Lia Love Avellino, LCSW, is a relational psychotherapist who specializes in modern love. She believes that deep and intentional connection is the balm for healing, and that we all have what we need within us to find our way. Here, she provides relationship advice to open minds and change perspectives.
Dear Lia Love,
My girlfriend is jealous and paranoid about me being romantically and sexually interested in other people. She wants to know what I am up to at all times, and feels anxious if I don’t respond to her texts or look at another woman. I find this all irrational and it's making me become more secretive, even though I am not doing anything wrong. I just want to avoid setting her off again, so I'm withholding. I love her, but her possessiveness is really unattractive to me. Any ideas for how to deal with a jealous partner when you haven't done anything wrong?
In Love but Fed Up
Dear In Love but Fed Up,
One of the reasons jealousy is so tricky to address is because the emotion itself isn’t a problem, but how we react to it can create major problems. It sounds like what is making you “fed up,” is not your girlfriend’s feeling, but how the feeling is resulting in her attempt to veer into the lane of your autonomy and control your behavior.
Sometimes when we feel threatened, we try to control the world around us to manage the insecurity within us. And while I totally validate that this is a strategy that may pose harm to relationships, it doesn’t absolve you from looking at the part you play in what might be making you fed up. Given that you are the one who is writing in about your distress, I will speak to your responsibility in taking action.
Sometimes when we feel threatened, we try to control the world around us to manage the insecurity within us.
In our relationships, we wish the other person would change their behavior to ease our pain or suffering. But since you cannot control your girlfriend or her behaviors, you must look at your role in the pattern. If we hit an impasse repeatedly or run into the same conflict, we can assume the dynamic is being co-created, and if you don’t change your role, my guess is you will continue to feel stuck and fed up. Exploring how her feelings potentially involve you could be the very thing that helps you deal with a jealous partner.
First, though, a bit on jealously in relationships, because the emotion is often misunderstood: It's something that arises when we are afraid of losing someone very important to us. I still remember the sunken feeling of the first time I saw my college ex with his new girlfriend. Or when I became a mom and saw my single friends frolicking in the world, meanwhile I was chained to the sofa, breastfeeding and exhausted.
Jealousy can also function as a a sign that someone has an unmet need in the relationship, and they just don’t know how to own and express these needs. Our culture tells us to respond to negative emotions by squashing them, ignoring them, or denying them—but it’s actually when we get closer to them that they loosen their grip. In fact, it’s often the qualities coded as negative that, when investigated, have the most valuable hidden treasures.
Here's how to deal with a jealous partner and protect your relationship
1. Move toward jealousy rather than away from it
I can see you’ve come to dislike your girlfriend’s response to her jealousy, and therefore might try to distance yourself from it. But what if you do the opposite?
Consider when you've experienced jealousy. How did it feel to worry about something being at risk? What ultimately made you feel safe or cared for that enabled you to work through the emotion?
You might also want to get to know more about your girlfriend’s jealousy: What triggers it? Has she had any experiences of her trust being betrayed in the past that might be arising in the present? What is she most afraid will happen if she doesn’t control your behavior? The more space you can create to talk about your lived experiences and how they have shaped you, the more opportunity you have to heal the wounds that may be keeping you stuck in this loop of offense/defense.
2. Be open to your partner's vulnerabilities and survival strategies by sharing your own
We all have vulnerabilities and survival strategies to protect those vulnerabilities from being exposed. Survival strategies might look like lashing out, trying to control, eye-rolling, or getting defensive. Oftentimes our survival strategies trigger our partner’s vulnerability, and therefore their own survival strategy. Unity can only happen when both parties take down their guards, so let’s help you and your girlfriend do this.
Perhaps your girlfriend’s vulnerability is rejection or being unlovable. If this is the case, she might be masking it with her survival strategy of control. This then this kicks up your survival strategy—perhaps its “fixing” the problem by denying its reality?
Oftentimes our survival strategies trigger our partner’s vulnerability, and therefore their own survival strategy. Unity can only happen when both parties take down their guards.
Regardless of the specifics, it might be helpful to consider: How do you protect yourself when you feel criticized or attacked? What is the vulnerability that might be underneath your protection strategy? Have you expressed what it feels like when you’re accused of things you did not do? Does this remind you of any aspect of your past?
Consider how can you tell her this part of your story instead of trying to convince her not to feel what she feels or reassure her that there is nothing going on. After all, it’s her job to reassure herself. Typically when we feel accused, we try to convince the other that their belief or feeling is irrational in order to make it go away, but this just amps up their emotion.
By being more transparent about your experience, rather than attempting to defend yourself, you are not trying to fix the situation, but instead offering the possibility to be with it in a new way.
3. Create a new story together
When we are in conflict, we often get caught up in the content and neglect to look at what’s really happening between us. In fact, research shows that we're worst at listening to those we love the most. This might be due to a belief that we can already predict what they are going to say.
Rather than seeing a need for learning how to deal with a jealous partner as what will save your relationship, consider the opportunity you have to ask new questions that elicit new storytelling. The couples that fare the best are not the ones that are the same or have the most in common, but rather the ones that negotiate their differences with deep respect and curiosity.
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