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Breaking The Jealousy Cycle


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Last month I wrote about how intense jealousy is a self-fulfilling prophecy: We set expectations for our partners that they inevitably fail to meet, then punish them for their failure, leading to them distancing themselves from us. We sense the distance, and panic, searching for reassurance that they still love us and always finding evidence to the contrary, leading to more punishment and further distance. Until at last the relationship breaks under the strain and our partner finds someone easier to be with, proving that our jealousy was well founded.

If you’re the one that’s jealous, you’re probably driving two people crazy: Your partner, and yourself. Everyone sees the former, but no one sees how you, too are suffering. It may feel as though someone else has taken over your mind and is compelling you to endlessly analyze your partner’s words, phone them when they’re out, look through their electronic devices, collect information from their friends and monitor them on social media. You don’t want to do these things, but it’s agonizing to hold yourself back, and sooner or later you give in just to achieve a few hours or days of peace — until the feelings rise again. You’re at war with yourself: sometimes you think your suspicions are irrational, and other times you are certain they’re justified.

For those of us in this predicament the way out starts by asking ourselves the following questions:

Do I Deserve To Be Loved?

If, in our heart of hearts, we believe we are unworthy, is it any surprise that we suspect our partner will leave us? We may think we’re not attractive enough, or lack charm, intelligence, sophistication, talent or basic goodness. We truly don’t deserve the love we’re getting. Our partner may profess eternal love now, but that’s only because they haven’t figured us out yet. That day is coming — in fact, it may already be here, in which case our partner may already be distancing from us, or looking at other potential partners. The fear that this may be happening is overwhelming, and compels us to confront or sleuth our way into their lives, hoping to be reassured, at least for the moment. We then hate ourselves for our behavior, knowing how society frowns on those who check their partner’s phone, trawl through their social media or accuse them without merit. And that hate we direct at ourselves only confirms our fear that we do not deserve love.

Does My Partner Really Know Me?

We all put our best foot forward at the start of a relationship. Over time, most of us reveal more and more, and generally find that our partner sticks around, which is reassuring, to say the least. But if we’re convinced (consciously or otherwise) that our partner will flee if they see what’s really inside us, we continue to try hard to hide what we think is so ugly. This works like a charm in the short term — we’re not abandoned — but we can never free ourselves from the fear that we will someday be abandoned. As we become closer to our partner, they learn more and more about us (although never our darkest parts), and the thought of them leaving us becomes even more terrifying. That terror causes us to seek more frantically for reassurance. And so, contrary to common sense, our jealousy rises even as our partner becomes more loving and more intimate with us.

Do I Expect My Partner To Read My Mind?

Sometimes, especially in our teens and 20’s, we are heavily influenced by society’s idealized version of love. Women in particular are led to imagine picturesque weddings leading to perfect relationships free of conflict. We imagine that our partners will always know what we’re feeling and will say exactly the right thing to make us happy. And when that fairy-tale image meets reality, we are shocked and wonder if our partner truly loves us. This can spark anger, criticism, punishment and suspicion. It’s all too easy then to search for clues that our partner’s love is genuine — or not.

Do I Have Unrealistic Expectations For How My Partner Shows Love?

We all look for signs that our partner is truly attached to us and won’t walk away. But what exactly are those signs? Sometimes our expectations are modest, and therefore easily met. But for some of us, our standards are so high that no one can meet them for long. Perhaps we expect them to remember all our food preferences, every fashion like and dislike, things that we’ve said months ago, and significant dates in our joint lives. When they forget one of these things, it’s like an alarm going off in our heads — “Am I really loved?” But our partner can truly care for us and yet, from time to time, forget what we like to eat, what we like to wear, what we said and when it’s an integer multiple of 365 days since something happened in our joint lives. We know that if we forgot any of those things about our partner, it would indicate that we didn’t care, and so we assume the same for our partner — that their forgetting means that they don’t care.

If you see yourself in any of these, don’t despair: they’re all fixable. If you find yourself assuming your partner should read your mind and having unrealistic expectations of them, then just learning more about how relationships work can be helpful — talking to older, experienced friends and relatives who have good marriages, for example, or having a few sessions with a therapist, either alone or together. If you realize that your partner doesn’t know your darker side, or you fear you are inherently unlovable, then seeing a therapist might be the best way to go — someone who will help you realize you’re not as bad as you fear, or help you show yourself to your partner.

Tim Hoffman 

M.A. Mental Health Counselling

Psychotherapy in Hong Kong

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