause short-term arguments. If you find that you’re tolerating abuse because of your partner’s jealousy, seek some help for yourself sooner rather than later. Jealousy, no matter what the cause, is never an excuse for abuse.
- Consider individual or couples counselling for help understanding and managing jealousy.
To read other columns written by Angie Willcocks during her six years with Mining Family Matters, please click here. And remember that we offer a free email Q&A service with our psychologists, so just click here to ask a question about relationships, parenting or your career. All advice on Mining Family Matters is for general information only and should never be regarded as a substitute for professional health services or crisis services. To talk with a trained volunteer telephone counsellor at any time of the day or night, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. To contact the info line at beyondblue: national depression initiative, phone 1300 22 4636.