Are you struggling with jealousy in your relationship? Here's what you need to know

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Illustration photo by Getty Images
Illustration photo by Getty Images
  • Anyone who has ever loved has been jealous at some point.
  • But what happens when jealousy turns into a wave of resentment and anxiety that threatens your future together?
  • Clinical psychologist Dr Lissa Johnson says if jealousy has dogged all your relationships, it's time to dig a little deeper into why.

Anyone who has ever loved has at some stage succumbed to jealousy. You'd be superhuman not to feel a tinge of unease when your partner admires an attractive woman or gushes over a female colleague's fabulous sense of humour. Also, because we're partnering later in life, we're bringing a past full of exes into our new relationships and giving the green-eyed monster more opportunity to strike.

But what happens when jealousy turns into a wave of resentment and anxiety that threatens your future together? Here experts explain how jealousy can invade your relationship, and help you stop it in its tracks.


You may tell him that you're just being inquisitive, but it's most likely to be a quest for reassurance, says Sydney-based clinical psychologist, Dr Lissa Johnson.

"Insecurity about your adequacy can lead to a view that your partner is comparing you to previous partners and finding you lacking," says Johnson. "So, seeking information about his past loves or interrogating him about them is really an effort to reassure yourself that you're special to him."

And while snooping can relieve the jealousy in the short term, she says, it inflames it in the long term. "Psychologists call it 'a safety behaviour', so you perceive a threat and do something to appease the anxiety. But by telling yourself this threat is real, for instance, saying to yourself, 'I'm sure he doesn't love me as much as his last girlfriend, I need to do something to investigate this,' suddenly, you're reinforcing the fear by seeking reassurance."

This kind of behaviour can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy. "It might be that your partner is devoted to you, but exhausted by your constant need for reassurance," she warns. "Over time, he may begin to distance himself emotionally and eventually, physically."

Of course, it's only natural to want his best times to be with you. "It's a rare human being who doesn't have self-doubt or insecurities about their desirability," says Johnson. But "instead of being consumed by them, ask yourself: 'How do I aspire to be as a partner and as a person? What do I want to be providing in this relationship?' And try to act in line with that."


He comments on a model's long legs and you bristle. He talks at length to a woman at a party and you assume he wants to have an affair. You know it's irrational to expect him to pretend another woman doesn't exist so why do you react so strongly?

"Jealousy can be a reaction to the unacknowledged desires and wishes of the jealous person," explains Dr Matthew Bambling, clinical psychologist and senior lecturer at the Australian Catholic University.

"Rather than admit to themselves that they too are attracted to other people or struggling with the limitations of a long-term relationship, they project it onto their partner, often accusing them of things they haven't done. Projection is a great, albeit destructive, way to get rid of our unwanted feelings or guilty thoughts."

However, a mature relationship means managing those confronting issues and tensions, says Bambling. "Of course, he will find other women attractive and you will find other men attractive, but it's how you behave that matters. The feelings themselves are not illegal, nor are they a breach of your marriage vows or an abuse of your self-worth, but just a normal human reaction. If we weren't wired to notice other people, nobody would get together in the first place."

READ MORE | Are you in a dysfunctional relationship? Here are 4 indicators, according to a psychologist


He's attentive, loving and has given you no reason to doubt his trustworthiness. Yet, you find yourself wondering who he's talking to on the phone, or fretting when he's out with the boys.

If jealousy has dogged all your relationships, it's time to dig a little deeper into why. Often, jealousy can be traced back to childhood.

"A very jealous person hasn't learned to trust another person sufficiently to be intimate and open and have a relationship where needs can be expressed and exchanged," says Bambling. "Usually, this is because they've had an insecure relationship with one or both parents growing up."

Your history in intimate relationships can also feed into feelings of jealousy, says Johnson.

How do you deal with jealousy in your relationship? Tell us here

"When a partner betrays us or the relationship in a way where we feel abandoned or mistreated, like him leaving us for another woman, it can traumatise us emotionally," she explains. "And our mind, to protect us, develops schemas - a set of beliefs, expectations and mental filters about the world.

In this case, the mind thinks: 'I don't want to feel this pain again, I must be on the lookout for any sign he's going to be unfaithful,' making you hyper-vigilant to potential threats."

There's good news though, says Bambling. "Research shows that people's attachment styles - if they're in a reasonably stable relationship - will improve over time." But given that these patterns are very difficult to change without assistance, he recommends seeking professional help.

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He's had far more sexual partners than you, been married before or admitted to cheating on an ex. At first, his chequered history seems remote from what you have together, but soon your jealousy radar is on permanent high alert.

According to Johnson, jealousy peaks as people start to develop feelings for each other, but before the relationship is established. So, as our partner reveals more about his experiences, so do the inferences we make - rational or not. Will I ever be enough for him? Will he cheat on me, too?

"If you feel that key aspects of his past will never sit well with you, or vice versa, it could be that your values are too different for you to stay together," explains Bambling. Otherwise, be upfront now. "What people really fear are connections and retaliations from the past," he says.

"You do need to share enough about your past so that your partner has an idea of who you are, but not necessarily every detail. But it's important to reinforce that none of those relationships have any currency with you."

READ MORE | 7 expectations that prevent healthy relationships - 'Love should feel like a fairy tale'

To avoid jealousy, don't introduce new material once you're rock solid. "People create a conception around their partner based on exactly what they've said to them, no more, no less," he continues.

"They might wonder about other things but not worry about them particularly. If, down the track, you confess to other relationships or things you've done, it makes your past alive in the here and now, when it's not. Not only can it be damaging if your partner has a problem with it, but it says you're a liar, too."


Start with facts. Is there something going on or are you indulging in your own jealous fantasies? "If there's no evidence, ask, 'What's going on with me?" says Bambling. "Am I unsatisfied with aspects of the relationship? Am I feeling under-appreciated? Is this about my self-image? Am I being insecure?" Once you pinpoint the issue, you can work on yourself or with your partner to resolve it.

Don't expect to rip the jealousy out by the roots. "You can't expect to trust someone 100 percent, especially if you've been hurt before," says Johnson. "Allow your mistrust and trust to sit side by side and gradually let yourself be more secure with your partner."

Notice what your partner does to show his love and trustworthiness. "Jealousy can focus our minds so keenly on a threat that we close ourselves off to the very love that we crave," says Johnson. "Open yourself up to the love that your partner is offering and allow yourself to treasure it."

Don't go in with an accusation. "Men typically go on the defensive whether they're guilty or not," says Bambling. "Say, 'There are times when I feel you might like other women more than me - tie it down to an example - and I'm not sure how to interpret that.' If he gets defensive, add, 'I'm not angry, I just want to know how you're feeling about me." He'll get the message and, hopefully, you'll receive the clarification you need.


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