Jealousy.... Truly the bane of many relationships. Haven't we all felt that stomach-dropping, vision-blurring sense of dread and panic and anger when -- God forbid -- our partner likes someone else? Or just seems to like someone else? If I were asking you this in person, probably all hands would be raised.
When does jealousy happen? Let's say you see your partner looking over the cute cashier at the market, or happily engaged in chatting with a coworker. More challenging, let's say you know about your partner's wild sex life before you, or let's say a past partner cheated on you. You can see how jealousy would rear its head pretty quickly in all these situations.
Jealousy seems to happen for a few reasons. One, it challenges our view of ourselves as "special" in any given relationship. Two, it feeds on feelings of inadequacy and low self-worth. Three, it comes up when we fear losing someone who is important to us, because they may be drawn away by someone else.
Lots of my clients have struggled mightily with jealousy. I've seen one man, successful and fun and good-looking, who was obsessed with his girlfriend's whereabouts and acquaintances, fearing that if she met anyone else, she would prefer that guy and leave him. I've also seen a really attractive and fun young woman who couldn't stop thinking about her new partner's ex-wife, comparing herself to the ex, and feeling jealous and shaky about their relationship.
Though we're told that couple-dom means just two people, it's not actually true. Relationships exist in a world full of other people. Many of these people will be interesting or exciting or captivating to us and our partners, because we're all human and we need a lot of different things. Esther Perel calls this acknowledging "the Third" -- the imaginary or real other people just outside our relationships, who have an impact on us or our partners.
Sound scary? Only because we're taught that love = two people, eyes locked only on each other, forever. What if love could handle "the Thirds" that come up over and over again through the course of a relationship? What if encountering a "Third" didn't mean that our primary bond was at risk, or that we weren't special enough?
Let me propose a paradigm shift in thinking about couple relationships. Most of us believe that EITHER we are attracted to our partners OR someone else, and vice versa, but not both at once. What if it were the case that we could be attracted to BOTH our partner AND someone else, without it meaning anything about our partnership? We don't have to act on all attraction, of course... So what if one attraction were independent of the other? I'll give you an example. I was getting lunch the other day, and the guy who walked into the restaurant behind me was so magnetic... I can't put my finger on it, but he seemed like exactly the sort of person I'd like to know. I felt drawn to him. We said two words to each other and went separate ways.
Since I think about this stuff all the time, I started to ask myself, how does this affect how I feel about my partner? Am I comparing them? Did that attraction diminish my attraction for my partner? Do I want my partner to be more like that guy? In all cases, no. None of that happened. You might argue that if I'd chatted with the guy at lunch and gotten to know him and really liked him, he might have eclipsed my partner in my heart and mind. I would say again... no. Maybe I would like the new guy in addition to my partner, but not as a replacement. I'm happy and in love with my partner, so new interests are additive, not replacements.
I believe that when we think of human attraction in terms of "both / and" instead of "either / or" we get a more accurate picture of how we connect with other people.
What you do with this paradigm shift depends on what you need. If you are currently struggling with jealousy, here are some suggestions:
- Spend zero time and energy comparing yourself to the person you're jealous of.
- Instead, write down some of the qualities that person possesses that you value. Are these qualities you have too? Are these qualities you'd like to cultivate?
- Write down some of the qualities YOU possess that you value. How awesome are those?
- Talk to your partner using "I" messages. "I've been feeling jealous lately because of the time you're spending with so-and-so. Can we talk about it?"
- It's fine to seek reassurance about your partner's feelings for you and commitment to your relationship.
- It's not fine to demand they see less of their friends or coworkers if your partner is not violating the rules of your relationship.
- Think about what you might need in order to feel more secure, happier, and more fulfilled in your relationship. Often jealousy is scarier when there are holes and unmet needs.
- Finally, try being happy for your partner. How do you feel when you really like a coworker and enjoy having lunch with them, or when someone harmlessly flirts with you? You feel good! Can you imagine that your partner is feeling good too, and go with that feeling instead? "Aw, my baby just got his ego stroked! He deserves it!"
Finally, know that jealousy is normal and natural, just like anger and sadness and all the other emotions we have. Just like those others, we have choices about how we deal with it. We can feed jealousy by making comparisons, ruminating about how we don't measure up, imagining ourselves being inched out by an interloper. Or, we can soften jealousy by reminding ourselves of our attractiveness, aiming to have what we value in our lives and relationships, and taking a "both / and" approach to understanding human attraction.
So next time you notice your partner checking out that cashier, maybe you can smile and say, "Isn't he cute?"