Who Should Fix Jealousy?

Jealousy can be one of the most destructive emotions. It can make the otherwise reasonable completely unreasonable. It can creep in around the edges, seeing smoking guns where none exist and yet can also be conspicuously absent when a partner’s eyes should be burning from the clouds of smoke.

Because jealousy can take such a toll on individuals and couples, it needs to be addressed or the relationship will suffer, sometimes in a catastrophic flash, sometimes in a slow burn.

If someone feels jealous, who is responsible to assuage those uncomfortable feelings? As with so much else in relationships, it depends. Let’s start with a rather simple example, before getting into the messier nuances. Let’s say a woman is spending a lot of lunches with a male coworker and texting a fair amount at night. And, just to make it really clear, let’s say that she made out with him at the office holiday party and her boyfriend found text messages where the pair revealed their growing feelings for each other. Since jealousy involves a fear of losing something of value, it’s understandable that he might feel that he might lose his girlfriend to this new guy. Assuming she wants to keep the relationship, most people would probably agree that it’s on her to take primary responsibility for making her boyfriend feel better about the situation, since his jealousy is in fact warranted. She may offer to reset professional boundaries with her coworker, give her boyfriend access to her phone, and they both might make a point of re-directing more energy towards the relationship.

But what if she has been sufficiently empathic and repentant for a month and he is still struggling with jealousy? What if he still can’t feel comfortable that she isn’t crossing any lines? Should she re-double her efforts to convince and comfort him or does it get to a point where she has served her time and now he needs to calm himself down?

Let’s change the scenario. What if she never made out with her coworker and the texts she’s trading at night are all about a killer project that she is working on? What if she lets her boyfriend go through her phone and he never finds anything that actually looks like anything? Under these circumstances, should she still tell her coworker that she can’t text at night? What if, instead of explaining that it feels like she is having an affair, her boyfriend said that he wished she would leave work at work because it’s cutting into their time together and also her peace of mind? In this case, he isn’t jealous because he isn’t worried about losing her, but he is bothered by it.

Let’s change the scenario again, swinging back towards the center. What if they never made out at the holiday party and there is a lot in those text messages about that difficult client they are working with, but there is also some other more personal stuff? There are no declarations of love, no revealing selfies, no smoking guns. . . but still enough to give the boyfriend butterflies in his stomach, even though he himself admits that there’s nothing specifically problematic there. Just a. . . feeling.

The Dilemma of Uncertainty

Part of the problem with jealousy is the uncertainty—is there in fact nothing going on there or have I just not yet found clear evidence? The problem here for both partners is that neither can prove a nonevent. While the presence of evidence can prove guilt, an absence of evidence doesn’t necessarily prove innocence—it might simply be that the evidence has yet to be found. Or maybe what the boyfriend is picking up on is something that doesn’t yet exist in the tangible world—for example, that his girlfriend has some feelings for this other guy, but she hasn’t yet acted on it, so there is nothing specific to find.

Given this inherent uncertainty, we use trust to fill in the blanks of what we don’t know. Trust requires a willingness to accept less than 100% certainty—otherwise it would be called verification. If you glue a webcam to your partner’s forehead, you don’t need to trust them. The rest of us need to use trust, in greater and lesser degrees, to make up the difference between what we know and what we wish we knew. How trusting someone generally is depends on other personality characteristics as well as prior experiences, both with this romantic partner and previous ones. There is a spectrum here, with some who are blind to the obvious while others chase off good partners in a relentless quest for proof that can’t be given.

So, what is this couple to do? He has no proof of anything, but still feels uncomfortable about the situation. He wants to feel better, but doesn’t want to be the kind of boyfriend who is needy and controlling. She wants to be understanding but doesn’t want to give up a good work friendship. If he continues to struggle but doesn’t say anything about it, he will come across as clingy or distant or both. If she ignores his suffering, she will feel badly about herself but if she takes on responsibility for ensuring that he is comfortable, she will eventually feel resentful.

The Way Through

The way to thread the needle on these dilemmas is some hard self-reflection, really honest discussion, and fair negotiation. Each partner needs to think about what they are bringing to the situation. Is she being insensitive and perhaps a bit more flirty than she would like to admit? Is she pushing back against his desires for closeness, perhaps especially if he tries to hold her tighter when he is worried about losing her? Is he letting his insecurities convince him that this other guy is better than him? Is he making her pay for the crimes of previous unfaithful girlfriends or unreliable caregivers?

Then they need to talk this through, bravely and honestly. They need to own up to their part of it and also challenge each other when necessary. They need to remember that nothing in a relationship happens in a vacuum and understand that each is responding to the other. They need to bring curiosity and ask lots of questions—of themselves and each other.

The jealous partner has the right to make both tangible and emotional requests of their partner and to ask for what they need in order to feel better. But he also needs to remember that it isn’t only his girlfriend’s job to make him feel better—he also needs to find ways to make himself feel better, whether this means standing up for what he needs or calming himself down. Meanwhile, his girlfriend needs to be sensitive to his concerns and willing to consider making some reasonable changes. But she needs to know her limits and when she feels like she is working too hard on assuaging her boyfriend’s fears.

Jealousy is normal. Feeling jealous doesn’t necessarily mean anything about you, your partner, or your relationship. But it does mean that one or both of you may need to do some work to address it.

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