Jealousy: the most destructive issue in intimacy

Jealousy is so often a destructive issue in intimacy.

Jealousy and envy may be the least understood of the emotions and are, potentially, the most devastating to intimate relationships. Their manifestations can be so subtle and covert that we may be able to recognize them only in retrospect, long after they have done their damage. Jealousy often takes a sexual focus in intimate relationships. It holds the greatest potential for distorting perceptions of reality and limiting pleasure.

Why is jealousy such a devastating emotion, so potent that it can, literally, drive people to destroy their loved ones, their rivals and even themselves? Jealousy is like a spider’s web strung together by a variety of interwoven strands of complex, painful emotions and anticipations, any one of which can be overwhelming. Together they clearly can cause irrational and upsetting responses. It is possible that the earliest origins of jealousy lie in the loss or deprivation of love, attention and response as a young and helpless child, which later creates a need to control one’s loved ones in order to avoid the pain and fear of abandonment experienced when one was helpless. On the other hand, one can feel helpless or continue to be in a situation of limited options as an adult. The situations that create jealousy can be so destructive to self-esteem, can become so obsessive, that it becomes hard to think clearly or to see positive options.


Of the aspects of jealousy, the simplest is POSSESSIVENESS. By this we mean the belief that you belong to me in certain specific ways and you have no right to share yourself in these ways with someone else. This can include possessiveness about time spent with others or specific behaviors such as having lunch or a drink with a member of the opposite sex or even extra time at work or with one’s own children! Most commonly it takes the form of expectations about sexual fidelity. Sometimes our beliefs or expectations lie out of our awareness. We only know that certain behaviors by our partner make us angry, frustrated or uncomfortable. We may not identify the reason. We may not want to admit the reason. Implicit in all of this is a belief that you have no right to give to someone else the time or attention I need or want and that therefore you should be giving to me. “If you loved me, you would not choose to spend your time with others….”, etc.


Another component of jealousy is FEAR OF LOSS. The intensity of this fear is directly related to the importance of the relationship. “If I love you and I then come to need you in my life, if the stability of my life is based on sharing it with you, then the loss of our relationship would be devastating.” If you share yourself with someone else, you may come to prefer someone else. I risk losing the love, warmth, security, identity, personal power, the ground or foundation on which my life is based because you may find another person more desirable than I am. If so, you may leave me. Even if my fear of such an event happening is unrealistic, I may still feel it intensely because it evokes memories of previous losses or abandonments, whether as a young child or at any time in my life that I suffered losses (perhaps even through death) that brought me great pain. If loss comes about, not by choice, but through illness or accidental death, it is devastating enough to deal with the grief, mourning and the need to rearrange one’s entire life. If it comes about by choice, through betrayal of a trust, through choosing another, then the grief is complicated by an added indignity — the blow to self-esteem: “If you loved me or if I was lovable, you wouldn’t want to leave me.” An added rage may be: “You chose to abandon me and cause me this pain” or an added self-doubt: “How could I have trusted you? How can I ever trust my own perceptions again?”

Consequently, FEAR OF LOSS plays a crucial role in important intimate relationships, while it is of little consequence in relationships, which matter less and are not survival based.


Another aspect of jealousy is LOSS OF SELF-ESTEEM. In comparing myself to my real or imagined rival, I don’t trust that you will choose me. I consider that others are younger, prettier, handsomer, smarter, wealthier, more competent, sexier, funnier, more athletic, more attractive, more powerful, more accepting, more understanding, have more time, are less tired, so why would you want me? I compare myself and decide that I can’t compete and that makes me feel badly about myself. Also, I get ANGRY with you for putting me in the position of having to feel so badly about myself. If I find myself lacking, if I believe my rival has more to offer than I do, I experience a chain reaction of self-criticism, self-hatred, loss of confidence and loss of self-esteem. I feel diminished, reduced, lessened as a person, and if my loss is obvious to others, I feel HUMILIATED, too.


This often sparks a vicious cycle in which I PROJECT onto my partner this diminished view of myself; conclude, therefore, that my suspicions are justified, since I really am seen as unworthy, become more jealous and hurt, feel GUILT for my “unacceptable” feelings of hatred, rage and despair, and then, suffer a further loss of self-esteem as a consequence. Although jealousy and envy are human, our culture views them as negative emotions, at the least pathetic, and possibly even pathological. Consequently, I become ASHAMED to admit to them, ashamed at feeling angry with you when my suspicions may not even be justified, ashamed to feel so dependent on you and so inferior to my suspected rival(s), ashamed that others (including my rival) may know of my loss and defeat. If I expose my feelings, I feel humiliated. If I conceal them, I feel covert and sneaky. Either way, I experience fear, shame and guilt which further reduce my self-esteem.

PROJECTION works another way, too. If I have had fantasies of straying or infidelity or preferring others to you, I can well project this on to you and believe that you feel the same way. This is especially true if I have acted on my fantasies, or know others who have. So how can I trust you?

It goes without saying that another difficult thing about jealousy is the behaviors it elicits– which far from diminishing our fear and grief–often only make the situation worse. If I am jealous, I will try to control you. Unless you’re unusually accommodating, understanding and sympathetic, you will resist my efforts to control. Additionally, the tactics you employ to resist my controlling behavior will almost certainly further arouse, and seemingly justify, my jealousy. If, in my jealousy, I get even with you by nit-picking, criticizing or withdrawing, I will worry that my behavior will cause you to stop loving me.

I will be anxious about your turning to someone else for the things I am denying you. If I get so leery of being hurt that I decide that “I don’t need anyone,” I will build up walls between us that will certainly estrange us.

We may end up experiencing, at various times: fear, anger, lowered self-esteem, guilt humiliation, grief, loss of power, accompanied by a sense of outrage at others that they would choose to put us through all of this. Piecing all this together, it becomes easier to understand some of the incredibly destructive actions that flow from the experience of jealousy.

~ Lori Heyman Gordon

One Comment Add yours

  1. This is exactly how I always am. I have the best bf I could possibly ask for but my own insecurities and jealousy is killing me

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