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Jealousy, as everybody who knows anything about people and their relationships will tell you, is a very bad thing. We’re talking here, of course, about the gut-wrenching sensation that suddenly manifests when you get the idea that your significant other, who you suddenly realise you love almost more than life itself, is eyeing another. Or is perhaps being eyed by another.
Men and women experience this particular emotional torture differently. Women more often than not fear their partner is being enticed, or even properly and fully seduced, by somebody more nubile and flirtatious, somebody who is an expert at ‘it’ and who is fired-up and ready to go at the mere mention of the idea. Men, on the other hand, tend to suspect it’s a fitness trainer or somebody who can ‘really listen’ and immediately understands their loved one’s needs better than they ever could. Somebody who pretends that sex, for them, is secondary to the joy of being together. That, or a millionaire CEO who is the epitome of the perfect mate.
The major problem with sexual jealousy is its obsessive insistence. It’s not at all like the momentary surge of ire you might feel when somebody gets what you’ve wanted for ages, or your best friend is suddenly given promotion and a company car to boot – that stuff usually soon fades. But not this. This just seems to increase in intensity until it occupies not just about every waking thought but your dreams too. In the beginning, you might ask yourself if it’s really at all likely that your soulmate could even possibly be looking at someone else the way they looked at you in the beginning. Then you remember that time when you were less responsive than you might have been, and the other time when you responded snappily for no good reason, and there was also that time when you were less than gracious. You recall the sudden hurt in their eyes, then you get the stomach-churning realisation that not only is the unthinkable possible, but it’s highly likely.
The foregoing is bad enough, but there’s actually a worse situation, and that is ‘retrospective jealousy’, the haunting fear that your partner’s previous relationship was better than what they’re telling you. That they might be tempted back to the security of familiar ground and familiar arms around them, familiar sex where they knew all the important places and timing. It begins to eat at your sensibilities until you can think of nothing else. After all, you know this other person exists and you know there was sex, no matter what they are telling you now. And so you start to check their phone for sexts, covertly check pockets and wallets and purses for photos that should have been discarded, or restaurant receipts from meals that you don’t know about. Or worse, an incriminating entry of some sort on a credit card statement.
Now it’s only a matter of time before stage two starts. You ask what sort of day they’ve had and listen for vague or evasive answers while trying desperately to sound conversational. The trouble is, we tend to find what we look for and so it’s usually only a matter of time before you notice a slight pause that sounds a bit awkward, a slight shift of the subject. Heart sink time. It’s often followed by crafty questioning along the lines of ‘I called you today but you didn’t answer?’ or even ‘I called you at work today but they said you weren’t in?’ You might even invent a story where a friend is positive they saw your partner canoodling with somebody else in a coffee shop, or the park. Or even in the gym. And even after repeated hot denials you find yourself with the stone-cold certainty that there is definitely another person in your relationship.
And now the bad news. Whether you’re right or wrong, your significant other is now well on the way to becoming an ‘ex other’. This might not make immediate sense so give it a moment’s thought. All the time you don’t discover the proof you don’t want to find it seems that your once forever-partner is cleverer than you. They’ve worked out that you’re on to them and are just biding their time for reasons best known to themselves. Perhaps just so they have a bed to sleep until somebody else is out of the way. If you confront them and they deny all knowledge, then you do your best to believe them. But then again, if it’s done with copious tears you know it’s clearly a cover-up, while if they’re angry, it’s clearly an admission of guilt. You do your best to believe them, but that jealous little gremlin on your shoulder never retires and it’s only a matter of time before it starts to whisper in your ear again and you’re straight back onto the jealousy roundabout. Now it’s done, and the end result is exactly the same as if you were right all along and they had admitted it straight away. It’s over. Finished. For good.
Now for something completely different
Now let’s rewind a little – well, quite a bit, actually. Let’s go right the way back to the first momentary doubt. At first, you might feel rather silly bringing it into the conversation, but the fact is that it will need to be addressed eventually, and it’s better sooner rather than later. Broach the subject straight away so that if you’re right there’s a chance to stop it getting any steamier, a chance to restore whatever needs restoring between you. Before you start, though, give some thought to what you will do if you discover you’re right. Make a clean break straight away? Or will you give them a chance to make things right if they want to? And how easily can you accept that the problem was at least partly something to do with you? Because it was, whether you’re able to recognise it or not at this stage. So, the repair cannot be one-sided and full of contrition. It will take both of you.
Once you’re clear in your mind about how you will react and what you’ll do if you discover you’ve been right all along, it’s time to get straight to it. Don’t wait until the time is right. It never can be, so just do it. At the first sensible opportunity just take a breath and say something like: ‘I hope I’m wrong, but I keep on feeling as if there’s someone else in your life. If there is, can we talk about it?’
Of course, the response is unpredictable. They might be angry or hurt. They might break down in tears as they admit it and beg to be forgiven, or they might lie in their teeth and declare that if that’s the way things are, they’re leaving. But the most important thing is the subject is now on the table. You don’t need to set traps or hide their phone to see who calls or texts. You can start rebuilding things on stronger foundations if you both feel that’s the right way forward and pledge to make it work better than ever, even if it is a little shaky at first. And it will be, make no mistake about that. On the other hand, if you discover your instincts were perfect, you can make a dignified exit, head held high and saving the tears for later, in private. And the sooner you do it the sooner you can put every bit of it behind you and leave it in the past where it belongs.
If that’s the way it goes, it will hurt like hell for a while but it will definitely feel better than being eaten alive with jealousy.
Terence Watts is the creator of Brain Working Recursive Therapy (BWRT).