Attention — 23 October 2003
Dealing with jealousy in relationships

Jealousy is a devastating feeling, which has been described by many in
the most dramatic language. Shakespeare termed it “the green-eyed
monster” in Othello and in King Richard III he stated: “the venom
clamors of a jealous woman. Poison more deadly than a mad dog’s tooth”.
In Solomon’s Song of Songs we read that “Jealousy is cruel as the grave”
and John Dryden called “jealousy, the jaundice of the soul”. These

extreme depictions relate to the emotions and behaviors associated with
some jealous people. Why is this common human emotion so maligned?

Jealousy is the feelings of envious resentment about a real or perceived
love rival. It is one of the earliest feelings infants have, as they
become aware of their mothers’ attention to a third person. The loss of
maternal undivided interest creates anxiety and fear for the infant. At
this stage, it is a survival panic.

Later in life, still very early, those of us who have younger siblings
may recall some adverse reactions to the appearance of another baby.
This loss is even greater because the presence of another child is
permanent, and parental attention is shared.

The older sibling is often incredulous about the need for another child
and experiences grief, loss, hurt and self-criticism. “If I am truly as
wonderful as my parents tell me I am, why do they need another child?
Since they do, I must be lacking in some way, I am flawed”. These
thoughts often not articulated by the child may be acted upon through
hostility toward the baby. At the same time, the child loves the
newborn, is proud to be an older sibling and is rewarded by her parents
for her competency. She also fears parental retribution should her
feelings of resentment be discovered, and may become overly solicitous
toward the infant.

Most children recover from these ambivalent feelings, and from the
doubts about their worth, and become oblivious to the early trauma.

Freud stated that sexual rivalry is initiated at age three to four when
children become attracted to the parent of the opposite gender, while
fearing punishment by the parent of the same sex. Here the child feels
ambivalence as well. While the boy sees his father as a rival for his
mother’s love, he also loves his dad and needs him as a role model. How
adults deal with the fear of losing someone they love, is patterned
after the resolution of this conflict.

Jealousy takes a more serious and difficult course, when an adult who
was replaced by another partner does not follow the expected recovery
smoothly. It is then that the pain, grief, loss and the sense of grave
imperfection become insufferable.

The jealous person may become obsessed with comparisons between himself
and the new lover. “What does he have over me?” Or, he may be beset by
guilt, “I should have done this or that differently and then I wouldn’t
have lost her.” Regret is often expressed. “I wish I could get just one
more chance to do it right”. Feeling devalued and inferior is frequent
and destructive “She is right about choosing him, I am not worthy of her”.

Some people are so overcome by jealousy that they begin to entertain
thoughts of revenge and harm to their perceived rival. When these
feelings persist, the “green eyed monster” has overpowered the person.

Jealousy within the context of a relationship is not about love it is
about self-empowerment through possessing and controlling one’s mate. A
measure of discomfort about your partner’s attention to another may be a
normal reaction to a perceived threat. However, when these feelings turn
into demands, accusations and faulting the partner, they are transformed
into methods of control and subjugation.

I sometimes encounter in my practice partners who attempt to take charge
of their lovers’ attire, conduct, or even their choice of friends. When
this occurs, the awareness that there are two people involved here, each
of whom is responsible for his or her own conduct, is lost.

When the jealous partner begins to set excessive limits on the other, he
may be viewed as a parental figure and the partnership may be damaged.
Healthy couples, who feel secure within themselves and in their union,
do not attempt to place restrictions on each other to escape jealous

  • If you find yourself feeling overly concerned about losing your lover-
    make being with you more enjoyable.
  • If you feel suspicious and worried about your partner’s behavior or
    intentions, check your own first. We often accuse others of our own
    hidden desires.
  • If your partner chooses a new lover, deal with the loss, grief and
    pain while avoiding self-deprecation.
  • Suspicion, accusations and attempts to control your partner’s conduct,
    are likely to seriously hinder the relationship.
  • If you are tormented by jealous preoccupations, anger or hate, or find
    yourself contemplating revenge or harm to another – seek professional help.
  • Remember that you are a unique individual. Others may possess greater
    strength in one area or another, but the combination of your assets is
    what makes you distinctively special and lovable.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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