According to Milton, jealousy is "the injured lover's hell." If you've ever been obsessed with jealous feelings toward your lover or spouse, you understand exactly what Milton meant. So what is the role of jealousy in a significant romantic relationship?
Does jealousy enhance or destroy these important relationships? Jealousy, like any other emotion, is a natural human experience that we're all capable of feeling. Like other emotions, the strength of jealousy determines how destructive it might become, especially when denied or left unchecked.
When jealousy becomes all consuming and obsessive, reaching paranoid proportions, it will surely smother and destroy a couple's relationship. Jealousy destroys by becoming akin to tight fingers around a lover's neck, squeezing when s/he threatens the partner's unrealistic need to feel invincible.
Think of it this way: a lovely bird lands in your hands and in an attempt to prevent it from leaving, you hold on so tightly that you cause it to reflexively want to escape. The very thing you fear might happen (abandonment) is caused by your own jealous feelings and associated actions. Jealousy, sometimes called the green-eyed monster, has an ugly face and doesn't engender your lover's desire to stay close. I've heard some folks defensively explain that their jealousy simply reflects how much they treasure their loved one.
The truth is, excessive jealousy says more about the person feeling jealous, and less about their feelings toward their lover. It signifies their dependency, fear of vulnerability, and resentment of the other's freedom. When any of us get close to someone, we always risk being rejected or betrayed. Yet, without a willingness to be vulnerable and close, we would never experience the warm, supportive feelings of being cherished and loved.
People who are determined to feel in control often express their fear of loosing control with jealous behavior aimed to keep their lover "in line with their wishes." So what is this emotion we call jealousy? It is a unique mix of several feelings: fear, hurt, and anger. For instance, it is natural to feel angry and hurt when we perceive that our lover has betrayed us.
We might also be afraid that we'll lose that person who is the major source of our support and love. We might fear that we'll never be loved again. If a lover/spouse decides to leave us, it would be normal to go through a grief reaction. But loss is a difficult emotion to handle, so we might want to deny it or try to prevent it. In this attempt, the ego often becomes involved so that grief is avoided and other emotions take over.
Strong jealous emotions are very ego-driven, revealing an underlying sense of possessiveness and entitlement. In order to avoid grief over the loss of a loved one, excessively jealous individuals lash out, behave abusively, threaten, and blame the other for their own pain and discomfort. In short, they are attempting to avoid the human condition of vulnerability in any close relationship by displaying acts of power and control.
Excessive jealous feelings don't allow a jilted partner to process in a healthy manner the loss or anticipated loss of love. If we can acknowledge our pain during loss, we can move forward and accept the inevitable (i.e., that closeness involves both happiness and risk).
Finally, let me mention that sometimes you'll encounter a romantic lover who attempts to provoke jealous feelings from their partner. Such provocations arise from a misguided belief that jealousy implies strong love. When this occurs, the couple needs to openly discuss how jealousy can destroy their relationship, rather than enhance it.
If this isn't addressed early in the relationship, you may find yourself reacting in frequent, negative, jealous ways to "prove" your love to this type of partner. Such a negative cycle will ultimately destroy the couple's relationship, since there will be no foundation for establishing a trusting relationship which is necessary for weathering the trials of a lasting relationship.
Remember, if someone tries to provoke you into acting jealous, it is your responsibility to decide how you want to behave. If you've been repeatedly told by various partners that you act too jealous, it is a good idea to take the feedback seriously and consider psychotherapy. By learning to understand your jealous reactions, you'll also learn to exhibit healthy self-control when jealousy gets triggered.
After all, the greatest joy any of us can experience is the gift of reciprocal love from a significant partner.