Like most people, I’m no stranger to jealousy — I know, every time it hits, that I’m being irrational, but still, I’ve spent days brooding over little things like the way a friend of mine looked at my partner.
Recently, stuck in the middle of another jealousy rut, I hit the internet in an attempt to regain control over my mind. Academic databases were no help; for a universal human experience, jealousy is the subject of surprisingly little research. I did learn no single theory to date can explain all the facets of this complex emotion, which didn’t do much to calm me down. Google results, page after page, were equally disappointing: On forum after forum, I read responses along the lines of “Been there,” or “Don’t worry, she clearly loves you!” The mental health websites didn’t have much more to offer, either, doling out advice like “Try to be objective” and “Don’t let it control you!” To me, it all sounded like telling someone with depression, “Just don’t be sad!”
So I took my search for answers offline, paying a visit to the most knowledgeable jealousy expert I could think of: relationship coach Effy Blue, who specializes in nonconventional arrangements — open relationships, polyamorous relationships, or other unconventional partnerships. I was curious: What do people in nonmonogamous relationships, who voluntarily put themselves in the most jealousy-triggering situations, do?
Blue says she frequently hears from people who felt entirely comfortable agreeing to let their partner going on a date with someone else — until the partner was actually on the date. But unlike most conventional attitudes dictate, people in nonmonogamous relationships don’t try to ignore the emotion or avoid it. They believe jealousy should be acknowledged, and that anyone can learn strategies to cope with it. The structure of their relationship demands as much.
“Monogamy is a heavily prescribed model that comes with a set of default settings. For example, it comes with fidelity built in, and because of that you can avoid a lot of these conversations instead of dealing with jealousy,” Blue says. “You can be in situations where it doesn’t come up, or you ignore it and rely on the fact that, ‘Well, we’re married.’ But for people who step out of that structure, the default setting no longer serves. You no longer have this perceived protection, and have to actually pay attention to your relationship and deal with things like jealousy.”
It’s important to note that jealousy is never going to completely go away in a loving relationship. In small doses, it can be a sign that you care about your partner. (In fact, some research suggests that mild jealousy is even linked to a stronger relationship.) But it’s possible to gain some control over the emotion. Here’s the advice that Blue gives her clients to help them keep their jealousy down to healthy levels.
Get some distance.
Blue likens jealousy to a fire alarm going off in your home — you’re paying attention, and you know something is wrong, but you don’t know anything about the specifics. And “if we don’t turn the alarm off,” she says, “it’s really hard to figure out what’s wrong.”
In other words, the first step to managing your jealousy is to manage your immediate stress response. Classic tricks like journaling or taking deep breaths may help quiet your internal alarm, but Blue recommends something else: during an acute jealousy attack, try to locate the feeling in your body. Some people may find they carry it in their shoulders; others experience a sinking feeling in their chest, or heaviness in their gut. Finding the bodily manifestation of the emotion can help you calm down — which, in turn, leaves you free to turn your attention to investigating what made you feel that way.
Trace your backstory.
Jealousy doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a generally insecure person. Often, Blue says, the cause of a jealousy attack is a specific fear or unmet need. To identify those specifics, it helps to understand your personal insecurities and the underlying reasons for why you react the way you do, or what Blue calls your “source code.” Therapy can help, but so can plain old introspection — whatever helps you figure out how your prior relationships and earlier experiences affect your present. “If we don’t understand that source code and don’t know how to write new code, then we’re stuck there,” Blue says.
Once you pinpoint the root of your jealousy, you can begin to move on from it. For example, if you realize you are jealous because you are not getting enough attention, you can suggest planning more couple activities that help you bond; if you’re hypervigilant because a past partner lied to you, then sharing that with your current one can help you work on your trust issues.
Recognize your cognitive traps.
At one point or another, we all fall victim to cognitive traps that turn a neutral situation into a crisis. One is mind-reading, when you erroneously think you know what’s going on in another person’s head — like, say, assuming your partner’s staring at that attractive stranger because they’re interested, when really they’re just zoning out. Another is personalizing, which is when you interpret everything in relation to yourself — for example, you think your partner is watching TV because they’re no longer interested in you, rather than because they just want to watch TV. Yet another is fortune-telling, when you predict the future actions of your partner and imagine them leaving you.
Force yourself to get comfortable with the unknown.
A key component of jealousy is what psychologists call intolerance to uncertainty; those who are especially sensitive to it may try to fill the information gap by coming up with negative stories. For example, if your partner is out with an old friend and you’re not there, you might find yourself concocting scenarios of the two of them flirting.
That’s perfectly natural — we’re all hardwired to be uncomfortable with uncertainty — but the key to stopping things in your head from getting out of control is to catch yourself in the act. Blue says in these situations, you need to check in on the stories you’re creating and then consciously change them. Or, ideally, stop making them altogether, shifting your focus from what you don’t know to what you do: think about the positive feelings in the relationship, happy memories, the plans you have for the next weekend.
Besides, life itself is uncertain. Maybe you’ll be the one to lose interest in your partner. Maybe — at the risk of being too blunt — one of you will get run over by a bus. Surrendering to uncertainty is a process of practicing acceptance, Blue says — and it’s one that’s lifelong. There’s no trick to make your jealousy evaporate overnight, but over time, you can learn how to keep it to a healthy dose.