Know this first: it’s not your problem.
When I first met my current partner, he was handsome, thoughtful, attentive, and confident. He had had a rocky rocky life, but he was an entirely self-made man. These were some of the qualities I first became attracted to.
But, I soon learned, too, that he had baggage. He had been cheated on by nearly every serious girlfriend he’d had since he was twenty-five. He was now forty-two. And he’d never even had remotely close to a healthy relationship, despite the fact that he’d read plenty of books on the subject.
I, too, hadn’t had a great track record, which I wrote about plenty in this series here. I’d put a lot of work into my seven year long marriage with my ex-husband. I’d read books. I’d been to couples therapy. I’d done plenty of individual therapy, but I’d been trying to have a healthy relationship with an active drug addict and a liar, which is like trying to convince a lion to become vegetarian. My ex-husband was entirely incapable of having a healthy relationship with me. So I’d had a lot of practice “trying,” but no success.
And all of that was good because all of that gave me a good knowledge base to draw from when I started my first serious relationship after my divorce.
But, things were not all roses and unicorns. Real relationships require real work.
Let me repeat that: real relationships require REAL work.
And that work means both on you as individuals and on you as a couple.
Because I was never going to work through some of my issues single. I was ONLY going to be able to tackle some of the ugly, messy parts of myself when I was trying to be intimate with another person who also had ugly, messy parts of himself.
And my partner’s major ugly, messy part was his jealousy.
After we’d been dating about two months, I spent an evening at my house cleaning, cooking dinner, and talking with a friend on the phone, and then I rushed out to meet some friends before heading to spend the night at my partner’s house.
During that two hour time period, my partner sent me five text messages. I’d read them, or at least a couple of them, but I was busy and forgot to respond. The last one he’d sent me said something like, “You’re not talking to me?” which I didn’t see until I was with some friends. I responded, “No, of course not. I’m out with friends. I’ll see you after.”
When I got to my partner’s house that night, he was visibly upset. He’s normally a gentleman, kissing me hello, carrying my bag upstairs sort of gentleman, but tonight he was curt. He gave me a quick peck, and I lugged my own bag upstairs.
And when I was upstairs in his bedroom, that’s when the questions started:
“Who were you with?”
“What were you doing?”
“Did anyone come over?”
I had no idea how to respond. I felt blindsided, defensive, hurt. I tried to answer honestly and matter-of-factly.
“I was talking to Erica on the phone,” I said, for example.
“Well, when were you talking to Erica?”
I tried to give a time, but then I realized my timing was off, so I tried to correct myself.
“Oh, so your story is changing now?” He responded.
“No,” I said and got quiet.
Later, because I was flustered, I slipped and said I’d called Erica, when really she’d called me.
“Your story is changing again!” he told me.
And he said too: “You were on your phone, but you couldn’t answer my text messages??”
And I was at a loss. I’d been folding clothes. Hanging them. Talking to my best friend on the phone who was having a hard time, yet my boyfriend didn’t trust me.
I’d done nothing wrong, but I felt like I had.
Thoughts started swirling through my head:
If I’d just texted when I saw them…
If I’d just called…
If I’d just…
But I also quickly recognized, through the work I’d done before, that this wasn’t my fucking problem. I hadn’t done anything wrong. This is 2019 and everyone has their phone attached to them, but I should NOT have to answer ANYONE just because they think I should.
And after being in one relationship where I’d deceived myself and made plenty of excuses for someone else’s bad behavior, I was NOT going to do that again.
So, I read up on what to do, talked with my support people, and went back to my partner with it.
Here’s what you can do if you are in the same boat I was and am:
- Know this first: it’s not your fucking problem.
My partner’s jealousies were HIS jealousies.
I thought if I showed him my phone, gave him a clear timeline of what I was doing, etc. etc., THEN he’d understand he was being ridiculous and settle down. But none of these worked.
“You could just delete your conversations, who you called,” he’d told me.
So facts weren’t going to help him, because, again, the issue came back to HIM. He needed to trust ME.
In order to stay true to myself, that meant I had to work on not making it worse. I couldn’t argue with him or get defensive.
I had to say things like, “I’m sorry you felt that way. That was not my intention. What can we do to help you not feel this way?”
And when I did say things like that later, it snapped him out of it immediately.
2. Set boundaries.
Boundaries are for you, not for the other person. Boundaries are not insurmountable walls that some other person has to ascend to meet your requirements to make it acceptable to be with you. Boundaries are not ultimatums.
Boundaries are stating clearly what you do and do not like and what you will and will not accept.
When a boundary is crossed for me, I notify the other person. If it gets crossed again, I remove myself from the situation. If they keep getting crossed for me, I remove myself from the relationship.
After I discovered how big of an issue my partner’s jealousy was, I chose boundaries to protect myself, and I told him these boundaries, like he couldn’t talk to me a certain way, I would not stand for any disrespect, etc. etc.
Practice active listening with your partner when he or she shares what’s REALLY going on with him or her. Don’t be afraid to express how his or her actions make you feel, but also don’t bully, harrass, or belittle what he or she is feeling. Feelings are feelings. No one can unfeel what they feel.
“When you accused me of being with someone else, I felt really hurt that you didn’t trust me” was one thing I said.
“I’m really afraid that this’ll keep happening, and it’ll turn into really ugly other behaviors,” I also told him.
3. Be affectionate.
At one point in our first fight over this, I picked my bag up and said I was going to spend the night at my house.
“Well, if you want to do that, the door’s open,” he told me.
People who are jealous are fearful, and they are most fearful about abandonment. Little do they know that the very act of them being jealous can MAKE people leave (which is definitely what he was encouraging).
Since I was invested in the relationship, I chose to stay. I chose to walk over and put my arms around him, and say, “I know you’re scared. I care about you. I would like to stay.”
And for that particular fight, that broke whatever craziness was in his head because, here I was, reaching out to him and not running away.
Over the next few days after that fight, I was very affectionate. And as this continues to come up, I continue to be affectionate. Showing him by touching him that I am here, while also honoring myself by leaving if one of my boundaries does get crossed.
4. Know it won’t be fixed overnight, and be prepared to keep revisiting this.
One morning, after we’d dealt with our first fight just a couple of weeks before, my partner and I were talking about my children (whose father I am now divorced from), and I said, “my husband” instead of “my ex-husband.”
My partner’s immediate reaction was, “Your HUSBAND?”
And a minute later, he asked, “Are you still in love with him?”
I was married to my children’s father for seven years, and while I’d filed for divorce over a year before, it hadn’t been final until just a month before this interaction. So it’s perfectly reasonable that I’d slip up from time to time. But his question was overly ridiculous, a HUGE overreaction to a little slip.
I felt so frustrated that this was happening AGAIN. We’d talked about this! He’d been working on it! WHY was it happening again??
Issues like this take time to be healed. I could also recognize that my partner had been working on the issue, and that we’re all bound to have setbacks.
At the end of the day, I get to decide how patient I want to be. It’s not my problem (see #1), but I get to decide how much space and time I want to give him to work this out. Because I love him, because I’m invested, I’m committed to sticking it out and helping him work through it.
5. While it’s not your problem, you still probably have things to work on.
What I discovered through dealing with my partner’s issues is that I had my own. I could communicate better. I could be clearer. I could be less flaky. These were, of course, all issues I’d had in my marriage, and here they were again. Wherever I go, there I am.
As we’ve worked through this issue together, I’ve had to work on my own too, and that’s helped him feel more secure in the relationship and made me feel more secure as well.
Research shows that couples that identify problems as our problems are much more likely to have successful relationships. If my partner is going to remain my partner, my teammate, while I can identify that it’s not MY problem that I have to fix, I do need to know that it is a problem we BOTH need to work on, and that means I’ve got to do some work too.
While every couple has to navigate baggage, there’s no easy or prescripted way to handle something as insidious and invasive as one or both partners’ jealousies. Be prepared for bumps in the road. Be honest. Be clear, and, most importantly, be loving.