The Green-Eyed Monster
July 26, 2011 3:38 PM   Subscribe

How do I deal with sexual jealousy that stems from a history of lousy experiences (possibly with therapy)?

I'm 24 and in my first mutually serious long-term relationship. I have issues with jealousy that I'm doing my best to work on privately. My last boyfriend cheated on me with (and eventually broke up with me for) his ex-girlfriend while we were temporarily long-distance. My father also has always had a wandering eye, and I grew up seeing how my mother was hurt by it but never said anything (although I'm fairly certain he has never actually been unfaithful). I know this personal history contributes to my feelings, but the objective knowledge is not enough.

It upsets me beyond the bounds of common sense that my boyfriend is attracted to other women, especially if we're together and he sneaks a peek. I know it's not right to feel that way, so I try to ignore it or do the standard self-pep talk or remember my unique qualities, but nothing works. It's not that I think he'll actually act on his attractions. I'm also not afraid of being left alone or the relationship ending, because I know from experience that I can definitely survive the end of a relationship. I have very high self-esteem in all other areas of my life, and a positive body image, but when it comes to romantic relationships I constantly feel inferior to other women just because no matter how great I am, I can't possibly satisfy the need for variety all by myself. I irrationally fear that my boyfriend will be unsatisfied and resentful despite his excellent track record of successful monogamy.

That last worry is probably because my boyfriend has a history of staying in truly bad and abusive relationships he didn't want to be in until the other person broke up with him. I worry that he's going to reach a point where he really does want to be with someone else, but won't tell me and will just be secretly frustrated, wasting both of our valuable time.

I would love to work this all out with a professional therapist, because other than this issue I'm very happy with the relationship. I'm a graduate student with barely enough of an income to get by, and our university only offers group counseling (which I would not be comfortable with, and which is not led by licensed psychologists/psychiatrists). Are there any options for someone like me that won't put me out on the street? Thank you in advance for any advice.

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posted by anonymous to Human Relations (5 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you have a good start on figuring out why this is such a deeply held anxiety, but exploring more is always a good way at figuring out what you might need to feel confident in the relationship. You might try journaling around the topic consistently for a week or so to explore when it's worst, what your triggers are, and why you think it's such an issue for you. Ask yourself questions as if you were your own therapist.

You also might try books. The older (but only slightly dated) book that my therapist had me read that I actually liked was The Dance of Intimacy. I'm sure there are others out there that could be an ever greater help in your situation.
posted by ldthomps at 5:05 PM on July 26, 2011

Wow, Anonymous, you sound like me awhile ago (even down to the "i can handle the end of th relationship" talk); that was my huge cross to bear, and sometimes still is, though not near as much as it used to be. I was wracked with the same fears when it came to relationships. But as I've grown older (and, wow, maybe even some of the self-talk actually took hold!) I began to realize, that everything I can fear about him, it can apply to me. What you fear about him, it could also apply to you.

I don't think I'm wording this very eloquently, but what I mean is, there might be some things eventually that lead you to feel that your boyfriend actually doesn't satisfy all the variety for you. Not only are there hot, seemingly "perfect" women out there in the world that crosses your boyfriend's path, but there are also hot, seemingly "perfect" men out there that cross your path. You just have to get to a place with yourself where you can simply acknowledge that "yes, there is a pretty girl" and let it go. This used to be so hard for me because I was so DAMN jealous, but yeah, I got to a point where it was like, "ok, no denying it, that girl is beautiful". Just give her credit and move on. Don't give another woman that power over you!

Most importantly, know that people will always be looking at other people. Please do not try to control that about your boyfriend! It IS human nature! If you pay attention, I'm sure you'll notice your boyfriend also looking at alll women.... and guys and kids and old people...etc., but you are and will be hypersensitive to when you both notice an exceptionally attractive woman nearby.

Even more importantly, remember that your boyfriend's ACTIONS concerning trust and monogamy go a long way. So, give your boyfriend the benefit of the doubt when he "sneaks a peek". UNLESS, he would ever do anything ooky about it in front of you or oogle tooo long or abuses it in any way, then I'd say you had something to worry about.

This was also kind of a little worry in my current relationship - "catching" him looking at other women. Then I realized that I was being pretty silly because I was WATCHING for him to look at other women (knowing an attractive woman was within distance, I'd immediately - tried to be sly about it - look in his direction to "confirm" that he was looking at her). So, feeling silly about what I was doing, now when an attractive female is nearby, I notice her and then I usually just turn the other way and sort of give him the "freedom" to look at her without me hovering and watching. No one wants that! And it's all over in seconds. Ok, so what if her ass looks hot in those shorts, my ass is pretty darn hot, too!

You have to go by the actions of your boyfriend and trust him to do the right thing. also, keep communication open with your boyfriend - do brief relationship "check in" talks with him every now and then, but NOT every time you see him. it sounds like his issue might come from not being able to or willing to communicate when things are heading south in a relationship (puts the burden on others to do the hard part). the only thing you can do is trust him, talk to him the best you can about why he doesn't speak up when things are down (his own self-esteem issues?) if he does something to wreck you two, then the burden is on him. Yes, you might end up hurt, but that is the shitty/wonderful thing with relationships - hurt, but learn (learn, hopefully). It's rare to find ONE person to fit ALL of the "variety", so stop putting that crazy pressure on yourself to be thee end-all, be-all, one-stop-shop for your boyfriend. I'm sure he finds you with several wonderful, significant qualities!

Also, I recommend the "Six Pillars of Self-Esteem" by Nathaniel Branden. it's a classic and i've always turned to it. Recommending this because, ultimately, you DO have esteem issues if you feel like you do about being inferior to other women.

Ok, i'm going to stop here, i'm rambling now. but seriously, I wish you luck and peace with this. I know it sucks.
posted by foxhat10 at 7:49 PM on July 26, 2011 [5 favorites]

Here's a question: are you ever attracted to other men? Like, even for a second? Or even movie stars? I assume the answer is yes (although obviously I have no way to know that). But if it is yes, do you consider that to be a threat to your relationship? Should your boyfriend be worried?

If you can, try to keep that in mind when you start to spiral about this.
posted by Ragged Richard at 8:06 PM on July 26, 2011

I was thinking about this some more. Not sure if you are able to, but have you considered approaching your mother and having a heart-to-heart, now that you are an adult? Do the two of you have a relationship where you can talk to her (without judgement, blame, etc) about what she actually was going through? I mean, you don't even have to ask her all those questions, she might be caught too off guard. But maybe you can start out by telling her what you've said here, that your BF has a wandering eye and it's bringing out some of your own insecurities that might be stemming from childhood. You might even bring up that you noticed, as a child, that she was hurt due to dad's wandering eye (but, maybe it's because of other things? how would you know?). Obviously, you are the best judge about whether this would be possible to do or if it could help you in any way, or if you're even interested in doing this.

I'm mentioning this because when I was 26, and miserable bc of yet another bad relationship (your relationship is good, I know), I felt like I needed answers as to why I kept repeating some patterns with relationships. I decided to talk to my mother (my father passed when I was 11) and ask her about it all (generally speaking, my childhood was pretty effed up). Although, unfortunately, I went about it with too much anger and we barely spoke for about 5 years. She didn't have all the answers, of course, but ulitmately it helped me (and Mom, helped her with her guilt) having brought it all up and out in the open and got her version of things. Then....a good handful of different bouts of therapy through the years is also helping. Mom and I are now pretty close and very good friends.

My experiences are not yours, however, and like I said, not sure if you want to go this route or even considered it. But all I'm saying is honestly talking with your mother might be a good starting out point and figuring out what angle to take for yourself and how to handle it with your boyfriend. She might provide you with some great insight about what you might have picked up on as a child that could be (and sounds like it is) haunting you now.
posted by foxhat10 at 7:26 AM on July 27, 2011

I think it's great that you are attempting to face this proactively and healthily. I've had very similar experiences and have had to learn to stop the stories that I create in my head (about my boyfriend wanting to leave me for another woman who superficially looks "perfect" in my mind) when I feel that fear. Slowly I have been able to replace those thoughts with evidence of the reality that my partner loves me for all kinds of qualities that I possess. There are a number of attractive people in the world and I have accepted that it is normal for our partners -- and ourselves -- to find other people physically attractive. It doesn't mean that we're going to act on it at the expense of our relationships (if we sincerely value what we value in our relationships). That said, it is often far easier to know something intellectually than to feel it intuitively. In lieu of access to therapy, I would highly recommend any of David Richo's books, and perhaps "When love meets fear: how to become defense-less and resource-full" in particular. Best of luck!
posted by sassy mae at 6:41 PM on August 7, 2011

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