You are with your partner at a staff function and you see one of his co-workers run her finger down his arm. You can feel your blood pressure rising, you cut off the person you are talking to in mid-sentence, feel tempted to slap her in front of everyone, but end up just finding a stiff drink. There'll be hell to pay in the car on the way home, that's for sure.
The phone rings at home and an unfamiliar male voice asks for your girlfriend – they are obviously on first-name terms. Do you hang around listening to every word and then give her the third degree, or do you feel secure enough to assume that it is probably quite innocent and carry on watching TV. After all, if it were anything to worry about, would he phone your home?
What is jealousy and why do we feel it?
Jealousy, according to the dictionary, is an all-consuming envy, suspicious resentment and possessiveness, which we feel when we think our relationship, our status in life, our friendships or our possessions are somehow threatened. It is also felt when we think someone is about to beat us in some rivalry.
"Jealousy is an entirely natural emotion", says Cape Town psychologist Ilse Terblanche. "People do become very attached to people and things they see as essential for their wellbeing and happiness. This is fully understandable. But it is when this jealousy, especially of a partner, becomes excessive, that problems arise. Ironically, excessive jealousy of a partner, especially if it is unfounded, is often the very thing that drives them away – the exact opposite of what the jealous person wanted to achieve."
"Sometimes jealousy can be understood, such as when someone had been cheated on by a previous partner, or if their parents were not faithful to each other. This jealousy is then born out of fear of a previous painful event repeating itself, and an inability to separate previous experiences from the current situation."
What causes excessive jealousy?
"Fear, insecurity and low self-esteem," says Terblanche. "It is when someone feels that they do not really deserve their partner that they start looking for signs of desertion. Their relationship is their whole life and they cannot see themselves functioning without it, so their jealous behaviour is actually fuelled by fear of abandonment."
Jealousy a destructive emotion
"Jealousy is really a very destructive emotion. There really is no benefit to feeling this. It isolates the sufferer, who tends to become more and more vigilant, on guard and suspicious of imaginary transgressions. Jealousy turns these thoughts into pure self-destructive torture. It is difficult to have a meaningful relationship with someone who is constantly suspicious of everything you do, hence partners are very often driven away by this very behaviour."
"It is not pleasant when you have to be constantly on guard to avoid outbursts. Your friendly smile to the 70-year old butcher is misconstrued, and to avoid an outburst, next time you don't smile. Your wife explodes when you talk to an ex-colleague in the Post Office queue, so next time you just nod."
What to do if you are plagued by jealousy
Take stock of yourself. Do you have a history of troubled relationships characterised by dramas and betrayals? Are you plagued by jealousy and insecurities? If there is a recognizable pattern in your relationships, you might need help in making healthier choices in the future.
Are you plagued by low self-esteem? If you constantly feel that you are not good enough for your partner and that he/she might run away with someone else, you might need to work on how you feel about yourself. Low self-esteem is not an asset in any relationship. Your esteem issues cannot be worked out in the relationship – you have to do it yourself with the help of a therapist.
Do you have no life of your own? If you feel that your entire life is dependent on this relationship and the things you do together, you need to get a life of your own. Develop outside interests, rekindle old friendships and explore new hobbies. Accept that you have an existence outside of the relationship. If you are too dependent on your partner, you will make them feel claustrophobic before long.
Accept that excessive jealousy is unhealthy. Jealousy is merely a symptom of other more serious underlying problems. While mild feelings of jealousy are normal, it is problematic if it becomes obsessive or you start checking up excessively on your partner or following him/her around without reason. This shows a lack of trust and a distinct sense of paranoia on your part. You may need help.
Imagine a new life for yourself. Your present partner may not be the right one for you. Maybe you need some time by yourself to sort through issues. You will not die if you are without this person in your life, even though it may feel like that from where you are now.
My partner's too jealous. This can make your life a living hell. Get into couples therapy and see if something can be sorted out. If you feel yourself becoming more and more isolated, while being watched over jealously by a paranoid partner, you might have to plan an exit. But be careful, it is at this point many jealous people turn violent. Don't break the news without backup support of family members or friends, especially if there is a history of violence in your relationship. Move in with family and alert security at work not to allow your ex in.
(Susan Erasmus, Health24, updated November 2011)