Jealousy in Marriage: How It Happens and What to Do

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Jealousy is a normal emotion. In fact, everyone experiences jealousy at some point in their lives. But, issues occur when jealousy moves from a healthy emotion to something that is unhealthy and irrational.

Whether you are the jealous partner or your spouse is the jealous one, irrational and excessive jealousy can eventually destroy your marriage. Here is an overview of jealousy including steps you can take to overcome this emotion in your marriage.

Overview of Jealousy

Jealousy is a reaction to a perceived threat—real or imagined—to a valued relationship and is very common. In fact, jealousy is an issue in one-third of all couples receiving marriage counseling, according to a nationwide survey of marriage counselors.

A little jealousy can be reassuring in a relationship and may even be programmed into us. But, a lot of jealousy is overwhelming and scary, especially because it can lead to dangerous behaviors like stalking, digital dating violence, and physical abuse.

There’s no reason to believe that jealousy will improve with time or by getting married. Jealousy is not an emotion that can be banished with wishful thinking. It goes right to the core of the self and has deep roots. It takes awareness and effort to overcome jealous feelings.

Normal Jealousy vs. Unhealthy Jealousy

Occasional jealousy is natural and can keep a relationship alive. But when it becomes intense or irrational, it can seriously damage a relationship. In relationships where feelings of jealousy are mild and occasional, it reminds couples not to take each other for granted.

Jealousy also can motivate couples to appreciate one another and make a conscious effort to make sure their partner feels valued. Jealousy also heightens emotions, making love feel stronger and sex more passionate. In small, manageable doses, jealousy can be a positive force in a marriage.

But when jealousy is intense or irrational, the story is very different. In fact, irrational or excessive jealousy is often a warning sign of a potentially abusive relationship. Eventually, jealous people feel so overwhelmed by their emotions and insecurities that they will begin to exert control over their partners. They may even resort to violence, financial abuse, and verbal bullying in order to maintain control and alleviate or mask their jealous feelings.

Signs of Unhealthy Jealousy

Being able to distinguish between healthy jealousy and unhealthy jealousy is important to the success of the relationship.

When a healthy relationship experiences jealousy, it comes from a place of protection. One person sees a potential threat to the marriage and expresses concern or jealousy. Together, the couple discusses the issue rationally and comes to an agreement on how to move forward. They are both committed to the relationship and are not insecure about who they are as individuals.

Meanwhile, unhealthy jealousy is rooted more in fear of abandonment and a worry about not being truly loved. Unhealthy jealousy is characterized by:

  • excessively questioning a partner's behaviors and motives
  • demanding an account of where the partner has been
  • texting a partner non-stop when the couple is apart
  • reading emails and texts or listening to voicemails expecting to discover infidelity or a lie
  • displaying unusual insecurity and fear
  • being paranoid about what the partner is doing or feeling
  • engaging in storytelling and making accusations that are not true
  • following or stalking a partner to confirm whereabouts
  • infringing on the partner's freedom or prohibiting them from seeing friends or family

Causes of Jealousy

People who struggle with jealousy often experience a multitude of emotions including fear, anger, grief, worry, sadness, doubt, pain, self-pity, and humiliation. They also may struggle with a sense of failure, feel suspicious, or feel threatened. Jealousy can be caused by many factors but some possible reasons include:

  • Having unrealistic expectations about marriage in general
  • Maintaining unrealistic expectations of their spouse
  • Having a misguided sense of ownership over their spouse
  • Reliving a hurtful experience of abandonment in the past
  • Being insecure or having poor self-image
  • Fearing abandonment or betrayal
  • Worrying about losing someone or something important to them
  • Feeling intense possessiveness or a desire for control

Consequences of Irrational Jealousy

It is not uncommon for couples to misinterpret jealousy for love. But displaying abnormal jealousy is anything but loving. If left unaddressed, over time, jealousy will wreak havoc on a relationship as the jealous person becomes more and more fearful, angry, and controlling.

"For those who experience abnormal jealousy, the emotion sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy. As their [partners] try to avoid them, their worst fears of losing love and respect are realized," says Robert L. Barker, in Green Eyed Marriage.

Eventually, jealousy can lead to resentment and defensiveness. It also will destroy the trust in a relationship and lead to more arguments, especially if the jealous person makes demands and constantly questions the other person.

Sometimes jealous people also struggle with physical reactions like trembling, feeling dizzy, depression, and having trouble sleeping. Their constant anger and need for reassurance also can lead to the end of the marriage or relationship, especially if they become abusive and do not deal with their jealousy in healthy ways.

How to Handle Jealousy in Marriage

If your marriage is experiencing jealousy issues, it is important to address it before it gets out of hand. Here are some suggestions for handling jealousy in a healthy way.

Realize That Some Jealousy Is Normal

There will be people and situations that threaten the security of your marriage. Whether it is a flirtatious co-worker or a job that requires a lot of travel, it is normal to experience a little bit of jealousy. The important thing is that you take time to talk about your concerns and agree on some boundaries that will protect your marriage and your hearts.

For instance, you both may agree that limiting contact with a flirtatious co-worker is important for the health of the marriage. Or, you may decide that talking at bedtime while one spouse is on the road may alleviate concerns. The key is that you discuss the issues calmly and come up with solutions together.

Get to the Root of the Jealousy

When one partner is feeling jealous on a consistent basis, it is important to find out why that is happening. For instance, is the jealous partner feeling insecure because you are not spending much time together as a couple? Or, does the marriage have trust issues due to infidelity? Rather than get defensive or offended by jealousy, ask questions. Try to understand where the jealousy is coming from and what can be done to alleviate it.

Create an Atmosphere of Trust

One of the best ways to guard against jealousy, is to create an atmosphere of trust. This process begins with both partners being trustworthy. In other words, they are faithful, committed, and honest. Trustworthy people do not lie about how they are spending their time. They also do not cheat on their spouses. If you both guard against these pitfalls, the trust in the relationship with grow and crowd out jealousy.

Develop a Healthy Attachment

Find ways to spend time together and bond. A marriage is more than just living together and sharing a bed. It involves showing affection, spending time together, and building an attachment to one another. What's more, any threats to your attachment should be a cause for concern. Jealousy is appropriate when it is a signal that the marriage is at risk.

Recognize When Jealousy Is Abusive

Jealousy in response to a real threat to the relationship is normal. But, if one partner is jealous for no reason, this could be a red flag especially if the jealousy includes extreme anger, unrealistic expectations, and unfounded accusations. What's more, this type of jealousy is not a one-time thing. It is a pattern of behavior that repeats itself over and over.

Another hallmark of abusive or unhealthy jealousy is an attempt to exert control over another person as well as making outlandish accusations. If you find yourself responding with "I was only..." or "I was just..." to questions on a regular basis, that is a red flag. You need to get help right away before things spiral out of control.

Coping With Your Own Jealousy

If you are the one struggling with jealousy in your relationships, you may want to think about why you are feeling jealous. For instance, do you struggle with self-esteem or are you afraid your partner will leave you? Or, has your partner been unfaithful in the past and you are worried it will happen again?

Either way, your jealous feelings need to be dealt with. The best way to do that is to find a counselor or a therapist who can help you learn to manage your jealousy in healthy ways.

Like most other difficult emotional experiences, if treated correctly, jealousy can be a trigger for growth. Addressing jealousy can become the first step in increased self-awareness and greater understanding for both you and your mate. Here are some steps to overcoming your jealous feelings.

  • Admit that you're jealous
  • Accept that your jealousy is hurting your marriage
  • Discuss the roots of your jealous feelings
  • Agree not to spy on your spouse
  • Make a decision to change your behavior
  • Realize you cannot control someone else, but you can control your reaction
  • Set fair ground rules that you can both agree to
  • Seek professional help as a couple if necessary

A Word From Verywell

When jealousy becomes unhealthy, it is hard to deal with and can destroy relationships and create toxic marriages. For this reason, if you are experiencing overwhelming jealousy that is interfering with the health of the marriage, it is important to find a neutral party to help you understand why the jealousy exists. This person can give you tools for coping with jealousy in a healthy way.

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