Whenever Ron starts dating a woman, he feels very threatened by her socializing with other men. Whenever they are out and about, he feels as if other men are constantly checking out his woman, finding her desirable, and starting to scheme for ways that they might steal her away from him. Ron’s intense jealousy results in constant fights between him and his partner, as he frequently accuses her of flirting with other men and she counters by saying he’s too controlling and paranoid. Logically, Ron can appreciate that no one likes to be accused, and that insecurity is not a very attractive quality in human beings. But emotionally, he can’t stop panicking whenever he finds out that his partner has gone somewhere without him, and he can’t stop looking for evidence that she is being unfaithful.
Jody finds herself in a similar situation whenever she tries to date someone. The more she likes a man, the less she trusts him, and the more she suspects that her female friends and relations are trying to move in on her turf. The longer Jody dates, the more damage is done to all of her important relationships as she sees her partner, friends, and family members in an increasingly dark light. The only hope Jody has of keeping her non-romantic relationships intact is to stop dating. Her ex-boyfriends all view her very negatively by the time she either dumps them amid a shower of accusations or they dump her because they are tired of dealing with her raging insecurities.
So what’s the solution for Ron and Jody? The kind of jealousy they are grappling with is making it impossible for them to establish functional intimate relationships. All relationships have an element of power, and to be healthy, intimate partners need to try to share the power equally, striving for a 50/50 power balance instead of 80/20 or 70/30. But intense jealousy makes us feel too threatened to share power equally. Instead, we try to manage our fears by hogging more power than we should have. We typically express our power hoarding by trying to control our partner’s behaviors to inappropriate degrees and demanding full disclosure of their private thoughts and feelings. All of these behaviors are inappropriate for a healthy relationship, and when we act this way, we leave our partners with only two options. If they are functional, they will break up with us and look for someone who is better at sharing power. If they are dysfunctional and they decide to succumb to our demands, the relationship will quickly turn abusive, with both partners ending up harmed. What all of this means is that chronic jealousy needs to be addressed at its core before you can have any chance at forming healthy intimate relationships. And while it’s tempting to think, “Then forget it, I’ll just stay single,” this is not a wise call to make. The kind of jealousy I’m discussing in this post is fueled by intensely distressing beliefs which are going to be impacting far more than just your dating behaviors. Often in these cases, the same beliefs that are making it impossible for you to trust anyone are also negatively affecting your view of yourself. Even if you’ve given up on trying to relate to other people, you shouldn’t give up on trying to help yourself achieve a better quality of life. This kind of jealousy acts like a bunch of yarn that’s been twisted all around you in a big snarl. With some patience and focus, you can start to wriggle free from its grip. To get started with this process, you need to first identify what specific negative beliefs are fueling your fear.
A Form of Fear
Your subconscious is very interested in keeping you safe. When your subconscious is grappling with intense fears that cause it to feel alarmingly vulnerable and defenseless in some area, it automatically cloaks its weakness in emotions that seem strong. Fear indicates weakness. When you directly express your fear to another human without disguising it as something else, it’s like you’re drawing a huge red arrow over a weakpoint in your defenses and saying, “If you attack me right here, I won’t be able to stop you from defeating me.” It often feels dangerous and foolish to directly express our fears to others, like we’re handing them a loaded gun that they could easily decide to shoot us with. Because your subconscious’ top priority is to protect you, it automatically disguises its fears and vulnerabilities in emotions that will convey strength and power.
Anger communicates strength and power. When we use an icy, loud, or seething tone, we come across as threatening and dangerous. Anger causes other humans to feel attacked by us, so they respond with defensive posturing. Fine. A fearful subconscious would rather come across as the confident attacker who is executing a well-laid strategy than as the fellow who is caught off guard and scrambling to get organized.
The kind of jealousy I’m discussing in this post is a form of fear which gets triggered when your subconscious feels like your current circumstances are feeling uncomfortably similar to a past circumstance which resulted in you being harmed. When this jealousy riles up, you automatically feel one down to the people you are jealous of. It feels like other people have suddenly spotted a huge hole in your defenses and they are now plotting to trash you just because they can. It’s the fact that you feel so powerless to protect yourself that makes this kind of jealousy so upsetting.
Understanding that jealousy is a form of fear is critical, because the goal we have to work on is to pinpoint exactly what you are afraid of. But we have to go deeper than statements like “I’m afraid my sister will steal my boyfriend.” Identifying the specific events that you’re afraid of is helpful, but we then have to figure out why those events feel so likely to your mind.
All fears are attached to strings of beliefs and assumptions which cause your mind to draw logical conclusions about how likely it is that what it dreads will actually take place. In the type of jealousy you’re dealing with, there is an intense fear that your romantic partner will betray you in some way. As you feel the relationship progressing your sense of vulnerability increases. The more vulnerable you feel, the more likely it seems that you will be hurt. But why does your mind feel so certain that your chances of being hurt are so high? Many relationships run their full courses without anyone cheating on anyone, yet in your mind, you are extremely likely to be cheated on. Your mind didn’t just pluck this conclusion out of the air; it is basing it on a string of beliefs that it has formed in response to experiences you’ve had in the past. The more intense your jealousy is, the more traumatic those original past experiences felt to you. If you can pinpoint what those events were and also identify the specific negative beliefs you formed in response to them, then you will be in a good position to start unraveling the fear that is strangling all of your relationships.
When doing self-analysis, it is extremely helpful to write things out instead of trying to mentally keep track of a bunch of thought fragments. When you’re trying to coax your subconscious into discussing its fears with you, you need to be ready for it to divulge its secrets in small bits instead of giving you a long, comprehensive answer. Sharing in baby steps like this is a defensive measure. In this kind of self-analysis, your subconscious will be testing your soul’s reaction to what it shares. If it doesn’t like how your soul reacts–if you sound too critical, mocking, or unsympathetic–it will shutdown and refuse to tell you anything else. So it’s very important to begin this kind of analysis with a focus on self-compassion. You do this by deciding ahead of time that whatever your mind has to say, its feelings are valid and deserve to be treated with respect. You don’t have to agree with a string of logic before you can respect it as feeling very real and important to the one who is using it.
While writing out your thoughts can be extremely therapeutic, keeping a physical diary is a bad idea, because diaries can be read by other people. As a trauma counselor, I always recommend that records you will want to refer to again be made in electronic files that can be locked with a password that only you know. This is especially important when you’re trying to unravel traumatic beliefs, because such beliefs are tied to very strong fears and wounds, and having such things exposed to others can actually worsen your condition. So unless you’re planning to rip up your notes immediately after a one-time analysis session, use a password protected file to make them in and never leave that file unlocked when you are away from your device. A little diligence upfront can avoid a crisis down the line.
For the exercises in this post, you’ll need an electronic notes file. Once you get your file set up, think back to when you first noticed strong feelings of jealousy riling up for you. The first relationship partner you felt very jealous of might not have been a romantic one. Often parent figures play a role in these situations when they seem to make dramatic shifts in their relationship priorities, leaving one of their kids feeling suddenly rejected or replaced by a new “favorite.” Another common candidate is the first close friend you had as a child. Or perhaps there was a sibling, cousin, or other family member who you felt strongly bonded to only to feel like they suddenly turned against you in some way.
Children are born instinctively giving their guardians absolute trust. You learn to withdraw that trust–it’s not an automatic thing. It’s a healthy part of maturing to scale back your absolute trust of other humans to a partial trust. Partial trust can still be quite strong and deep, but absolute trust is too expansive and is only appropriate in your relationship with God. Extreme forms of things like trust, dependency, submission, admiration and respect are only appropriate in your relationship with your Creator. In human relationships, things need to be more balanced to remain healthy.
In your notes, write down answers to the following questions:
- When do you first recall having a relationship in which you felt intensely jealous and upset by your partner’s behaviors? Did your fears prove to be correct?
- About what age were you during this relationship? (We will call this the age the NEW PATTERN AGE (NPA), because it is the first time you recall experiencing the behavior pattern that still bothers you today.)
Your NPA is important because this is when your mind tested out a new defensive strategy which it decided was useful, and this is why you are still using it today. Traumatized minds test out many defensive strategies, but they are quick to drop the ones that don’t feel helpful. They only stick to ones that they feel have value. If you’ve been battling with the same jealous feelings for decades, then your mind is demonstrating trust in this particular defensive strategy. Here we have to ask: why does your mind feel it is useful to hang on to this particular defense? What good is coming out of you assuming the worst about your close people the moment you engage in a romantic relationship? Well, to figure out why your mind considers this a winning strategy, let’s consider the effects that all of your accusations and suspicions are having. Your intimate relationships all tank, don’t they? And now let’s look beyond the intimate relationships and consider the damage that’s done to the friends and family members who you accuse of trying to steal your partner away from you. By accusing everyone of nasty things, you are driving them all away from you. You are decreasing the level of intimacy in all of your close relationships by eroding trust and treating people badly. So here’s a key question: why is your mind sticking to a strategy that keeps driving all of your close people away from you?
When we consider the effects of your jealous behavior, we can see that your mind has created a very useful tool for preventing anyone from getting too close to you. Any friendships which have a chance to grow while you’re single get swiftly trimmed back once you start dating, because you immediately use your new romantic interest as an excuse to start treating your friends and family members like your enemies. It might be helpful now to look at your pattern of dating. How long are the gaps between romantic partners? During those gaps, do other friendships tend to develop in positive ways? We need to consider the possibility that you are intentionally seeking out a new romantic partner whenever other relationships start feeling too close, so that you can then use your partner as an excuse to drive everyone back to a comfortable distance. You might not be doing this type of thing, but in self-analysis, it’s vital to keep an open mind.
We now have an approximate age for when your mind first developed jealousy as a defensive strategy. The events that caused it to feel a need for such a strategy would have occurred close to or prior to your NPA. Getting approximate ages helps you focus in on a specific period of life, which is extremely helpful when you’ve been dealing with the same traumatic coping methods for a long time.
To help us further pinpoint root causes, we need to look more closely at what triggers your jealous feelings. First, is this problem really isolated to romantic relationships? Or does it surface in friendships as well? Since romantic relationships seem to be when you notice it the most, let’s use your own dating history to try to narrow down possibilities.
A Fear of Wanting Something
When you begin a new dating relationship, there are typically strong feelings of attraction on your side. In other words, you suddenly find yourself becoming emotionally invested in being with someone. It’s quite possible that your strong desire for something is what triggers the jealousy. If this is the case, you’ll find your jealous feelings emerging almost instantly, before you and your partner have a chance to get to know each other. This first kind of trigger would cause you to immediately feel vulnerable once you admit to a friend or family member that you really like someone. You might find yourself instantly fearing that they’ll now try to move in and snatch the person away before you have a chance to get anywhere. In this first scenario, you believe that your strong desire for something causes those closest to you to intentionally try to sabotage you. To defend against this fear in general, you’ll find yourself trying to hide when you feel strongly attracted to anything and instead try to pass yourself off as being pretty neutral across the board. If this first fear is in play, you’ll find yourself trying not to express strong enthusiasm about anything in casual conversations, and you might even be denying yourself opportunities to pursue your personal interests even when you are alone. In extreme cases, a fear that your desires will be used against you can even lead to self-harming behaviors, as you try to punish yourself for pursuing things that interest you, and/or force yourself to pursue things that you dislike as a way of hiding or denying your true interests. This type of fear typically forms in response to a belief that something terrible happened in the past in direct response to you expressing or acting on a desire for something. For example…
When Molly was a girl, she loved horses so much that she begged and pleaded to be given riding lessons until her mother finally gave in. During Molly’s first day at the stables, a horse reared unexpectedly, kicked her little sister, and her sister ended up with permanent brain damage. Molly feels like the accident was her fault, because she insisted on pursuing her love of horses. She also feels that the family secretly blames her for what happened, and that they are always looking for a way to even the score. As an adult, whenever Molly tries to pursue any of her interests, she experiences an overwhelming sense of dread that her family members are plotting ways to ruin her pursuits and use them to hurt her. She believes they will never let her have the things she wants most, because they blame her for destroying her sister’s life, and they don’t think she deserves to be happy. Of course Molly’s people all deny harboring such malicious thoughts, but Molly secretly believes their denials are just lies to throw her off track.
Molly’s situation demonstrates how surprising the root causes of chronic jealousy can be. When we’re trying to unravel trauma symptoms, we often think too simplistically, looking for an obvious match. For example, it makes sense to assume that a woman who is always fearful of being cheated on is reacting to having been cheated on in the past. Yet as Molly’s scenario demonstrates, things can be much more complex than that. This is why it’s important to reframe your symptoms in very general terms and to isolate the specific core beliefs that are fueling your fears. When we focus on beliefs instead of looking for specific types of circumstances, we do a better job of identifying the real root causes.
So what do you think? When does jealousy tend to rear its head in your dating relationships? If it surfaces almost instantly, before any meaningful conversations can happen, or before you and your romantic partner have even gone on a first date, then it’s very possible the thing that’s really triggering you is your own strong desire for something. Romantic attraction has a way of catching us off guard and can be very intense. This makes it a very threatening thing to a mind that is trying to suppress its own interests. If it’s true that your own desire for something is what’s causing you to have an intense fear that someone close to you will steal what you want away, then we should be looking for a past scenario in which you felt your strong desire for something got linked to some kind of disaster. As Molly’s scenario demonstrates, someone might not have sabotaged you in the original traumatic event. No one attacked Molly when her crisis happened: instead, a crisis happened to her sister, and the loss of that relationship was very scary and painful to Molly. Now that you have your NPA established, consider your life before that age and see if any negative events stand out to you. These would be events that caused you to feel extremely upset in your own world–they may or may not include other people acting negatively towards you.
A Fear of Being Known
If that first type of trigger isn’t resonating with you, let’s consider another possibility. This second trigger has to do with you feeling vulnerable. If this second trigger is in play, then you’ll notice jealous feelings surfacing after you and your romantic partner begin to exchange sensitive information with each other. If you have a habit of engaging in sexual activities when you date, it would be useful to note if your jealousy tends to intensify after your first sexual encounter. Sex is a vulnerable activity. So is sharing sensitive information about our feelings and personal history. While the first trigger we discussed focused on having strong personal desires, this second trigger focuses on a fear of being vulnerable.
If this second trigger is in play, you’ll notice that you tend to be very guarded about what you share in any of your relationships, not just your romantic ones. You’ll also likely notice that while you’re seething with jealous thoughts, you find yourself specifically fearing that your partner is going to blab some of your sensitive information to others. In this second scenario, the real threat behind other people stealing your lover away will be that they will then gain access to information that you don’t want them to have–information that you only share with romantic partners.
A Belief That You’re Inferior
There is a third common trigger that’s worth considering, and this has to do with the belief that you are inferior, especially when compared to others of your same gender and/or sexual orientation. When this third trigger is in play, panic sets in very early in the relationship, because as soon as you start trying to go for a romantic partner, you get bombarded with fears that you are unworthy of them, and therefore have no hope of hanging onto them. In this scenario, who you are primarily jealous of says a lot about who you are personally comparing yourself to in life. For example, if your jealousy is very broad (like the man who is jealous of all other men when he goes on a date with his woman) then it suggests you feel inferior to the general human race. If instead your jealousy is narrow in focus (like the woman who only sees her close friends and family members as serious threats) then it suggests you have a history of feeling outshined by specific people who you view as still having an important influence in your life.
If this third trigger is in play, you will likely have a poor self-image, meaning you find yourself relatively unattractive, you often feel socially awkward, and you are quick to insult yourself (“I’m so fat; I’m so dumb; I’m always messing up”). This third trigger would make it difficult for you to feel you have any good answer to the question “Why should my partner stick with me when there are so many better options available?” This third trigger could cause you to overcompensate in the relationship, trying to “earn” your partner’s interest by going out of your way to do nice things for them, and encouraging them to have their way most of the time.
Jealousy that is focused broadly would cause you to feel very insecure whenever you are out in public around other potential partners that your partner could switch to. You would likely scrutinize your partner’s behavior, constantly looking for evidence that they are being flirtatious or losing interest in you.
Jealousy that is narrowly focused would cause you to only feel threatened when you are around specific people, but your jealousy in those cases could be very intense, due to your own history with those other people. For example…
Amanda has always felt like the ugly duckling in her family. Her two sisters, mother, and aunt are all fashionable, clever, and stylish women, while Amanda feels awkward, plain, and on the dumb side. Whenever Amanda gets a boyfriend, she becomes extremely insecure. She finds herself putting a lot more effort into her appearance and adjusting her behaviors to try to seem “better” than her normal self. Once her boyfriend meets her family members, regardless of what he does or doesn’t say, Amanda is certain that he is very impressed by the other women in her family and secretly thinking that he chose the wrong girl. After that, she has no mental peace as she spends every day and night worrying that one or more of her female relations are scheming for a way to steal her guy. The truth is that Amanda feels powerless to stop them from taking him away because she feels so completely inferior. Her helpless position triggers strong feelings of hate towards her family members, and she becomes very hostile towards her boyfriend as well as she starts responding to a betrayal that she believes is coming soon. Eventually her relationships always crash and burn, and when they do, Amanda feels like all of family members are secretly thinking, “Well, of course she couldn’t keep a guy like that. Look at her: what’s to like?”
In Amanda’s case, her jealously is fueled by a belief that she is significantly less worthy than other humans. This belief formed in response to her feeling like specific qualities which are only shared by her female relations have been rewarded in the family system for years. For example, Amanda is significantly larger boned and thicker in the waist than her family members. She can recall countless times when their figures were praised in dressing rooms while hers was either ignored or criticized. Amanda has thick dark hair, while the other ladies are permanent blondes. As a result, she’s received many “well-intentioned” instructions to wax more because “dark haired girls have to spend more effort if they want to stay pretty.” Amanda is used to seeing men take second glances at her sisters while they don’t seem to notice her at all. A lifetime of comparing herself with her sisters has blocked Amanda from ever taking stock of her own strengths. Instead of seeing herself as valuable in her own right, she always compares herself with certain females using their value system instead of using her own.
A Distrust of Your Partner
A fourth common trigger of jealousy is when you have very negative beliefs about your partner. Typically the belief here is very broad, like the woman who feels all men are unfaithful, or the man who feels all women are untrustworthy. You see your partner as a representative of a large group of folks who you already have a very negative view of. You then decide that your partner must prove your beliefs to be true by doing whatever negative thing it is that you expect them to do. When these beliefs are strong enough, you will actually try to force your partner to behave in negative ways. For example…
After seeing her father and uncle both cheat on their wives, Tanya has formed a strong belief that all men are cheaters. Whenever she gets into a relationship with a man, she believes down deep that it is only a matter of time until her man cheats on her. She is so convinced that she is correct in her view of men, that she feels very uncomfortable when her man isn’t cheating. To her, a faithful man is just toying with her–stringing her along until the day he drops a bomb on her head. As soon as she gets into a new romantic relationship, Tanya feels trapped and set up. She then wants to get the bad surprise over with as soon as possible, so she does everything possible to get her man to cheat. She intentionally parades him in front of her attractive female friends and family members, and even encourages flirtation to happen. In her mind, she imagines that other women are falling for the temptation she’s dangling in front of them, and she imagines her boyfriend is falling for them. Then she hates everyone and blames everyone and becomes increasingly miserable until her relationship finally ends.
Tanya formed her negative beliefs by observing troubles in other people’s relationships when she was a child. In this kind of scenario, how important someone is to you personally directly effects how strongly you react to the troubles they are having in their personal lives. A favorite uncle’s divorce will hit you a lot harder than the divorce of a cousin who you find annoying. If other people turn to you for help with their emotional stress, that also has a major impact, especially when you are a child. Children don’t have the resources to prop adults up. Instead, they depend on adults to help them. So when adults pull a role reversal by suddenly leaning on children for emotional support or relationship advice, children find this extremely upsetting. It’s rather like having a fireman come over to put out the fire in your house only to then have his own clothes catch on fire and shout at you for help. Suddenly you’re having to rescue the rescuer, even though you feel totally unequipped to do so. Such an experience can have a lasting, negative impact, and cause you to form very negative views of any member of humanity who seem to be in the same general category as the people who upset you as a child.
Now if none of the triggers I just discussed feel like matches, try taking a closer look at who you feel most threatened by once your jealous feelings surface. Who do you spend the most time focusing on? Yourself and how incapable you are of making a relationship work? Your partner and their shady lack of character? Other people who you’ve decided are your rivals?
Make a list of the people you feel most threatened by. Then, next to each of their names, write a short summary of what you think their motivations are for behaving negatively. For example what specific behaviors are you worried your partner will do and why do you think he/she would want to do those things? As for your rivals, why do you think they are so interested in stealing your partner away? Are they trying to hurt you or help themselves?
Remember that root causes can be very surprising in how unrelated they can seem at first glance. Because romantic relationships stir up strong feelings of desire, demand higher levels of trust, and require greater degrees of vulnerability, it’s quite possible that your panic is being triggered by one of those ingredients. To be comfortable in intimate relationships, you need to be comfortable with yourself as well as believe it is possible for someone else to be trustworthy and safe. Many experiences in life can cause us to have trouble in one or more of these areas, but when this is the case, there will be a specific kind of logic that our minds are using to justify their fears. Once you identify that specific logic, you can begin trying to adjust it.
In this post, we’ve discussed an overview of how to get started with identifying root causes. If you’re serious about getting somewhere with this, make an electronic notes file that you can keep referring to over several weeks. Then, as you have time, ponder the following questions and write down any thoughts that come to mind:
- What specific fears surface when you are in a romantic relationship? (Write these thoughts out as they appear in your mind and put a * by the ones that occur most frequently.)
- When do your fears tend to surface? After the relationship is established? When you first realize that you’re interested in someone? After the two of you start to grow close?
- What specific thoughts occur after a romantic relationship ends? Do you feel relief? Disappointment? Sorrow? Try to describe your post-break up feelings, including an explanation of why you feel the way you do. For example: “I’m feeling relieved because now I can go back to being myself.” “I’m sad because this just proves I was right about all men being untrustworthy.”
- Think over your past romantic relationships and look for recurring patterns of distress that you experienced in all or most of them. Describe those specific patterns (they could be specific kinds of thoughts or behaviors that surface for you only when you feel very threatened in an important relationship). Think back to your life experiences that occurred close to or before your NPA. Do you recall times when you experienced similar patterns of distress in your life? Often our original stressful feelings keep resurfacing throughout our lives until we find a positive way to deal with the original events that upset us.
- Do any specific past painful memories come up for you when you are in the midst of a romantic relationship? You might find yourself thinking “My partner reminds me of my cousin right now.” Or, “He’s making me feel as bad as my grandmother did when she would criticize me as a child.” Often your mind will cause the memories of the events that originally upset you to resurface when it feels you are in a similar situation.
- How do you behave when you are in a relationship? Do you act like your normal self, or do you try to pretend you are someone else? If you try to adjust your behavior, which behaviors do you try to change, and what specific goals are you trying to accomplish? Are you trying to come across as smarter, more attractive, or more valuable? Are you trying to imitate or outshine a specific person who you feel threatened by?
- Do you think you deserve to be happy in life? If you could get rid of your jealousy problem, do you think you have enough positive qualities to make a high quality life partner for someone? Or do you think that another person would be foolish to “settle” for you because they could easily do better elsewhere?
- Who do you tend to compare yourself to the most in life? Why do you think you focus on that specific person (or persons)? What about them makes their choices and actions seem so relevant to your life?
After you’ve taken time to collect a lot of notes, see if you can answer the following questions:
- What specific negative beliefs & fears are fueling my jealous feelings?
- What specific life events caused these beliefs & fears to form?
Once you are able to answer these questions, if you want to begin doing some healing work on your own, you can find further instruction here: Practical Steps for Correcting Traumatic Beliefs.
This post was written in response to a request.
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