How to Cope with Jealousy


Jealousy is a beast of a thing. It makes you hate the situation you’re in, the people involved, and yourself. It’s a storm of anger, fear, and self-loathing. And the more you focus on it in an effort to control it, the more out of control it gets.

I get jealous. And I’ve discovered something ironic about how it functions–namely, that it tends to kick up when I’m in a relationship, more than when I’m not. As a single person in various stages of various relationships, I am often caught between wanting to be free and wanting to be connected, and finding that the more connected I am, the more jealous I get. It’s like a cancerous tumor fueled by intimacy. It’s a nightmare. But it often has very little to do with him at all–and everything to do with me.

But what I’ve come to recognize is that there is no way to make it just go away forever. Because the desire to be connected comes with the need to be significant and secure–and the more security I seek and get, often the less secure I am. And the less I like myself. It’s a horrible, messed-up mindfuck.

And yet it makes sense: When you’re in a relationship, the stakes are higher–you have something to lose. The process of getting closer to someone is all positives. But once you ARE together, the only place to go is further apart. And even as someone who loves her freedom, I know how paralyzing that fear can be. That’s when the self-doubt, the self-hate, the neediness, surfaces.

For those of you who say, “Oh, I don’t get jealous,” I say, Wow. How is life with zero attachment and ultimate security? And how is that lie working for you? (For some, it works quite well, fooling themselves and everyone else in an attempt to keep their egos safe.) But what’s perhaps most confusing about jealousy is how knitted it is to desire.

How I Got Hooked on Jealousy

I’ve played mental judo with jealousy all my life. I trace the roots of it back to when I was 19 and hooked up with a boy I’d grown up with. I told my mom I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, or if I knew this was what I wanted. She said, “Well, when you picture him with someone else, does it make you jealous? Does it make you wish he were with you?”

And while she meant to give me a tool, a kind of emotional yardstick for measuring my feelings for someone, she had unwittingly handed me a sharp and dangerous blade that I would cut myself with for years to come. I came to see the two as inextricably linked: To love someone was to feel jealousy, and jealous feelings were indicative of love. Oh boy. What a disaster.

I overused that tool. I believed in some under-the-hood way that feeling jealousy was proof of my feelings for someone, which is like saying that tripping your own house alarm once in a while reminds you that you have a home. Which of course, is stupid–you know you have a house because you live in it and spend time in it every day. You shouldn’t need an alarm to remind you. (And of course this is a limping analogy since people aren’t real estate. You get my point.)

Where Jealousy Went Really Wrong

But I took it even further: I’d trip that alarm on purpose. I’d focus on it to the point of obsession–my boyfriend with someone else, cheating on me, finding someone better. I’d look for women who might be interested in him. At one point, after another round of my suspicion and judgment, my boyfriend said, “You know, I might as well cheat on you. You treat me as if I already have.”

He was right. He was guilty until proven innocent. It was no way to run a relationship. The key was uncoupling jealousy from love–and love from this idea that you have to be The Only One He Ever Loved Or Will Love to be, well, loved. And it ain’t true. He would be attracted to other people, as would I. And eventually, we would go on to love other people, too. Jealousy didn’t make love stronger or better or more sure. It just made it painful.

I found I’d also been using jealousy to sharpen a dulling blade. I’d get more jealous when a relationship was on its way out, ironic as that is. I was doing it to feel something again, because I feared not feeling anything. I was an emotional cutter–particularly, and perhaps especially, when I realized it was close to an end. I used it to kick up sensation and arousal where there were diminishing levels. To create distance between me and him so that I’d want him again.

That distance is key to desire, as Esther Perel explains in Mating in Captivity. But instead of allowing for healthy distance, I was creating conflict out of thin air. This had destructive effects, and made the act of breaking up that much harder. I would cling, nurturing my possessiveness as a last-ditch effort to keep him, lest someone else have him. It was selfish, and painful.

And here’s the crazy part: Just when I thought I’d simply combust from jealousy once I’d let go (even when I was often the one who wanted out), I found that the ending actually brought nothing but relief. I wasn’t anyone’s and no one was mine. I could put the knife down now.

In Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan questions whether jealousy has to rule our relationships and our sanity the way we have allowed it to. He cites many cultures and societies the world over in which acting on or expressing jealousy is shameful and silly. Just because you feel it, doesn’t mean you have to act on it. And just because this emotion makes for a great Lifetime Original Movie, doesn’t mean it can or should ruin you.

How to Cope

You can’t eliminate your jealousy, any more than you can decide to never be sad or worried again. And gripping, clinging, policing, or making someone promise you’ll always be safe–those things don’t work either. What I do know is that a life lived simply to avoid jealousy is a tenuous life indeed, because it means fearing what you feel. It’s not the world or anyone’s job to never let you feel the blade of your own fear, because it’s there and we all have the scars to show it.

What I have found is that being able to let go helps–to be aware of it when it rears its awful head, to observe the pattern. No one can promise us a life without pain. And if what we focus on is what we make happen, then jealousy, unleashed, can beget the very situations we fear most. While I can endure the jealousy, and have, I will not let it write the rules. A relationship built on or maintained by jealousy is not one I want. Nor should you.

The real pain, the real losses that happen in this life, come to us unbidden and unexpected. There are so many things we can’t avoid or foresee–but we can keep from inflicting this form of self-torture under the false belief that its self-flagellating properties are protective in nature or make us smarter or safer or wiser. They don’t.

So what do I do? When I feel that jealousy seeping into my veins, like a hot, hateful lava, I try to figure out what need it’s serving: the need for more attention, more security, some assurance that I’m good or good enough? Rather than blocking that emotion or killing or resenting anyone who causes it, I see it as something I can learn from, but don’t have to obey. I take it as a sign that I’m still, and always have been, human.