Healthy and unhealthy jealousy

Jealousy. It affects every marriage at one time or another. In fact, in a nationwide survey, marriage counsellors said jealousy is a problem for one-third of all couples they counsel.

Whether it’s a mild or major case, jealousy can have a big impact on your relationship. You may feel jealousy when you experience the heightened threat from a rival. Most of us become jealous when we see our spouse having a great time with a person of the opposite sex – especially if that person seems a little too friendly. No matter how much your spouse may attempt to reassure you, another person’s interest in him or her raises all your red flags.

Two types of jealousy

Jealousy can be either healthy or unhealthy. Healthy jealousy is a means to guard your territory and comes from a sincere care and commitment to a relationship. On the other hand, unhealthy jealousy manifests itself through lies, threats, self-pity, and feelings of inadequacy, inferiority and insecurity.

The good kind

Healthy jealousy guards the heart of a marriage because it:

  • shows your commitment to the relationship
  • protects your marriage by safeguarding the relationship against evil attacks
  • deepens your openness with each other and makes you accountable through honest communication
  • helps you confront major threats to your marriage and head them off before they become major problems

God calls you to respect your spouse’s jealousy that is a warning of danger ahead. If your spouse is a secure person and desires to protect your marriage against cracks, you need to listen. Confront the issue head-on by finding the reason for the jealousy, then making changes to keep you both out of danger.

Wives: Trust your husband’s instincts. He knows how men think, what they want and how they pursue it.  So, it would be foolish of you not to heed his warning.

Men: Trust your wife’s instincts. If she suggests that another woman is behaving inappropriately, your wife is probably right. Most women have radar, an innate alertness to nonverbal communication and an ability to translate body language and tone into emotional facts. Your wife probably is able to see these things clearly, so don’t criticize or blame her warnings on insecurity.

The bad

Unhealthy jealousy is altogether different. It stems from comparing yourself to others and feeling inadequate, unimportant, inferior and pitiful. Some spouses have experienced a lot of loss in life – whether divorce, death or abandonment in childhood – and they may bring unresolved issues into the relationship in the form of jealousy. Yet when a person carries this jealousy to pathological extremes, it will dominate a relationship.

A chronically jealous spouse will try to control a relationship through exaggeration, self-pity, lies, threats and/or manipulation. When the other partner resists, the jealous person reacts by becoming even more controlling. Then the other partner resists further by confiding in a friend or seeking relief outside the marriage. Sometimes this can become a downward spiral.

Here are just some of the effects of unhealthy jealousy:

  • You doubt your spouse’s honesty and wrongfully accuse him or her, pushing your spouse away.
  • You feel worthless and unimportant.
  • You become frustrated and overwhelmed.
  • You have a desire to control.
  • You have less sexual intimacy with your spouse.

When jealousy becomes unhealthy it is destructive and frustrating to contend with. Love is not jealous and possessive. True love enables you to aim for what is best for the other person – not what is best for you.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

So how do you deal with unhealthy jealousy in your marriage? Here are some tips for both spouses – whether you have or are a jealous spouse.

If you have a jealous spouse:

  1. Assess whether you are doing something that is provoking the jealousy.
  2. Stop that activity or involvement for a time to show your spouse that you’re committed to your marriage relationship.
  3. Be demonstrative in love toward your spouse.
  4. Talk openly with your spouse about the problem. Get his or her take on it (the feelings may be legitimate), and work together to find a solution.

If you are the jealous spouse:

  1. Listen to a few trusted friends. Your jealousy may be your own problem, not your spouse’s.
  2. Be honest with yourself. Ask what is causing the feelings. Are you trying to manipulate?
  3. Spend time with God.
  4. Think about your spouse more positively. Jealous people use their anxious thoughts and suspicions as cues to misread anything that their spouses do. Instead, take a deep breath and pray – for yourself and for your spouse.
  5. Express your feelings to your spouse. Own up to your jealousy. Be honest without being blaming or manipulative.

Married for over 30 years, the parents of two adult daughters and five grandchildren, Dr. Gary and Barb Rosberg have a unique blend of insight and wisdom that touches people of all ages. Together with Gary's 25,000 hours of counselling experience and Barbara's gift of encouragement and Biblical teaching, they are equipping thousands of families through their interactive daily radio program, conferences and marriage and family resources.

Portions of this article were adapted from The Great Marriage Q&A Book, © 2006 Dr. Gary and Barbara Rosberg. All rights reserved. Published by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. To order this resource or to find out more about the Rosbergs, visit Drgaryandbarb.com.

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