I had had some good questions on my website regarding handling a partner's irrational jealousy. The reason I wrote the article What to Do When Your Jealousy Threatens to Destroy Your Marriage for the individual with the problem jealousy is because until that person decides to make changes nothing can be done to eliminate their jealousy. That article has been very popular and many people have indicated to me that they are trying to change their behavior after reading it. However, there are many other people who are not recognizing their jealous behavior and so their partners are writing to me asking what to do.
Just because the person with the jealousy problem is the only one who can change it doesn't mean that there is nothing that you, as the partner, can do about your partner's jealousy. However, the steps you can take may be very challenging and don't come without risk. If you truly want a chance for your partner to change, the best place to start is with yourself. By changing how you respond to your partner's jealousy you will develop a greater understanding of how difficult it is to make changes. This increases your empathy for your partner especially if he/she is trying to make changes. However, it may also make you less tolerant of someone refusing to recognize their problem or do anything about it. This could be a healthy thing for you because you are less likely to remain in a destructive relationship.
Usually jealousy is a problem for the non-jealous partner when the behavior gets out of control. The jealous individual may engage in excessive questioning, make accusations, seek excessive reassurance, and may even control their partner's activities. Of course, no matter how much reassurance is given, faithfulness can never be proven, only disproved. So the jealous person's behavior continues and tends to escalate. The first thing that the recipient of this behavior needs to recognize is that the behavior is controlling and abusive. However, sometimes the recipient of the jealous behavior believes that it just shows that his/her partner is deeply in love. Jealousy is not a sign of love, it is a sign of insecurity. Love is not controlling. When we love someone we allow them to grow independently of us because by doing so they are with us by choice, not by demand.
The main risk of trying to do something about your partner's jealousy is that you may have to risk the relationship itself. Before you go any further, you must ask yourself, "Why am I willing to take this kind of abuse? Do I deserve to be treated this way?" Just as the person who is jealous has a problem with self-esteem, if you are willing to tolerate this type of relationship, it indicates that you have a problem with self-esteem. Another question you need to ask yourself is, "Am I willing to risk everything in order to try and improve my relationship?" The answer to this question needs to be "Yes." If it is not, there is no need to read any further.
For those you who have answered "Yes" the following are the steps to take. Recognize these steps are not easy and that what I have written may not be comprehensive. If any step proves to be too difficult for you, please seek professional advice.
1) Deal with your self-esteem issues first. If you are so afraid of losing the relationship that you are willing to put up with the jealous behavior, then you need to develop a greater sense of self-worth. Start by understanding how your thinking contributes to your self-esteem problems and then learn how to change that thinking. See 20 Steps to Better Self-Esteem.
2) By developing your own self-esteem, you will come to recognize that you are neither responsible for you partner's behavior nor is there anything you can do to stop the jealousy. No matter how "good" you are, your partner has a problem. The more you try to alter yourself and your life and your contact with others, the more you are enabling your partner's behavior. This is no different than if your partner is an alcoholic and you contribute to the illness by covering for him/her or by tolerating inappropriate behavior.
3) Once you have developed your self-confidence, you need to assertively communicate to your partner that his/her behavior is hurtful and you cannot tolerate this. How you communicate this is important and needs to be done in a loving way, not as criticism or in angry reaction. If you do not know how to communicate effectively, get some training first. Many community colleges have courses for the public on communication so they may be a good resource or you can see a behavior therapist for skills training.
4) If the previous step does not open your partner's eyes to his/her behavior, then you may have to take the most difficult step. You have to decide that you will not continue to tolerate this behavior and you let him/her know that. You let your partner know that he/she needs to make changes or your relationship will not be able to continue. When you discuss this issue, it needs to be in a calm manner and not during anger. You also need to let him/her know the steps you are taking including not responding to their questioning and accusations and not changing your life to try and make them feel better. If their behavior escalates and they become more abusive, this should tell you without a doubt that you are in a destructive relationship. If they begin to recognize the problem and try to make changes, then you are on the road to recovery. If you are afraid that taking these steps will escalate the situation to violence, that is a strong sign that you need to get away from the individual as soon as possible. Most communities have resources to help people in abusive relationships.
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Dr. Monica Frank