Navigating Jealousy in Romantic Relationships

by August Stockwell, PhD, BCBA-D and Worner Leland, MS, BCBA, Upswing Advocates

Romantic jealousy can involve a fear of losing a partner to a real or potential romantic rival, fear of the unknown, fear of change in a relationship, and a fear of abandonment (Wagner, 2010). Research shows that jealousy is a common emotion, and the experience of jealousy can negatively impact romantic relationships in some instances (Buss, 2013). Although research has shown that people in nonmonogamous relationships tend to report lower levels of jealousy than those who are in monogamous relationships (Moors, Chopik, Edelstein, & Conley, 2014), there are very few people who report that they don’t experience jealousy at some point in their lives. In the United States, cultural messages and assumptions about jealousy abound. Romantic jealousy can be seen as an indicator of love; conversely, jealousy is framed as a negative experience and something to be avoided or conquered, and as a barrier to certain relationship structures (e.g., “I could never be nonmonogamous, I would get too jealous!”)

The experience of jealousy can very across individuals, and can include observable behaviors and events, both at the overt and covert level. For example, it may be a stated emotion or a thought (“I feel jealous, and part of that is feeling frustrated that I’m spending less time with my partner than before.”). A variety of body sensations can be categorized as an experience of jealousy, such as rapid heart rate, flushed cheeks, sweaty palms, or a churning stomach. On the overt level, we may label someone as “acting jealous” if they accuse their partner of infidelity, refuse to allow their partner to spend time with others on a one-on-one basis, or check their partner’s text messages or emails for evidence of romantic or sexual interest in another person.

In a recent study, Bihler, Stockwell, and Walker (2016) assessed the impact of different written scenarios on participants’ self-reported levels of jealousy, as well as changes in heart rate and blood pressure and “nervous” behaviors (nail biting, foot tapping, etc.). Scenarios presented included hypothetical situations involving a partner being sexually intimate with another person outside the relationship, the partner being emotionally intimate with someone, and a control condition in which participants read a description of a calm event such as walking through the park. Results indicated that all participants (including one nonmonogamous participant) self-reported feeling jealous while reading at least one of the two types of infidelity scenarios. However, only a few participants showed differences in nervous behaviors and physiological measures across the scenario types.

Real-life experiences of jealousy, of course, are much more complex and nuanced than reading a hypothetical scenario on a piece of paper. Real-world antecedents related to jealousy can include things like changes in relationship setup or boundaries, observing indicators of a partner’s possible physical or emotional involvement with someone else, not being included in social plans, and a myriad of other possible examples. Though jealousy may be an aversive experience, it is likely an unavoidable one for most people in romantic relationships. So how can one respond when jealousy shows up?

The answers to these questions hinges on the answer to another question: What do we value about the relationship we are in? What do we value about the way it’s set up (e.g., monogamous, polyamorous?). From an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) perspective, values are self-generated rules that describe what our life is all about – what we are committed to moving toward (Hayes & Lillis, 2012). Unlike goals, which are similar to a destination or an end point, values are similar to a compass that points us in the direction we are committed to traveling in, and each person defines their own values. One relationship-specific value might be, “I value honest and authentic communication with my partner.” By clarifying one’s values around a romantic relationship, this can create an establishing operation and increase responding consistent with that value, even in the presence of jealousy and other challenging situations.

jeals

The ACT Matrix (Polk, Schoendorff, Webster, & Olaz, 2016) is one tool that may prove useful in unpacking one’s experience of jealousy and its impact on valued behaviors, including avoidant patterns that may emerge in the presence of jealousy and other aversive experiences. We can begin with the question stated above, with each number here corresponding to a different quadrant of the matrix above: (1) What do you value about your relationship? Once one or more values have been defined, one can ask the question, (2) What behaviors can I engage in that are consistent with those values? For example, if a person values honest and authentic communication with their partner, one behavior consistent with this value might be to write their partner a letter about their experience of jealousy and why their partner is important to them. (3) In some instances, when a person engages in behaviors that are consistent with one’s values, certain uncomfortable covert experiences may arise, such as feelings of jealousy, fear, uncomfortable thoughts, and distressing body sensations and urges, which can include feelings of additional guilt or self-judgment for having these experiences.
(4) When these uncomfortable covert experiences come up, what behaviors do you find yourself doing? Perhaps these behaviors are avoidant in nature, in that they provide distraction from the uncomfortable covert experiences, even if only temporarily.

Examples are varied and may include activities like watching Netflix, drinking alcohol, or putting in long hours at work, or even picking a fight with one’s partner and blaming them for one’s feeling of jealousy. Although these activities may decrease uncomfortable covert experiences for a time, they are unlikely to do so in the long-term. Additionally, when a great deal of time and response effort is dedicated to avoidance of uncomfortable emotions and other covert experiences, a person may no longer be engaging in behaviors consistent with what they value in their romantic relationship. Instead, a pattern of avoidance may emerge which includes a cycle of both overt responses and distressing covert experiences, as indicated by the arrows in the image of the Matrix.

What if it was possible to just have jealousy be there whenever it shows up, even as you take steps in line with what you value in relationships? One may consider if it would be meaningful to willingly step back and examine jealousy and all of the covert stimuli and responses it involves. ACT literature outlines several potentially helpful cognitive defusion exercises that may be useful in altering the context around jealousy in its distressing moments (Hayes & Lillis, 2012). The first example is to add the phrase “I’m having the thought that…” By doing this, a distressing thought like “My partner is going to leave me” becomes “I’m having the thought that my partner is going to leave me.” This can then be observed for what it is (a thought) rather than responded to as a direct experience being contacted in the physical environment. With this approach, one may commit to an openness to experiencing these thoughts and include the statement “…and it’s ok that I’m having that thought.”

Another set of exercises that can aid in defusing from distressing thoughts and feelings related to jealousy include singing a difficult thought aloud or saying it using a silly voice, as well as noticing particular body sensations that may arise during moments when jealousy occurs and sitting with those sensations for at least a short time rather than engaging in an avoidant behavior. This does not mean that one needs to always remain silent and hide jealousy from a partner or others, however. Through a willingness to sit with the challenging experience of jealousy, it may become clear that jealousy can provide useful information about what we value in a relationship and a need that is not currently being met, or one that is under strain. By approaching jealousy with a willingness to experience it, we can put ourselves in a much better position to mindfully communicate our needs and boundaries to our partner, and frame them in a way that shows what we value about the relationship, what we value for that partner, and what we value for ourselves.

References
Bihler, A., Stockwell, F., & Walker, D. (2016, May). Dissecting jealousy: Examining the effects of physical and emotional infidelity scenarios on heart rate, blood pressure, nervous behaviors, and self-reported feelings of jealousy. In F. Stockwell (Chair). Sexual Behavior: Research and Practice SIG Symposium 3 of 3: What behavior analysis can teach you about your love life. Symposium conducted at the Association for Behavior Analysis conference, Chicago, IL
Buss, D. M. (2013). Sexual jealousy. Psihologijske Teme, 22, 155-182.
Hayes, S. C., & Lillis, J. (2012). Acceptance and commitment therapy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Moors, A., Chopik, W., Edelstein, R., & Conley, T. (2014). Consensual non-monogamy: Table for more than two, please. The Inquisitive Mind, 5(6).
Polk, K. L., Schoendorff, B., Webster, M., & Olaz, F. O. (2016). The Essential Guide to the ACT Matrix: A Step-by-Step Approach to Using the ACT Matrix Model in Clinical Practice. New Harbinger Publications.
Wagner, A. (2010). Making peace with jealousy in polyamorous relationships. Retrieved from http://www.practicalpolyamory.com/images/Jealousy_Updated_10-6-10.pdf

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