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Overcoming Jealousy in Romantic Relationships

If there’s an emotional experience more universal than heartbreak, it might be jealousy. Even when things in our relationship are good, or good enough, many of us are haunted by the fear that they might not stay that way. We’re preoccupied with what might happen if we lose our partner — or by the insecurity that they want something more. Even when nothing untoward is actually happening, jealousy can become a toxin in our relationship, causing problems where none previously existed. How do you overcome feelings of jealousy to keep your relationship healthy?

What does jealousy look like in relationships?

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Jealousy, like all emotions, is a part of the normal emotional range — it’s not bad or wrong to feel it, and there are plenty of times when it’s the appropriate response.From time to time, though, our jealousy comes up in situations where it isn’t warranted or helpful — or begins to impact our relationship if it becomes part of a pattern. How can you tell if jealousy is becoming a problem in your romantic relationship? Here are some of the signs there may be an issue.

Lack of Trust: Constantly questioning your partner’s whereabouts or interactions with others, feeling uneasy when they spend time with friends or colleagues

Possessiveness: Creating “rules” about friendships or spending time alone, insisting on being involved in important aspects of a partner’s life

Insecurity: Feelings of inadequacy or undesirability compared to your partner’s exes or other potential romantic interests, constantly seeking reassurance from your partner, especially around your attractiveness or quality as a partner

Monitoring: Checking your partner’s phone or social media accounts regularly, asking them to share their passwords, tracking their movements, or keeping tabs on their interactions

Emotional outbursts: Reacting with intense anger, sadness, or frustration when your partner talks about their past relationships or interacts with someone of the opposite sex

Mood swings: Experiencing sudden shifts in mood from happiness to anger or sadness triggered by thoughts or suspicions related to your partner’s fidelity, even if they’re based only on minor and innocent developments, like a female friend liking an Instagram post

Physical symptoms: Feeling physically ill, experiencing tension headaches, or having difficulty sleeping due to obsessive thoughts about your partner’s faithfulness.

Protest behavior: Either pulling away emotionally or physically from your partner out of fear of being hurt or rejected, or demanding extra attention through repeated phone calls, texts, or physical proximity when you feel insecure

Controlling behavior: Attempting to make “rules” about what your partner can wear, who they can talk to, or where they can go, in an attempt to prevent perceived threats to the relationship

What’s the root of your jealousy?

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We often use the term “jealousy” to mean a lot of different things — we could be talking about experiencing fear of abandonment, insecurity about one’s sexual desirability, possessiveness about a partner’s time or attention, a habit of comparing oneself to others… the list goes on. When you feel jealous — or when your partner feels you’re being jealous — what’s actually going on?

Insecurity

These could be feelings of insecurity about your physical or sexual desirability — a reticence to believe that your partner is really attracted to you, or feeling that they’d rather be with someone more attractive — or could be about your overall personhood. Perhaps low self-esteem, previous partners, your childhood home, or something else has led you to believe you’re an unfit partner or a burden to people in your life. This may amount to a full-fledged fear of abandonment, where you feel that your partner is on the verge of leaving you at any time and they’re only waiting to meet the right next person — and manifest as trying to “keep” your partner at all costs.

Past trauma or toxic relationships

Sometimes we’ve had past relationship experiences that have made us hypervigilant about cheating or our partner meeting someone else, either because this was a dynamic we grew up with as children or because of the behavior of past partners. Even if you know you have no reason not to trust your current partner, it can be hard to let go of the impulse to protect yourself by monitoring perceived threats to the relationship or fact-checking your partner to see if they were lying. Unfortunately, as understandable as this is, it can still cause real damage in a healthy relationship.

Attachment style

Sometimes what we call “jealousy” might be more accurately termed “anxious attachment style” — a way of approaching relationships that developed from our childhood experiences that leads us to worry excessively about our connection to our partner, and feel we have to constantly earn and bargain for their affection. Having an anxious attachment style makes it very difficult to feel secure in a relationship, even if our partner isn’t doing anything wrong, and may manifest as asking for constant reassurance, wanting to check your partner’s phone or social media, or overthinking their relationships with friends or coworkers.

Inconsistency or lack of communication

Sometimes jealousy isn’t an issue of projection, trauma or attachment — it’s a reasonable and rational reaction to genuine inconsistency, unreliability or mixed messages in a relationship. If your partner is constantly saying one thing and doing another, unreliable when making plans or commitments, if their communication and consistency is dropping off radically, or if they’re suddenly being much less communicative and transparent about their routines and schedules, it’s not unreasonable to feel suspicious or jealous. If there are concrete ways that they’re deprioritizing their relationship with you relative to others — making plans several weeks out with a friend while they expect you to be around on short notice, or canceling plans with you to see other people — then it’s not projecting to worry that they’re being at least emotionally unfaithful. The difficulty is being really honest with yourself about when these things are actually happening, and when you feel like they’re happening.

If you’re in a consensually nonmonogamous relationship, then some degree of jealousy is likely normal for everyone in the relationship. The goal when practicing ENM isn’t necessarily to never feel jealous, but to learn to work with your jealousy constructively and in healthy ways. Ideally, when you or a partner feel jealous, you can communicate about it and have an honest conversation that helps to discern what your partner(s) can adjust to help you feel better, and where it might be your job to build some resilience and regulation skills around your jealousy.

What are things both of you can do to help you feel more secure?

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Regardless of its source, it’s imperative to communicate directly with your partner that you’re feeling jealous. Even if you don’t think there’s a basis for your jealousy, it’s helpful to be honest about the fact that it’s happening; otherwise, it may materialize despite your best intentions as resentment or emotional outbursts. 

When you do talk about it, it’s possible to discuss ways that your partner could help you feel more secure without necessarily blaming them. Not all of the things you might want them to do to make you feel more secure might actually be helpful — for instance, while we often feel that we really want reassurance from our partners, this rarely helps in the long term. It often only makes us feel better for a few seconds, and then we want reassurance again — and we’ve affirmed in our brains that our security is dependent on our partner’s reassurance. Similarly, “solutions” that involve controlling your partner — making rules about who they can spend time with, how they can dress, or that they must allow you access to their texts or emails — will hurt much more than they help. 

However, there may be sustainable things your partner can do that will help — maybe a good morning and good night text help you feel like your relationship is based on stable routines, or knowing who your partner is going out with when they go out with friends. If your partner is unwilling to make any concessions related to this, that may be a red flag — either of cheating or of just not being a good fit for you.

At the same time, if you feel consistently jealous in ways that impact your relationship and you know there’s no concrete reason to distrust your partner, it may mean that you have your own personal growth to do to access security in a relationship. Books like Polysecure or Hold Me Tight can help you address jealousy related to ENM or anxious attachment; looking in polyvagal theory can help you build a felt sense of safety in the relationship overall. And of course a therapist is the most important resource toward moving toward safety and security in a relationship, and toward mental and emotional wellness overall.

Recommended Books:

Overcoming Jealousy and Possessiveness

Anxiously Attached: Becoming More Secure in Life and Love

The Jealousy Cure: Learn to Trust, Overcome Possessiveness, and Save Your Relationship



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