Jealousy is like physical pain: It's an uncomfortable sensation meant to alert us to do something differently. There are a lot of possible causes and any real solution requires figuring out the source and addressing it directly.
A foot ache could be due to anything from old running shoes to a broken bone. Jealousy has a variety of roots, too: insecurity, feeling left out or replaceable. The only way to find the origin of either is by consciously experiencing the feeling, identifying exactly what movements trigger it and which do not.
Pretending there's no problem will likely result in long-term, irreversible damage. We also need a remedy that fits the specific issue. Just like blisters are treated differently than ingrown toenails, jealousy that stems from comparison is resolved differently from the kind that comes from being ignored.
The physical sensation of pain is useful: It alerts to the hot stove, twisted ankle or broken tooth so we can get help and prevent further injury. Jealousy can clue us in about personal issues and areas of potential growth in a relationship.
In many monogamous relationships, jealousy is treated as an avoidable consequence of bad behavior, evoked by carelessness. In this view, a good partner limits their actions to prevent jealousy.
If your wife gets upset when you chat with the beautiful divorcee who lives two doors down, you should stop talking to her. It turns life into a big game of Operation and we're all required to constrain our movements so as not to set off a horrible alarm.
But not everyone sees it this way. People in open relationships, for instance, have to confront jealousy directly in order to function.
Many polyamorous folks get asked, "But don't you get jealous?" as though it's literally the worst thing a person can endure in a relationship. For most of them, the answer is, "Yeah, I do; but we figure out why and talk about it."
According to family therapist Susan Heitler, there are three main sources of jealousy: projection, protection and competition, all of which are forms of distrust.
Projection is when we use jealousy to misdirect a partner. For example: By angrily confronting his girlfriend about being flirtatious with other guys, a man might distract her from noticing that he's engaging in an actual affair. Often, the people who feel like their relationship is at risk from outsiders are the ones putting it on a cliff.
Jealousy can also be used as means of control. Snooping through texts or emails for evidence of wrongdoing is a power play. Jealousy can be used to rationalize violations of privacy and not letting a partner have any personal space.
Protection arises when we're fearful of being hurt. This might be as a result of believing a relationship is so important that we can't survive without it, or don't trust that we're truly loved and wanted. Having been cheated on or left for another can leave a person particularly vulnerable to this anxiety.
Competition is based on the belief that there can only be one person who is attractive or interesting. If I don't believe in my own value and desirability as a partner, for example, I will see any attractive woman as a potential threat.
Heitler suggests looking at jealousy in its best possible light, asking what it intends to accomplish. What is it trying to tell you?
Seeing my partner talk to someone who is cute, successful, funny, etc, might be challenging if I'm feeling like I'm comparably lagging. It's a reminder to do things that make me feel good about myself: getting to the gym, putting effort into my career, or finding new interests.
There will always be someone younger, more popular. We're not competing for a grand title: I just have to be the best version of me. Genuine intimacy between authentic people is more sustainable than attraction to the shiniest toy.
There might also be alerts to gaps in communication. Hearing about a partner's past lovers might satisfy curiosity, inspire arousal, or it may evoke anxiety, depending on how secure one feels in the relationship. If I don't know where I stand with you, I'm less likely to be able to enjoy the stories and more prone to making comparisons or perceiving exes as a threat.
In this case, it might be helpful to have a clear discussion about the nature and parameters of the current relationship, to express specifically how we feel about each other. Jealousy implies that I don't believe we are a unique, irreplaceable entity.
When jealousy arises, don't push it aside. Sit with the experience and look for its parameters, like testing the range of motion in a strained shoulder. Ask yourself: What does this feel like, specifically? Does it remind me of anything? What do I fear is going to happen and why?
Process this experience on your own and then share with your partner what it was like without making your emotion their responsibility. By being mutually vulnerable in this conversation, this will serve as an opportunity for growth and increased trust.
Together a solution can be identified to shape the relationship to support everyone's freedom and feelings.
Dr. Timaree Schmit earned her Ph.D. in Human Sexuality from Widener University, where she now trains future sexologists and clinicians. Her passion is bringing rational, empirically-based, sex-positive information to the world, empowering others to celebrate their bodies, build intimacy and experience pleasure.