Jealousy. We’ve all experienced it. Jealousy can be defined as the vigilant maintaining or guarding of something. Jealousy has a bad rap but it’s normal to want to guard the people we love, especially when we see a potential rival cozying up to our significant other. But there’s a difference between feeling jealous and exhibiting unhealthy jealous behaviors.
Normal jealousy is a pang that comes on in an instant, one which we can usually dismiss on our own. Unhealthy jealous behavior happens when we indulge that feeling and act impulsively from a place of suspicion and insecurity. When insecurity in our relationships run rampant, jealousy can rapidly grow into paranoia and obsession and threaten to destroy the very relationship we’re most afraid to lose.
The Danger of Jealousy
Jealousy doesn’t become a problem until it’s acted on. People that are prone to intense jealousy or possessiveness often harbor feelings of inadequacy or inferiority and have a tendency to compare themselves to others. Jealousy, at its core, is a byproduct of fear, fear of not being good enough, fear of loss. When it hits, it can trick us into believing our relationship is in immediate danger, making it impossible to distinguish between natural feelings of protectiveness and irrational suspicion.
In other words, it’s pretty terrible.
Yet the first time we see jealousy flare up in our partner, we may see it as “cute” and think, “Wow, this person must really love me!” If it’s the healthy kind of jealousy, those feelings will fade without incident and without negatively impacting the relationship. But we must be on alert for early warning signs of unhealthy behavior because it can lead to other forms abuse.
Unhealthy relationships often start with small things like a suspicious partner hunting for evidence of cheating. If they come up empty, rather than feel satisfied, they’ll vent their frustration through a variety of methods while breaking down their S.O.’s self-esteem with accusations, blaming, name-calling, and threats before moving onto emotional and physical abuse. Their tactics take on many forms, but as their jealousy grows, so does the chance for escalation. That’s why it’s important to identify red flags early.
What Unhealthy Jealousy Looks Like
It can be easy to confuse unhealthy jealous behavior with love. Below are common warning signs that often show up at the start of relationships and snowball into dangerous problems later on.
You’re Expected to Spend All Your Time with Them
They’re not just excited to see you, they’re insistent. They ask you to blow off practice, ditch your friends, or back out of work, school, or family commitments because they’ve “never felt this way before” and “need to be near you.” They may become pouty/whiny when you don’t comply, and they tend to show up wherever you are, uninvited. They hate being away from you and contact you constantly when you’re not together.
While it may seem sweet when someone wants to spend all of their time with you, a person who respects you will understand that you need time away from the relationship. And you deserve time to be alone and pursue other interests- without facing punishment for it.
A caring partner will never force you to give up your hobbies, relationships, jobs, or activities so they can dominate your time.
You’re Required to Check-In
Your significant other likes to know where you are. They like to know what you’re doing and who you’re with. When you’re away, they call, text, or contact you through social media the entire time, expecting immediate responses. They ask you to turn on tracking apps, like Snap Maps, so they can see where you are. You keep your phone close at hand because you know if you don’t reply fast enough, they’ll become suspicious or get upset.
When we care about someone, it’s normal to ask for a text or phone call in situations where we want to know they’re safe. For example, we may ask them to text us when they make it home- that’s normal. An S.O. expecting you to keep him/her abreast of your every move anytime you’re apart is not.
A healthy relationship doesn’t require “check-in’s.” Your partner shouldn’t require you to stay in constant contact when you’re away, and no one should ever insist on tracking you with an app or any other means. Knowing you’re safe should be enough, and if it’s not, your boundaries are not being respected. You are your own person, and you’re allowed to live your own life.
There Are Rules About Who You Can Talk To
You know there are certain people you’re not allowed to interact with unless you want to fight with your partner; the list might include exes, people you used to have a crush on, that flirty co-worker, etc. The reasons you’re not allowed to talk to each person varies: “I trust you, I just don’t trust them,” “It makes me uncomfortable when you talk to that ex,” “I just think I should be enough for you,” “I’ve seen the way he/she looks at you.” The list goes on, and you go along with it even though you don’t agree because it’s not worth the fight.
Demands about who you can talk to can lead to an abuse tactic called isolation. What begins with not being able to talk to a certain person becomes rules about staying away from pretty much anyone they feel is in competition for your affection, time, or attention. Eventually, everyone becomes off-limits until you’re isolated to only your partner, paving the way for depression and possibly an environment for physical abuse.
It’s never okay to regulate who your partner can and can’t talk to. Part of loving someone means trusting them to make good decisions about the company they keep. You can vocalize your concerns in a loving, honest way, but then you must trust your partner’s judgment. If one of you can’t trust the other, it may be time to move on.
If you go out with friends, you know you’re going to get the third degree from your partner after. Your S.O. worries when you’re away and is convinced everyone is flirting with you. Sometimes it only takes someone else looking at you for them to get upset, and then they act as though you’re to blame. You get accused of being too friendly, dressing too provocatively, or giving people “the wrong idea.” No matter how much you reassure them of your faithfulness, they never believe you.
People in healthy relationships don’t put their partner’s every move under the microscope. They don’t constantly doubt the other’s intentions or laden them with accusatory questions. Love doesn’t scour for evidence or assume wrongdoing–insecurity does.
If you or your S.O. struggles with on-going suspicion, there may be a deeper underlying issue, and the relationship won’t work until it’s dealt with. Love withers whenever suspicion outweighs trust.
They’ve given you jewelry or a personal memento they want you to wear all the time so people know you’re taken. Even if they’re not overly touchy in private, they’re big on public displays of affection, particularly if your ex is around. They’re all over your social media and insist on having profile pictures and status updates together. They’re hostile to someone they think wants to date you. They’ve made you leave parties or cancel plans to be with them and make statements like, “You’re mine,” or “No one will ever love you like I do.”
Movies and books have a bad habit of romanticizing this behavior; in real life, a possessive partner’s goal is not to share you with anyone. They operate from a need for control and will try to manipulate you emotionally, using gifts, over-the-top gestures, and compliments to re-establish your “belonging” to them. Their obsession can lead to physical confrontations with people they view as competition, and as their behavior continues, they won’t shy away from humiliating you in public if it means asserting their dominance; for example, they may yell at you and grab your arm to make you leave a gathering. With possessiveness, physical abuse and isolation aren’t far behind.
People in happy, committed relationships understand love requires letting their significant other have space to be their own person. They let go of the need to mark their territory or to scare off the competition because they trust each other.
They Have a Quick Temper
One minute you’re looking forward to dinner at your favorite restaurant, next your partner’s causing a scene because you arrived a few minutes late. This happens pretty often, but you blame yourself because you know your partner has buttons that send them into a rage, and it’s your fault for pressing them. You wish you could be a better girlfriend/boyfriend, but you keep messing up, giving them a reason to explode. Some days you feel lucky they’re so forgiving and still love you at all because you make so many mistakes, even when you’re being careful.
If your partner’s temper is quick on the draw, it’s not a reflection of you. It simply means they haven’t learned how to deal with conflict or they may be using it as a means to manipulate, control, or dominate you. Either way, it’s not your fault.
Healthy relationships work hard at conflict resolution. They’re dedicated to finding ways to talk through problems without hurting or disrespecting the other person. If the reaction you’re met with is always anger, it’s not your responsibility to stay and be an emotional, verbal, or physical outlet for it. That’s not love.
They Monitor Your Communications
Your partner tells you they’re an open book and want absolutely no secrets between the two of you. That’s why they require the passwords to your phone, email account, Facebook, SnapChat, Instagram, and any social media app you use. They go through your messages, question you about conversations, mince over your words, and delete contacts they don’t approve of, with or without your consent. Sometimes you notice your password doesn’t work or you’ve been locked out of your own account. You tell yourself it’s no big deal; it’s a small price to pay to be with them and show them they can trust you.
Wanting your passwords is not about love, it’s about dominance and control. Your passwords are yours alone, and anyone insisting you supply this information doesn’t trust you and is acting in a controlling manner.
Healthy relationships don’t require you to prove your trustworthiness because trust doesn’t require proof. Even if you don’t mind sharing the information, indulging this negative behavior is communicating that it’s okay to violate your privacy, opening the door to other abusive behaviors down the road.
They’re Emotionally Intense
You noticed your partner came on strong right from the beginning, but you figured it was because they liked you so much. Now they hate being apart. They call and text you constantly and comb through all your social media accounts, liking and/or commenting on everything, even posts that are years old. They always want to have you to themselves and were quick to say “I love you,” though it felt fast. Conversations about “forever” come up a lot, and they talk about how they would “go crazy,” “die,” or “kill” themselves if the two of you ever broke up. It can be hard to get away from them, and you sometimes think they’re following you.
While it can be flattering to think someone adores us so intensely, beneath the surface is emotional dependency. If they come on too strong from the beginning, that same neediness may turn into pushy physical advances, stalking, threats of self-harm, and/or violence.
Happy couples know they cannot be everything to their partner. Each person needs a certain level of freedom and independence, which is why you should never be held accountable for another person’s happiness. Emotional intensity often elicits a feeling of suffocation, and if you are feeling this way, don’t ignore it.
A Personal Story About Jealousy
Jealousy is powerful. It destroys relationships and makes good, well-meaning people act in ways they never imagined. I was in a relationship where the warning signs were present, but I excused them all away as my phone and bags were subject to searches, and I had to “check-in” constantly, even at work. When I tried to spend time with friends, I’d get irritated texts and phone calls insisting I come back, and if I did, I’d be questioned about everything that happened until whatever I did “wrong” was discovered, and I’d be punished.
That was just the beginning. When it came out that I had a male friend at work, I was required to “break off” the friendship, along with many others I cared about. Tiny things, like a cashier being “too friendly” with me, were blown out of proportion, and my ex would berate them for flirting with me before storming out, leaving me alone to pay and deal with the scene. I was required to destroy mementos from previous relationships, including prom photos, and my clothing and behavior were under constant suspicious scrutiny. I felt like property and like I had to walk on pins and needles.
Yet my ex was so loving at times, he’d surprise me with notes and gifts or lavishing me in compliments and affection whenever we were out in public, that when he’d decide what I’d eat or would chauffeur for me to/from work, I thought it was old-fashioned and sweet. Eventually, things became so controlling that after screaming matches, I’d have to read my diary aloud so he could monitor what I wrote and was thinking. I was always being told I remembered things wrong or was lying about them. I was called “unstable” and “pathetic” after being clinically diagnosed with major depression. I’d go days without eating and get accused of losing weight for another guy when the truth was, I was just miserable. My words got minced and twisted around, and I’d get questioned so intensely about everything I did- right down to why I changed perfumes or was showering at a different time- it was easier to hide and cry myself to sleep, praying I wouldn’t wake up than to live my life.
As it continued to escalate from there, I began to blame myself. I thought I deserved any ill-treatment directed toward me.
Often I wanted to leave but stayed because I had become convinced I was worthless. That no one else could ever truly love a screw up like me. He was so kind and charismatic with everyone else, I believed everything that started happening behind closed doors was 100% my fault.
In time, I did find a way out. I relied heavily on support from friends and family as he continued to contact me, show up at my house, post about me on social media, and track me down in public if I was out with someone else. It was a slow, painful process, but I eventually healed and learned not only to trust again but to love myself.
I used to think that intense jealousy came from a place of love. And because I was so eager to please and atone, I indulged the unhealthy behavior, not realizing how destructive it was for both of us. Good people can find themselves in bad situations that spiral out of control. If you’re in a relationship where red flags are present, please don’t ignore them. I’m sharing my story in hopes of showing you that you’re not alone, and it does get better. You also aren’t worthless, crazy, or to blame. No matter what’s been done, no one deserves to be abused.
How to Stop Jealousy Tactics
The key to maintaining a healthy relationship is to spot the signs early. If your partner displays jealous tendencies, here are some first steps you can take to try to navigate the situation:
- Talk to your partner about their concerns, taking a gentle approach. Listen to what they have to say and be honest about how their actions are making you feel.
- Establish boundaries with your partner. Communicate how you want to be treated, taking into consideration what’s important to each of you. For example, let them know you can contact them once when you arrive at a friend’s house, but that you will not be checking your phone the entire night. Knowing what the expectations are will alleviate guesswork and anxiety for both of you.
- Once you’ve talked through it, it’s time to show your partner a little extra love. They may be feeling vulnerable, so don’t hold back on the affection. Let them know you appreciate their honesty and any concessions they’ve made.
- As you will likely have to revisit the conversation several times before both parties are fully comfortable, continue to be patient but also firm about your boundaries. If you can’t come to a compromise, it may be time to end things.
If you’re the one feeling jealous, here are some things to remember:
- Jealousy is a feeling, not a call to action. When it creeps up, take a deep breath and remind yourself that a feeling is not the same as reality. In other words, just because you worry someone is cheating doesn’t mean they are.
- When you focus on something, it expands, so if you’ve convinced yourself that your partner is cheating, you’ll see evidence where there is none. Instead of obsessing, acknowledge the feeling, then let it be. If we don’t give it extra attention, it will usually pass on its own.
- Ask yourself what you stand to gain from jealous inclinations. Will acting on your impulses hurt or improve the relationship? Will it make you feel better or worse? Will it fix the problem or aggravate it?
- Accept that in relationships, there is no certainty. Just as you cannot make someone love you, you cannot make someone remain loyal or stay. If you’re unable to trust your partner, you’re better off moving on so you can enjoy independence or find someone else who shares your values.
- If you can’t move past a jealous feeling, be honest. Instead of pouting or giving the silent treatment, tell your partner specifically what is making you feel that way and listen to their response. You’ll likely find the interaction strengthens the relationship rather than tears it down the way punishments and games do.
If your friend is in a relationship and you see the warning signs, keep this in mind:
- Don’t be afraid to speak up. Often, it’s not as obvious to the person it’s happening to, so approach them in a caring manner.
- Don’t be forceful or get angry if they disagree with your assessment; it may take time for them to see things from an objective perspective.
- Make yourself available so that when they’re ready to talk, they’ll know you’re there for them.
- Continue to love them through their difficult situation and vocalize about your concerns.
- If you suspect your friend is in a dangerous situation, contact another trusted friend or adult, and refer to the National Domestic Abuse Hotline for tips at http://www.thehotline.org
Real love is not possessive. It does not act out of dominance, fear, or control. Rather, it is a mutual admiration and respect for another human being we long to see happy and whole. In a healthy relationship, there is a balance between compromise, self-love, and consideration for the other person.
While jealousy is a natural feeling everyone gets from time to time, when we obsess over it, it can change us and end relationships. It’s important to recognize when jealousy is motivating unhealthy behaviors and to protect our boundaries before they get crossed. Speaking up early will decrease the chance of escalation and will help lasting love blossom in healthy soil where trust runs deep, respect is present, and communication is abundant.