Suspicious minds

Suspicious minds

Author: Canadian Living


Suspicious minds

When a new woman started work at her husband's office, Beverly couldn't help feeling a few twinges of jealousy. Mark brimmed with praise for his new colleague. He spoke of Alicia, it seemed, almost every day: her brains, her creativity, her wit. At first, Beverly stifled the jealous pangs, putting them down to some sort of insecurity in herself. After all, her husband wouldn't talk to her about this woman so much if there was anything illicit going on, right? Finally, after months of Mark's anecdotes and admiration, Beverly could stand it no longer. She put it to him straight: Was Alicia merely a colleague -- or something more? Mark hesitated before answering, and in that moment, Beverly guessed the truth. Almost immediately, she was sorry she'd trusted him -- and not her own instincts.

Historically, jealousy was considered one of the natural, if not essential, emotions of love. When Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) asserts that his wife "trusts me implicitly" in The Seven Year Itch, his sexy upstairs neighbour (Marilyn Monroe) cries, 'What's the matter with her? Doesn't she love you?" That pretty much sums it up: Not feeling jealous about someone you love wasn't quite, well, normal - not to mention a sign that you really weren't that much in love.

Then came the '60s and '70s and free love. Traditional commitment was out, and so was jealousy, which came to be a sign of immaturity, insecurity, and unhealthy possessiveness. And that attitude seems to persist today. Even if we are jealous, we're loath to admit it -- unless, of course, we have absolute proof that there's actually hank-panky going on.

But do we need to know for sure that our mate is fooling around in order to feel jealous? Hardly. Jealousy is one of the most basic human emotions: "It's hard-wired," says Ottawa psychologist Larry Cebulski. "I don't think we can avoid jealousy in our lives." Cebulski points out that jealousy is part of our evolutionary inheritance -- an old response that helped to keep the bringer-home-of-mammoth-steaks from skipping out. In our early history, he says, females required the support of males to provide food and material things for offspring. "If a male showed interest in other females, his partner might experience jealousy, which would lead her to some action to prevent his defection."

But does that mean all jealousy is OK now? Surely not. Accusing or even suspecting your mate of having successive flings with co-workers even though you have no evidence can not only give you many unnecessary gut-wrenching moments; it can cause intense friction in your relationship. Insisting that you and your spouse move out of town because of your unfounded jealousy of your husband's ex-wife isn't even close to reasonable. At the same time, those feelings don't have to mean you're crazy, immature or neurotic -- just human. So how do you deal with them? And what about Beverley? When can jealousy be taken as a hint that you should ask a few pointed questions?

Page 1 of 4 -- What's the most common type of jealousy? Find out on page 2.

Lara and Bruce dated for three years before they got married in 1990. Although Bruce was Lara's first significant other, Bruce had had a number of relationships before Lara and, nine years later, is still friends with a couple of them. When the phone rings and it's one of Bruce's old flames, Lara can't stop feeling jealous. "I know he'd never do anything," she stammers, at a loss for an explanation, "but I just can't help it."

Lara's is probably the most common type of jealousy: the type that you know isn't founded on any real risk, but makes your blood boil anyway. Of course you trust your mate. Of course you don't really think he's booking a room at the No-Tell Motel even as you speak. But you feel jealous anyway. And most people have their jealous buttons. If these aren't pressed by old girlfriends or wives, they may be by attractive (and perfectly innocent) co-workers or business associates. Maybe your husband's panting comments about Sharon Stone make you see green. Or maybe your worst fight ever was after the night he spent talking to a woman at a party whose insight wasn't particularly revealing but whose dress, frankly, was.

"Nobody, no matter who you are, is completely certain of themselves," says Joanne Briggs, a psychologist with a general practice in Toronto. But while some people in Lara's position will simply put their jealous feelings into perspective and then shelve them and go about their business, others won't find that so easy. And that's because jealousy is partly a learned reaction, says Briggs. Children who learn good social skills and self-esteem when small, she says, don't usually become adults who get jealous easily. The good news is that even if you didn't learn those skills as a child, you can teach yourself self-esteem now. There are a lot of books available on the subject (check the psychology section of your bookstore). Or, you can enlist a therapist to help you focus on your strengths and put the weaknesses that make you feel vulnerable into perspective.

You might also tell your partner how you feel, suggests psychologist Judith Coldoff of North York, Ontario. "Say, 'When you talk about Mary that way, I feel jealous because I'm afraid you'll be more attracted to her than me.' If the husband responds by being warm and caring, the woman should probably realize her fears were unfounded."

Chris admits she's got a problem. In fact, she believes her four-year marriage to Rick broke up because of her jealous rampages. Whenever they were out, she would watch his gaze and flip whenever he seemed distracted by another female. "I couldn't take my eyes off him," she confesses. "Finally, I started trying to keep him in the house as much as possible. I felt insecure and insufficient. I felt that, given the chance, he would go out and find another woman."

Today, Chris, 26, is involved with a new man, and was recently dismayed to realize that she was starting to act in the same old way. "Intellectually I know it doesn't make sense to be feeling these things about Barry," she says. "But I feel ugly and fat and I'm scared he's going to leave, too. It's killing me inside."

Cebulski says he would address Chris's problem in a few stages. First, he'd teach her to monitor her automatic emotional jealous thinking. "Once she's able to identify it," he continues, "we would teach her to evaluate those thoughts critically. If there isn't any evidence to support them, we'd encourage her to generate more reasonable thoughts and beliefs." For example, every time Chris thought, "Barry's going to leave me for that sexy waitress," she would replace that in her head with, "Barry thinks I'm sexy and wants to marry me."

The next step, says Cebulski, would be for Chris to act as if she really believed that. In other words, she wouldn't be monitoring his every move and flying off the handle every other day. Eventually, the theory goes, acting as if she believes in this reality will rub off, and it will become real. "It might take years," admits Cebulski, "But eventually the evidence will just hit you over the head."

Again, you may want to seek professional help if you feel you might be reaching the point where jealousy is damaging your relationship. "A little bit of help early on is a lot better than a lot of help when the problem gets out of control," says Cebulski.

Although all jealous feelings are "real," sometimes -- as in Beverly's case -- those jealous pangs may be your first warning that something really is going on.

Kayla, who describes herself as "not a naturally jealous person," had known Mike for two years and lived with him for six months. One day, she accidentally discovered half a dozen photos of another woman in his sock drawer. Although she felt immediately suspicious -- who wouldn't? -- she told herself the pictures were of a different period in Mike's life -- an old love he was still working out of his system, or something like that. Then, a few months later, Mike received a Christmas card from a woman she'd not heard of or met. She demanded an explanation and discovered the woman was the same one featured in the photos -- which weren't, as it turned out, as out-of-date as she'd hoped. She dumped him on the spot.

Briggs says if you're not someone who's typically the "jealous type," then feeling jealous now might be a reliable sign that you should be.

In addition to out-of-character suspicions you might have, Cebulski advises that it's wise to be sensitive to any strange behaviour on the part of your mate. Is he suddenly working late without a convincing explanation, when he never worked late before? Does he get defensive or evasive in response to your casual inquiries? Has your sex life suddenly gone from great, or even OK, to zilch? Even if these signs don't necessarily mean your mate is being unfaithful, they're clear signs that something has changed in your relationship that's worth looking at, says Cebulski.

The best approach, adds Briggs, is to come right out and tell him your fears, then ask what you want to know. But be prepared for a response you won't necessarily want to hear!

Ultimately, jealousy isn't necessarily "bad." Mostly, it's a simple emotion, and at its best, it can warn you that somebody in your life really is feeling a seven-year, or a four-year, or a six-month, itch. At the same time, if you're finding that unfounded jealousy is ruling your life, says Briggs, "you need to understand that, while it is a natural human emotion, there's such a thing as too much of a good thing." And of trying to scratch an itch that isn't there.

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Suspicious minds