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Jealousy: When the Damage is Done

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
"Imagine the hopelessness, the hurt, and the pain beginning to turn to anger and resentment. Imagine what this does to love."

An internet reader, "Mike," wrote about a jealousy situation that he has begun to recognize but that has already caused extensive damage to his relationship: "Now, my spouse is hiding everything and refuses to discuss the topic. My gut feeling is that my spouse is out to get revenge, lying and is maybe now really cheating." He indicates that his wife has informed him she has the right to hide the cell phone bills, change e-mail passwords, and erase internet history because of his past behavior. He states,"I tried to explain what is causing my jealousy, yet I feel I'm not being heard or understood. Now, I feel like the one being "abused" because my spouse acts hostile to me and defensive whenever this subject...is brought up."

Frequently, I see this scenario all too often in my practice. By the time the jealous spouse recognizes his/her problem considerable damage to the relationship has already occurred. Attempts to change mean not only resolving the jealousy problems but also healing the relationship.

To understand the damage to the relationship, try taking the other person's perspective: Imagine day after day being questioned about your whereabouts, your behavior, and accused of being unfaithful or being attracted to someone else. Imagine someone checking your cell phone records, checking your e-mail, and/or calling you frequently under the pretense of something else but really just wanting to know what you're doing. Imagine your helplessness because no matter how much you reassure your spouse, no matter how many questions you answer, no matter how open you are with your daily itinerary or your e-mail, you can never "prove" your love or faithfulness. Imagine waiting for the next accusation, the next argument, knowing that it will occur but not knowing when. For some, imagine being fearful of physical violence because you can't reassure your spouse enough. Imagine the hopelessness, the hurt, and the pain beginning to turn to anger and resentment. Imagine what this does to love.

Mike asked a number of thoughtful questions that we will address in this article:

Did My Jealousy become a Reality or is it Still My Insecurities

Sure, it is possible that Mike's jealousy created the reality of a cheating spouse. The jealous spouse creates a very unpleasant and painful marital environment and some people may try to "escape" the pain of that reality by finding someone else who treats them better. I'm not saying this is justified, but that it can occur. However, at this point, if Mike wants the possibility of saving his marriage, he needs to ignore that scenario and focus his efforts on himself. Therefore, he needs to believe that it is still his insecurities making him feel this way. Instead of believing that his wife is "out to get revenge" he needs to recognize that she has been extremely hurt and may be doing the things she's doing to protect herself from more pain.

Frequently, spouses do start "lying" because they learn that when they tell the truth it leads to more questions and accusations. When asked if the new co-worker is attractive, it's safer to say "no." When asked if he stopped any where after work, it's easier to say he had to work late. The lying is often an attempt to avoid arguments. The jealous spouse will often say,"It wouldn't be a problem if he didn't lie to me," but that's not usually not true. The truth usually leads to more unpleasantness. The jealous spouse needs to recognize his/her role in the development of the lying.

Once the jealous spouse has caught the lies, then he or she believes that "If my spouse is lying, then he/she is probably cheating." This thinking is a fallacy because it's like saying, "If a person hits someone in self-defense, then he/she is likely to be a murderer." That sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? A minor behavior doesn't mean a person is likely to engage in a major behavior. Some people would argue that lying is not a minor behavior. I would agree that it's not healthy to be lying in a relationship. However, it's important to understand the evolution of this behavior as a protective behavior from the jealousy. It may have been the only thing the spouse felt he or she could do in response to the accusations or even violence.

How will I Know the Difference Between Jealousy and Infidelity at this Point?

This question is actually at the heart of the matter because it indicates the need to know if infidelity has occurred. In fact, this question indicates that even though Mike recognizes his problem with jealousy and the problems it has caused, he has still not addressed the underlying issue. We cannot KNOW that someone can be trusted and that someone will be faithful, we can only BELIEVE. The jealous spouse wants 100% certainty. They want proof. But faithfulness cannot be proven, it can only be disproved. Therefore, the jealous spouse seeks out proof that a spouse is not faithful and this behavior leads to the pain and the damage to the relationship.

Mike has to learn how to trust without proof. He has to learn to CHOOSE to trust his spouse. To do this, he may need to restructure his thinking that makes him believe that he needs certainty. Perhaps he may need to address self-esteem issues that cause him to seek external validation of his worth in a relationship. Mike might need assistance from a therapist to help him identify and change the need for certainty.

What Do I Do Now?

1) How Can I Create an Opportunity to Really Talk Things Out?

Mike states, "My spouse does not want to go to marriage counseling and believes the problem is one I created and should fix myself." Actually, at this point Mike's spouse is correct. Most likely, she has been accused and blamed so much in the relationship that she doesn't want to focus again on her being the problem. She anticipates marriage counseling as just another way to shift blame on to her. Marriage counseling may be helpful at some point, but not until Mike addresses his individual issues thoroughly. Mike's question involves wanting to "talk things out" but his wife is beyond talk. From her perspective, talk has been the problem. Talk leads to the jealousy and the accusations. At this time, the only thing that can make a difference is to be shown. Mike needs to show her that not only does he understand the problem, but that he has solved the problem.

2) With the Way Things Are, How Can We Create Trust in the Relationship? As indicated above, this is in Mike's hands now. If the marriage can be saved, it's not about "we," it's about him. He destroyed the trust in the relationship and he's the one that must repair it. However, I think the major error he is making is one many people make and that is once they have identified the problem and taken steps to change it, everything should change immediately. Similar to an alcoholic who quits drinking, "I quit drinking. Why is she still suspicious of me and angry?" the spouse who stops the behavior expects immediate changes from his/her spouse.

Many times the jealous behavior has occurred over many years. The accused spouse may have heard many apologies and promises to change. He or she may have had hopes that things would change many times previously that were destroyed again and again. Just because the jealous spouse recognizes the difference this time, doesn't mean that all wounds will heal immediately. It will take time.

3) Can it Be Fixed? Most things can be fixed, but when a great deal of damage has been done, the injured spouse may not be willing to try. At this point, since Mike's wife is still with him, it is best to assume that there is still hope. He needs to focus on action. Action in this situation means choosing to trust his wife and not engaging in the jealous behaviors. Action may mean obtaining individual therapy to address any underlying issues that have lead to the jealousy. Action means making amends. Mike indicated that he's feeling hurt by his wife's behavior now, but he needs to focus on what he needs to change. Any focus on what she's doing to hurt him is only another accusation and will further convince her that he hasn't really changed because it's "still about him" and his desire to avoid being hurt. Instead, he may need to recognize that dealing with the hurt she's causing him (by protecting herself) may be part of making amends. He needs to recognize the pain that he has caused and do whatever he can to help her feel good about herself in the relationship.

Will that work? Maybe not, but it's a necessary risk if this relationship is to be saved.

4) How Do I Make Amends When My Spouse Won't Talk to Me or Spend Time With Me? Mike needs to understand that his wife is probably leery of talking because most likely much of the jealous behavior involved talking. Therefore, talking even when its about controlling the jealous behavior may be viewed suspiciously. What Miked needs to realize is that his wife is not going to see his progress to the same degree as he does so it will take time for his wife to understand that he has changed.

I understand that when we make changes we want others to notice and comment and be pleased with us right away. But with this type of change, which is the absense of a behavior, it takes much longer than when a change involves adding or increasing a behavior. So it is important to have patience.

Mike also needs to keep in mind that making amends doesn't just mean apologizing. Another way to make amends is for Mike to do things he knows his wife will appreciate even if she doesn't notice right away. It could mean doing the laundry, or changing the oil in her car, or spending time with her family. It doesn't need to be major things. Frequency is much more important.

5) How Can I Show that I'm Changing When My Spouse Focuses on Every Mistake I Make? Once the damage is done, it is difficult to show change because Mike might be aware that there were ten times when he didn't say anything or exhibit jealous behavior, but is wife will focus on the one time that he did. Since it is impossible to make a 100% change overnight and that even when a person does change they might slip into the old behavior occasionally, the spouse will notice the unwanted behavior and not be aware of the improvement.

This means that it is very important to eliminate the behavior even if the feelings can't be eliminated initially because it is the behavior the spouse sees, not the feelings. Also, it is the behavior that hurts the spouse. So, Mike needs to develop strategies to use when he feels jealous so as not to engage in the behavior.

Some strategies:

Talk to a trusted friend Have someone who already understands the situation to whom you can talk when you are having trouble controlling the jealous feelings and behavior. This person needs to remind you of the consequences of not controlling the behavior. Usually if you take the time to talk it out with someone the feelings will pass and you will be more in control.

Journal your feelings. Again, by taking the time to get your feelings out in another way, it can give you a little distance and the feelings will pass. When you journal, you not only write your feelings but you also need to challenge the feelings and write why the feelings are not accurate and the consequences of acting upon the feelings.

Some individuals are very good at giving others advice even though they may have difficulty challenging their own thinking. If this is the case, you can write your feelings in an email as if you are writing to a friend. Then send the email to yourself and answer the email as if a friend had written to you.

A special thanks to "Mike" for sharing his situation.


Kindle Books by
Dr. Monica Frank

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