Romantic Jealousy: Causes, Symptoms, Cures

I just flew through another long-awaited read: Romantic Jealousy: Causes, Symptoms, Cures by Ayala Malach Pines.

Up until this point, I had adapted Kathy Labriola’s definitions of envy and jealousy. According to Labriola, jealousy is when you want to take something away from someone (“I don’t want you to have fun with your other partner”) and envy is when you don’t want to take something away, but you wish you had it too (“I am glad you get to have fun with your other partner, and I wish I could go have fun with someone, too). In contrast, Pines offers these more psychological research-based definitions:

-Envy: a dyadic emotional experience, in which you want something that someone else has, and you don’t want them to have that thing.

-Jealousy: a triadic emotional experience, in which a third individual poses a threat to a valued intimate relationship that you have with someone else.

I like the definition Pines offers for jealousy, because I think the feelings of threat are basically what jealousy comes down to. These threatened feelings can, and I think often do, have deeper roots in insecurities and fears.

One really fascinating thing to me that she mentions is the idea of dispositional versus situational jealousy:

Dispositional jealousy = “I am a jealous person.” Or “I am not a jealous person.”

Situational jealousy = “When I experience X I feel jealous.”

In her research, she found individuals who identify as a jealous person and individuals who do not identify as a jealous person have similar levels and expressions of jealousy; both groups experience jealousy and have similar reactions to similar situations. However, people who did not identify as jealous people had better coping skills than those who identified as jealous. Lesson: Shifting your framework from a dispositional one to a situational one can empower you to find workable solutions to managing and diminishing your jealousy.
Pines discusses five different approaches to understanding jealousy, and integrates them to make a more holistic approach:

-The psychodynamic approach: Freud’s theory postulates that jealousy is universal, and stems from childhood experiences. In order to “cure” jealousy, this approach says that you need to go through individual psychotherapy and delve into your Oedipal/Electra complex.

-The systems approach: This model sees jealousy as stemming from relationship dynamics. Individuals may be predisposed to feeling jealousy, but ultimately, it is the partners involved and relationship structure and situations that bring out jealousy. Thus, addressing jealousy means involving all romantic partners involved through couples counseling and couples-based solutions.

-Behavioral and Cognitive Behavioral approach: The behavioral framework views jealousy as just another learned, not innate, behavior; therefore, jealousy can be unlearned. One of the most common therapeutic techniques is Rational Emotive Therapy.

-Social-psychological approach: The social-psychological model views jealousy as a consequence of our culture. Cultural norms define the expression of jealousy- what kinds of situations are appropriate to feel jealousy about, and how to express it.

-Socio-biological/evolutionary approach: Popularized by Buss, this approach sees jealousy as an innate characteristic, bred into our genes through natural selection. Following this approach is the idea that men and women experience jealousy differently- men tend to feel jealous about sexual infidelity, while women tend to feel jealous about emotional infidelity. 
Pines integrates these approaches into a model of concentric circles, and sees these seemingly contradictory approaches as more complementary than anything else. An individual may be predisposed to feel jealousy as a result of their childhood and family experiences and dynamics, and may also tend to experience jealousy more strongly tied to sexual or emotional infidelity depending on their sex and gender role. Also, depending on the larger culture and social norms this individual grows up, this person is taught by media, religion, and other authority figures when jealousy expression is encouraged, accepted, and supported. The individual thus learns how to think about, feel about, and express jealousy from family and culture. Within a particular relationship with a particular partner this individual may experience and express jealousy more strongly, and within a different relationship with a different partner this same individual may have a very different experience of jealousy. Thus, Pines sees all of these approaches working together to explain why people experience jealousy.

Here is me as an example, in a nutshell, following Pines integrated framework:

I grew up with a mom that expressed jealousy- it was acceptable to her to say jealous-informed things about my dad’s ex-girlfriends. I also, for whatever reason, developed an anxious-attachment style- I alwaysthought my parents would divorce when they had a fight, and I was fearful of being abandoned (a pattern which has followed me in all of my intimate relationships, platonic and romantic, through childhood and early adulthood). I grew up in American culture, inundated by media messages that said that being jealous about romantic partners was perfectly normal, monogamy is the norm, you can only romantically love one person at a time, and this love entitles you to exert quite a bit of control and power over this person. According to the socio-biological approach, because I am a woman, I am also predisposed to feel more jealous over emotional infidelity; honestly, I don’t know what I am more threatened by- emotional or sexual infidelity (or in the case of my open relationship, between emotional and sexual intimacy). Most of all, I am threatened by the combination of the two (which I call romantic intimacy); one or the other is somewhat difficult, but not like the jealousy I experience when both intimacies are present. I know that my relationship structure means that I have to work through jealousy head-on because of the constant possibility and existence of a “third” (someone J is involved with), but I also have a much deeper self-awareness than when we were monogamous. When J and I were monogamous (and in my previous monogamous relationships), I experienced jealousy at the more extreme levels (getting jealous over an attractive woman working out near J in the gym, knowing that an ex-boyfriend enjoyed having close friendships with girls, etc.). Even though I now experience jealousy more frequently, and still intensely at times, I have a much larger arsenal of coping skills and a much better handle on the underlying reasons for my jealousy. In my experience, I clearly learned what situations were supposed to be jealousy inducing and learned how to express jealousy, and I have also clearly done a lot of work to unlearn those pathways and create new ones.

Coping skills that Pines offers include those informed by the different approaches described above (there are others she discusses, but these are the ones I found noteworthy):

-“Jealousy as the Shadow of Love”: this is an exercise basically asking the individual to reflect on and connect childhood experiences with adult jealousy.
-Role-reversal exercises: thinking and trying to truly understand how your partner feels; acting like one another (so the person experiencing jealousy acts like they aren’t and the person not experiencing jealousy acts like they are) to provide understanding and compassion; writing a defense from your partner’s point of view
-Desensitization: create a list of triggering situations, imagine the least triggering situation while going through relaxation exercises, with the intent of being able to use relaxation coping to manage triggering situations (somewhat like the phobia model)
-Rational Emotive Therapy: a widely used cognitive-behavioral technique. I have mentioned RET on here before because I first used it to rework some of my negative body image thought processes. RET follows a standard formula to challenge deeply held, often irrational, beliefs. I think it is quite effective, and I find it even more awesome that the creator, Albert Ellis, also was skeptical of monogamy [“The creator of rational-emotive therapy, Albert Ellis (1962/1996), has a similar criticism of monogamy, which, in his opinion, not only ‘directly encourages the development of intense jealousy, but also by falsely assuming that men and women can love only one member of the other sex at a time, and can only be sexually attracted to that one person, indirectly sows the seeds for even more violent displays of jealousy.'” (p155)]
-Physiologically Monitored Implosion Therapy (PMIT): this is basically a flooding therapy technique, and should be done with an experienced therapist. Basically, you identify the most triggering aspects of a situation making you jealous. You record yourself describing in great detail the situation, and then listen to this recording every day until it no longer causes pain, but much milder emotions like boredom. The basic idea is to desensitize you to a triggering situation through flooding and constant exposure. Pines warns that this technique can be quite overwhelming and can backfire on the patient unless the therapist can provide the support the patient needs.
-Work on shifting from a dispositional to a situational attribution; this alone can empower you to choose coping skills that work for you.

In her chapter on managing jealousy in open relationship, Pines discusses open marriages, swingers, the polyfidelitous Kerista commune, and an open commune. It was interesting to read her observations and analysis of the different groups, especially since she doesn’t really account for people in open polyamorous relationships, in which romantic love with other partners is allowed. All of those she interviewed only had casual sex as options, or in the case of the Keristas, has non-hierarchical relationships within a closed group.

Reading this book was really enlightening for me on a couple different levels. As someone who has experienced a lot of jealousy, it was helpful to read about some other techniques I can use to cope with jealousy. It was also really helpful to read about the systems approach, and how relationship dynamics can highlight jealousy issues. Because Pines also wrote the book for therapists working with individuals and couples dealing with jealousy, it was a really awesome insight into the kind of work I’ll be doing over the next few years in my Couples & Family Therapy program. I really liked filling out the romantic jealousy questionnaire at the end of the book; it was enlightening for me to reflect on what kinds of situations make me feel jealous, and to what degree. This book reads a little bit like an accessible textbook, and so it might feel a little dry to some readers, but I appreciated all of her discussion about the different approaches and the chance to reflect on my experiences.

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