Day: March 12, 2008



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by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.


Frequently, I am asked how to handle irrational jealous feelings.  Usually, the individual recognizes that her feelings are unreasonable with no valid evidence but feels incapable of controlling the jealousy.  In addition, the person usually recognizes the destructive nature of indulging in the feelings and the resulting behavior.  Such behavior typically involves excessive questioning of her spouse, suspiciousness, and accusations.  Many spouses become extremely frustrated with this behavior because they have no way of proving their faithfulness.  This leads to an escalating cycle of anger which is used as further evidence by the jealous spouse that her suspicions are correct.

The jealous spouse often desperately wants to stop the behavior but finds that he can’t control the thoughts which makes him feel miserable.  He believes that if he can just prove his suspicions one way or another, he will feel better.  The unfortunate fallacy in this thinking, is that trust can never be proven; it can only be disproved.  The definition of trust is the belief that something is true.  Therefore, without evidence to the contrary, if we want a satisfying relationship, we have to choose to trust the person we love. 

One of the most difficult things for human beings, in general, is not knowing something with 100% certainty.  We are often afraid to trust because we are fearful of disappointment and hurt.  Therefore, we go through extreme contortions to try to protect ourselves from the possibility of loss and pain.  Yet, these attempts to protect ourselves may actually be the means with which we destroy that which we are trying to preserve.  In other words, a woman may eventually destroy her marriage because she is too fearful to take the chance of trusting that her husband is faithful.  As a result, she causes the loss and pain that she was trying to prevent.


For a person to learn to control jealousy, it is first important to understand what underlies the irrational thinking.  Frequently, an individual who is prone to jealousy may have problems with low self-esteem, feelings of insecurity, fear of vulnerability, or fear of abandonment.  

A person with low self-esteem may feel so undeserving of being loved, that he can’t believe that his spouse could possibly remain faithful to him.  Perhaps these feelings stem from some abusive past relationship in which he was unloved and made to believe that he was at fault.  For instance, if a teenager is told, “If only you were more like your brother, then maybe you could get a girlfriend” he comes to believe that there is something wrong with him.  Many times we are given messages, some subtle and some not-so-subtle, as we are growing up that shape our beliefs about ourselves.

Feelings of insecurity may stem from the low self-esteem or may be related to instances in which we have previously been hurt.  The same is true with fear of abandonment.  When we have experienced profound loss from which we haven’t had an opportunity to recover, we may develop an extreme fear and avoidance reaction to similar circumstances.  However, as indicated earlier, this avoidance may bring about the abandonment that we fear.

A fear of vulnerability is the inability to let our guard down, to let another person know us completely.  This fear usually derives from a fear of rejection due to the belief that if we let someone else truly know us, we will ultimately be rejected.  Again, the fallacy in this belief, is that if we don’t allow our spouse to know us, if we don’t allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we are preventing the development of emotional intimacy which is essential to any relationship.

Emotional intimacy is the most important type of intimacy in a relationship.  It is required for the relationship to fully mature.  Without it, all we have is the initial surface attraction to the other person which cannot be maintained indefinitely.  However, when we find emotional intimacy with another person, we discover the most intensely fulfilling experience that exists.  And that is, the full acceptance of our self by another person.  I know some people may argue with me and say that “the most intensely fulfilling experience that exists” is our relationship with God.  The reason I say that it is the development of emotional intimacy with another person, is because acceptance from God is a given and doesn’t require as much of a risk. 

Finally, the individual needs to determine if there are certain behaviors from herself or from her spouse that may contribute to the development of these fears and beliefs. For instance, perhaps a spouse is reluctant to share personal information because he will then be subject to questioning and accusations. As a result, emotional intimacy in the relationship declines. The person who is jealous will often take this as further evidence of cheating in the relationship, when, in fact, it is a result of the questioning and accusations.  Or, for example, a jealous person has repeatedly harmed relationships through his accusations which he takes as evidence that women can never be trusted.  

The more you are aware of your behaviors and other’s behavior that may maintain the beliefs, then you will be able to make better choices that can allow you to control the jealousy.  In fact, the development of awareness can’t be emphasized enough.  You may need to spend some time at this point to assess your jealousy, the behaviors, and the outcomes based on the behaviors.


Once you have determined the behavior, then you can make choices to change the behavior.  Even though these feelings seem uncontrollable, that doesn’t mean they are uncontrollable.  However, you may need to make a commitment to the hard work involved in making changes.

The following steps can help you with these changes:

1)  Make an effort to no longer engage in the self-defeating behavior.  If you are questioning or making accusations, stop the behavior immediately.  Whether you need to literally bite your tongue, go to another room, or talk to a friend, don’t allow yourself to continue with this destructive behavior.  Usually people engage in this behavior because initially it is reassuring to them and makes them feel better.  But remind yourself that feeling better is just temporary and that it is a destructive behavior that must stop.

2)  Challenge the irrational thinking styles frequently.  Identify how your thinking is irrational and remind yourself of why it is whenever you have the jealous thoughts.  If is often beneficial to write this down.  Some things that you may identify include the idea that there is no evidence, that the probability is remote, and that there is evidence to the contrary such as the loving things your spouse does for you.

3)  Refuse to engage in the jealous self-talk.  Whenever you engage in the jealous self-talk, internally tell yourself to “shut up.”  You may need to do this repeatedly, but you want to do whatever is necessary to not listen to yourself on this topic.  Some people use the rubber band method which involves the aversive stimulus of snapping a rubber band on your wrist whenever you have the jealous self-talk.

4)  Work on improving your self-esteem.  Remember that irrational jealousy is not about your spouse but is about yourself.  Use the presence of jealous feelings to remind yourself that you need to focus on improving your self-esteem.  Although improving self-esteem is another entire topic to itself, generally, you need to give yourself positive self-statements and engage in behaviors that make you feel good about yourself.

5)  Learn to be vulnerable and to develop emotional intimacy.  For any relationship to be successful, you must be able to take risks.  There are many ways to do this and you need to determine by assessing yourself what are the best ways for you to take risks.  For instance, if you feel insecure, you might share these feelings with your spouse and talk about ways your spouse can help you feel more secure. Or if you are afraid of being vulnerable, you might decide to take small risks of sharing yourself, your feelings, and your fears with your spouse.

Sometimes the process of developing awareness and challenging irrational beliefs may be too difficult to accomplish alone and a person may need assistance from a therapist.  However, typically a good cognitive-behavioral therapist can point you in the right direction within a few sessions and then most of the work is up to you.

See also:  Making Attributions for a Healthier Attitude 


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