There is No Such Thing as Irrational Jealousy
So, I was reading this Savage Love letter of the day and while I normally like Dan’s advice, I felt like he missed the woman boat on this one.
You can read it if you want, but short summary: woman has a boyfriend, boyfriend has hot ex coworker. Boyfriend meets up with hot ex coworker for birthday drinks and doesn’t tell woman because she’s studying for a test and he doesn’t want to distract her. Woman is like, all jealous after the fact and riding him hard about not telling him about birthday drinks.
Dan’s advice is (basically) he had a good reason not to tell you, unless you have other evidence of cheating, you should probably move on.
Then, reading the comments, a lot of the guys were like “zomg, stop being such a jealous harpy” but a lot of the women were like “I dunno, something about this letter gives me bad juju.”
I’m with the women: the juju in this letter is highly sub par.
I would probably agree with Dan if we were just considering the raw facts of the letter (like, yeah, I can see not wanting to miss a friends birthday and also not wanting to disrupt the studying of your partner) but the tone of the letter is way, way off. If the letter writer had been a bit more agro, I’d be inclined to take Dan’s side. But, instead she said a lot of stuff like this:
“I really don’t know if I am the crazy, paranoid, controlling party or if I am legitimately upset”
“I have fully owned up to my irrational jealousy, and decided on my own that it was my responsibility to overcome that.”
“I told him that if he’d been upfront with me, I would have been jealous, but I would have also been mindful of my toxic feelings and not projected them onto him.”
“He acted like I was being ridiculous, but I really do feel hurt.”
“Most of his friends are female and I NEVER feel jealous. I have a weird tic about this girl, but I recognize it and I own up to it. I don’t want to control him. But I feel lied to,”
The assumption this woman is working on is that her feelings are irrational, that her feelings are toxic, and that she has a “weird tic” about this girl. Bad, bad juju. Feelings cannot be toxic, feelings cannot be bad — and if you are in a relationship where you constantly feel that, it is extremely un-good. Relationships are supposed to be about feelings. Ignoring them is no dice.
Here’s the thing: your feelings always mean something, they just don’t always mean what you think they mean.
Let me give you an example. I was having a fling with an ex I really wanted to get back together with, and he was sort of down, but had also started having a casual thing with a girl and he didn’t want to end it. I went with it, but *goddamn* if I wasn’t having hella fucking jealousy issues.
He told me about her when we first started hooking up, but then we never talked about her again. They were in medical school together, so I figured he probably saw her a few days a week. But, I started getting jealous of weird ass shit like when he didn’t text me enough, or when he was late hanging out with me. It was strange, because I’d never felt jealousy over things like that before. Eventually, I asked him “so, how often are you seeing this girl?”
“About four hours a day,” he responded.
4 hours a day! I only saw him like, twice a week. Clearly, she was his girlfriend, and I was his piece on the side.
Every single one of those jealous moments probably was “irrational” in the sense that he probably wasn’t slow texting me because he was fucking her; he was probably slow texting me because he was in med school. However, the fact I was so easily triggered was pointing to something being wrong in our relationship.
There were small signs that something was off. For instance, there were weird gaps when he told me about his life because he’d never mention this woman who he was spending 4 hours a day with. He’d just be like “I spent the day studying” but be very vague about the details (presumably, because he was studying with her.) However, I was so desperate for a relationship with him, I refused to consciously probe or look at those gaps. I just didn’t follow up at all.
My weird jealousy was telling me “there’s something wrong with this situation, something you’re not looking at.”
When he finally told me he saw her 4 hours a day, I knew immediately that I was unwilling to continue our relationship. Had he told me that straightforwardly from the beginning, I probably never would have reengaged with him (which is probably why he didn’t tell me.) Simple fact was, he didn’t lay out the situation honestly and let me decide how I wanted to respond. He only told me enough to be “not lying,” but omitted facts that would have been a veto point for me. Facts that he kind of knew would have been a veto point. And, I kind of knew he wasn’t fully disclosing because he was slightly evasive, but I didn’t probe because I wanted it to work out.
“Irrational” jealousy can often point to a situation like that. This woman’s boyfriend may have been totally honest about the hot ex coworker, but there is definitely something off going on. What she calls “owning” her irrational jealousy is actually ignoring her irrational jealousy. That is very not healthy.
When faced with “irrational” emotions it is imperative to find the source of these emotions. There are basically two options:
- There is something wrong with your current situation
- You experienced something traumatic in the past, which is getting triggered in the present.
If there is something wrong with your current situation, dealing with your emotions will probably involve changing your situation.
If you have experienced a traumatic event, dealing with your emotions will involve understanding them. I already gave an example of the “bad situation” case, but actually the “traumatic past” has been a much larger issue in my life.
One example of “irrational emotions” I get stems from a history of some sexually abusive type stuff. I sometimes get flashbacks in sexual situations, which (for me) involve a strong visual image of a previous sexual encounter and an overwhelming feeling of disgust. Interestingly, often the visual component isn’t of something bad but actually of an enjoyable previous sexual experience with someone who later turned out to be abusive.
I think, effectively, my mind is saying “I know this feels good now, but remember how horribly this ended up for you in the past.” Sometimes, the visual component is missing, and I am just flooded with feelings of disgust when I am hooking up with someone.
However, if we take this out of psychobabble realm, what you effectively see is “I sometimes get overwhelming feelings of disgust in otherwise good sexual encounters.” This is, effectively, an “irrational” emotion.
For years, I would ignore the feelings of disgust and just hook up with people anyway. This was often encouraged by my partners, because people would feel like they hadn’t done anything wrong and I had “no reason” to feel how I was feeling. However, ignoring these feelings and hooking up with people caused the feelings to magnify over the years until they got so great I could no longer be sexual with anyone (or, even be touched by friends.) To this day, people standing too close to me or touching me when I’m not expecting it triggers strong feelings of disgust.
And, often when people say things like “you’re being irrationally jealous” they’re telling you to ignore your feelings and perform the same actions you would have as if you weren’t having them.
Do not do this.
Go to therapy, meditate, write about it. Say “I will not fight with you, but I can’t act as if I am not feeling this.” Say you can’t “go back to normal” until you figure out what’s going on. Don’t blame, but do pause.
Strong feelings often require modified behavior, but sometimes not the behavior that seems intuitive from the feeling. For instance, the intuitive response to my feelings of disgust is to disengage with people I’m dating and leave. Which, I do a lot. However, I’m starting to realize this problem will not fix itself. I will never find a partner where these feelings do not come up, and mindlessly acting on my intuition will effectively lead to my being alone indefinitely. Which isn’t the worst, but isn’t the best either.
What I need to do, what’s worked out the best for me in the few encounters I have had, is to be very honest about my history. I might say “Sometimes I get flashbacks, and I need to pause what we’re doing until the feeling passes. This isn’t because you have done anything wrong, and I know it’s annoying to have to stop in the middle, but if we don’t do that it will be a very unpleasant experience for me.”
Some people won’t be willing to make that concession, and that’s fine, but it’s also non negotiable for me at this point. Someone who can’t make that concession is not sexually compatible. If someone wants to have sex with me, they have to be able to stop immediately when I say stop and they have to be nice about it. And, they have to expect this to happen somewhat regularly, because it does. I’m totally down with them jacking off if I’m having too bad a flashback to continue, but I can’t deal with anyone being pushy at all about having access to my body. Some women can deal; I can’t.
If someone has irrational feelings from trauma, they may need concessions that aren’t the obvious concession. The first thing they should do is think of events that could cause these feelings — in the case of jealousy, for example, was this person cheated on? Did their parents divorce? Were they dumped for someone? If they have a sense of where it comes from, they may get a sense of their triggers.
Another thing to think about is how bad the trauma is. Do they need therapy or a support group? (I’ve had hella therapy. God, I’d have so much money if I hadn’t spent it on therapy. But, it was worth it.)
Finally, they have to think of behavior modifications that are reasonable but also know their partner may not be willing to cooperate. It can be easier to deal with this when single, because if someone needs a behavior modification their partner can’t accommodate, the relationship is over.
So, in the case of jealousy, usually forbidding someone from seeing another person is an unreasonable accommodation. However, possibly a request for regularity (say, someone asking their partner to always text them in the evening) could be reasonable. Requests for adequate attention and affection are reasonable accommodations (and, requests for extra affection around events that are likely to be triggering are probably also reasonable.) However, if someone refuses to make any accommodation because their partner isn’t feeling what they’re “supposed” to be feeling, that’s bad.
I’m not “supposed” to feel creeped out in sexual encounters, but I do. Anyone who can’t accept that can’t accept me. Anyone who can’t work with that is a bad match for me.
More than anything else, what concerned me in the original letter is that this woman refused to acknowledge the importance of her emotions and her boyfriend encouraged this. Bad news bears.
What you feel is a huge part of who you are. Don’t disown it.