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When jealousy in a couple becomes a problem

This feeling performs a protective function, but it becomes a cause for concern when it leads to pathological or controlling behaviors

Couple discussion
Emotions, even negative ones, also play an adaptive role.VORONA (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Emotions and feelings make up the architecture of our affective life and are essential for our daily functioning. Joy allows you to enjoy good times; just as friendship and love allow you to build strong ties with loved ones; and empathy — being able to put yourself in other people’s emotional state — helps fosters group cohesion.

What’s more, emotions — even negative ones — also play an adaptive and protective role. Fear is a survival strategy that serves to alert a person to possible dangers. Sadness is the expression of sorrow, which facilitates compassion or emotional support from others when a person is feeling down. Guilt — to the extent that it entails deep suffering — makes it difficult to transgress ethical norms and calls for reparation when something wrong has been done. And anger has an energizing effect that facilitates the adoption of appropriate behaviors to defend oneself or, at least, make others aware of the discomfort experienced.

Jealousy is also a deeply rooted emotional response in human beings, but it is more complex than the others because it consists of several emotions (envy, anger and guilt) and by default involves other people. Like other emotions, jealousy also has a protective function, which is to preserve the stability of the relationship and guarantee, where appropriate, the care of offspring. In this way, jealousy can boost the effort to live together and foster better communication within the couple, which can help prevent infidelity or abandonment. Jealousy is deeply rooted in human beings and in various cultures.

In some cultural contexts, jealousy can be more explosive in its onset or more primal in its expression, but it is always present. It is a mistake to confuse ideological progressivism with the absence of jealousy. Believing in freedom in a relationship, where the members have various partners (as occurs in polyamory or open relationships) does not mean that jealousy is not an issue: it can also arise in a more or less subtle ways, but is always very painful for the person who feels it.

However, some people can feel deeply jealous for no reason. This jealousy is problematic. It is a reaction of deep emotional discomfort to what is perceived as an external threat against a relationship that the jealous person considers valuable and sees as being in danger. This emotional reaction arises from a person’s love of their partner, their sense of possession, the suspicion or certainty of a rival, the fear of losing them and consequent sense of helplessness. What characterizes this pathological jealousy is the lack of logical provocation, the intense suffering experienced by the jealous person and the victim, controlling behaviors and its serious impact on daily life.

Beyond the emotional reaction, jealous people — as a result of their insecurity — adopt various surveillance behaviors, such as inquisitorial questions, controlling their partner’s cellphone and social media and making unexpected appearances. They also use emotional blackmail and believe they read their partner’s thoughts, assuming that they are thinking about another person (emotional infidelity). In other cases, the jealousy can even be retrospective: the jealous person may suspect that their partner is comparing them with their previous partners, as they do not want to, or are unable to, let go of these memories. This causes the relationship to quickly deteriorate because the jealous person feels deeply humiliated. At the same time, it undermines the emotional well-being of the loved one, sowing doubts, psychologically destabilizing them and generating, in the worst case, controlling and violent attitudes and behaviors towards them.

Jealousy is more common in men, especially when their partners are younger or attractive or have achieved professional or social success that they lack. In men, jealousy is linked to anger and even aggressive behavior. Jealousy in women, on the contrary, is more likely to express itself as sadness and self-reproach (What have I done wrong? Why doesn’t he find me attractive?).

There are many sources of problematic jealousy. In some cases, it is a question of a jealous personality style, characterized by distrust, low self-esteem, emotional dependence, a lack of friends and social resources, and previous feelings of neglect or humiliation in their love life. In these cases, once the initial crush has passed, jealousy pops up impulsively in the form of controlling behaviors that lead to the end of the relationship. This jealously tend to appear again in subsequent relationships.

In other cases, pathological jealousy is a reflection of various mental disorders, as occurs in obsessive jealousy. The person — despite being aware of the irrationality of their suspicions — cannot avoid them and engages in surveillance behaviors that only alleviate their discomfort temporarily, until the cycle repeats itself. Alcohol abuse can also cause intense jealousy, which can be associated with violent behavior. Although it occurs less frequently, people who suffer from delusional disorder also experience jealousy. This is a paradoxical situation, since, while the person can present coherent reasoning in their usual life and adapt to their environment, they have false delusions of jealousy, which are pathological and cannot be tempered by reason.

In short, there should be no shame in feeling bouts of jealousy, because it can be an important sign of love and the fear of losing something valuable. It is an emotion that needs to be accepted and channeled properly. But it’s another thing entirely when jealousy hinders freedom, turns to controlling behavior, prevents the experience of love and even triggers violent behavior. Jealous personality types are very resistant to changing their behavior. Pathological jealousy, however, can subside if the affected person undergoes appropriate treatment.

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