Passionate Lives

A Jealous Lover

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A reader writes in with questions about how to handle a difficult situation with her partner, whose unusually jealous behavior and trust issues are causing problems with their relationship.

Dear Jassy:

I have been involved with the same woman for 5 years. We are very committed to each other and would like to spend the rest of our lives together. My girlfriend is a wonderful partner. She's very loyal, devoted, and we get along well, despite having different interests. Most of the time I'm really, really happy with her. We live together, with our dogs, contribute fairly equally to the household budget, and want the same things in life. From the outside, everything looks wonderful and we are, most of the time, very happy together. The first year that we were together was just great. She said that it was the first time in her life that she felt safe.

After the first year, my girlfriend became more and more jealous. I think it goes beyond normal jealousy. Despite the fact that I have done nothing to deserve her jealous actions, she doesn't believe that I'm not going to cheat on her. She has a hard time with my close friendships. She has sneaked into my study and read my journal, gives me a hard time if I'm late home, and sometimes has shown up places when I have appointments. She frequently moves her schedule around so that she can be there when I come out of school in the evening, and shows up unannounced at the restaurant where I'm a waitress. She has opened my personal mail, and says that she was in a hurry and it was accidental. If I spend any time online, she's convinced that I have an internet romance and is constantly complaining about the time I spend doing internet research for school, or replying to my emails. I'm sure this jealousy has something to do with her own history. Her dad cheated on her mother and left them when she was quite young, and she's had other girlfriends cheat on her before.

I would feel differently if I had something to hide. But I don't. I've never cheated on anyone. However, I'm beginning to feel dishonest even though I haven't done anything to feel guilty about! I've noticed myself feeling more protective of my privacy, feeling resentful at her blaming me for things I haven't done, and feeling like I don't want to share things with her because she doesn't trust me anyway!

Have you got any suggestions for how to handle the situation with my girlfriend? I really love her and don't want this to come between us. I've tried talking to her until I'm blue in the face, and nothing seems to work. Every time I talk about it with her, she says she loves me so much but she thinks I'm going to leave her for someone else. Please, help!

Desperate Girlfriend of a Jealous Lover

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Dear Desperate:

Love and jealousy are not synonymous. Your girlfriend is mistaken when she equates the two as equal. This does not mean she doesn't love you—based on your descriptions, the connection that the two of you share and the life you have created together is clearly real for both of you. However, her attempts to desperately clutch at you have their origins in something other than the experience of love. They are more based on her experience of loss of love. Unfortunately, if she keeps this up, her behavior may, eventually, drive you away, and create exactly the thing she fears most.

Please note: You haven't mentioned domestic violence, so I hope that her jealous behavior is not accompanied by violence or physical aggression. If domestic violence is present in your relationship, I recommend that you immediately contact your nearest domestic violence hotline and ask for a list of resources in your area. They typically offer free counseling which I would recommend you take advantage of. They will also help you make a safety plan. Everything else I'm about to write is based on there being NO physical violence in your relationship.

Many people in committed relationships report occasionally feeling jealous, and some jealousy is normal and understandable in any relationship. Usually, jealous feelings have their origins in our insecurities; after all, few of us feel 100% confident about our appearance, intelligence, sexiness, lovability, or our value. Most people realize that their experience of mistrust is not rooted in anything rational, and find ways to soothe themselves and calm these feelings down. The difference between most people and your girlfriend, however, is that she is unable to tell her behavior is irrational. For people this jealous, they truly believe that there is something to distrust, and no matter what you say you cannot convince her otherwise. This kind of jealousy borders on obsessional, and normal ways of coping do not generally apply.

Locked inside the jealous lover's jealous feelings and behavior is the source of the jealousy and distrust. You wrote, "She said that it was the first time in her life that she had ever felt safe," and that her father had left her and her mother when she was a child. You also mentioned that she had experienced infidelities in her lifetime. Now, here you are. Finally, someone she can trust! Unfortunately, the specters of the past come back to haunt us. The very thing she craves, the stability of constant, responsive, and reliable love and companionship, is the very thing she is unable to trust. This kind of obsessional jealousy is destructive, for it does not respond to reason or reassurance. It's hard to remain in a long-term relationship with someone who is very jealous—people describe that it feels as if they live with a third person in the relationship, and that third person is a tyrant.

Here are some steps to help tackle this problem. First of all, there are a couple of excellent, easy-to-read books on the topic. The first is Overcoming Jealousy and Possessiveness by Paul A. Hauck. The second one is Overcoming Jealousy by Dr. Windy Dryden. If money is tight, ask your local library to order them for you to borrow.

Second, you say talking to your girlfriend hasn't worked. Consider writing her a letter. You can hand this to her and ask her to read it aloud to you. Some people who won't respond to talking, will respond to visual information. Write that you are very upset about the way she treats you as a result of the jealousy and possessiveness that she feels. Explain carefully, using "I" statements, what you feel when she accuses you of being untrustworthy, including that you love her and feel scared by her behavior. Tell her that you are educating yourself about jealousy, what it is, why people feel it and how to respond, and that you are going to change how you respond to her in future. Your girlfriend clearly needs a great deal of reassurance, so please tell her often throughout this conversation that you love her very much and you are not leaving. You need her to understand that you cannot continue like this, that this dynamic in your relationship needs to change. Explain that you are going to start taking responsibility for how you feel about her accusations, and you hope that she does the same in order to create more stability, happiness, and calm in your relationship.

Third, ask your girlfriend for a short list of things that help her feel calmer. Does it calm her down if you call when you're going to be late? How about having an idea of your schedule so that she can feel more confident about your whereabouts? Are there things that she would like to hear from you that would reassure her? Once you have the list, be honest with her about the things that you can and can't do. For example, if she says, "I want you to call me every half hour to tell me where you are, and who you are with," you have to decide if that feels reasonable to you. (Hint: It's not reasonable.) Decide what IS reasonable. Be clear with her. Example: "I won't do that, however, I will call you in the morning and afternoon to check in with you, tell you about my day, and see how you are doing." Be clear about what you are capable of. If you are going to promise to do something, you have to be absolutely certain you can follow through.

Fourth, tell her that from now on you are no longer going to respond to her accusations of infidelity and dishonesty. Tell her that despite what jealousy may whisper in her ear, you are a faithful, trustworthy, and loving partner. Say, "Because I know that I am not the person you accuse me of being, if you accuse me of cheating or lying in the future, I'm going to either hang up or leave the room because I love you and myself too much to respond." Then do it. According to Dr. Paul Hauck, another way to explain this is to say, "I love you enough to want to stop you from becoming the sort of person I can't tolerate.” If she starts to whine because you didn't answer your cell phone when she called you 10 times, smile and tell her you love her, and leave the room. If she clamors at you for "proof" of where you were today, smile and tell her that you love her, and leave the room. Tell your friends about your strategy, and ask them if you can call them if the going gets tough. It's stressful living with a jealous partner, so figure out ways to de-stress, whether this is spending time with friends, taking the dogs for a long walk, cleaning the bathroom, or taking a bath. Find ways to de-stress and calm yourself down.

I suggest that you try to meet with a therapist. Many towns and cities have free or low-price (but not low quality) mental health clinics. So, please be aware that this response to you is no substitute for a few sessions with a good psychotherapist. The suggestions I have made, along with the books, are not going to solve the whole problem. Your girlfriend has to buy into the idea that her behavior is a problem in the relationship in order for her to begin the process of changing it.

Jassy

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