One of the primary forms of relationship anxiety we see in therapy is, no surprise, the jealous partner. Jealousy can be an extremely painful emotion, deconstructing straight down to a core fear of loss of love. The thinking goes “I am not as worthy as the person I am jealous of, and my partner might choose them over me. I will be abandoned and unloved“.
In my clinical practice, I have often seen that jealousy is a manifestation originally born from what we may call a “separation anxiety relationship”. In other words, the jealous person developed their core fear of abandonment as a result of a relationship in early childhood built on separation anxiety. Perhaps a mother was suffering from postpartum depression and wasn’t able to nurture a healthy attachment with their child. Perhaps a father was emotionally distant and aloof. The resulting separation anxiety for the child can not only give rise to a core fear of abandonment but a defense against that fear (chief or secondary) of jealousy.
How is jealousy a defense? As a defense, it is an attempt to quell a fear; in this case, the fear of abandonment. The strategy of this defense assumes that if I am jealous, I will stay on my toes and be ever on the alert for signs of abandonment. It is a type of hypervigilance.
In the Deconstructing Anxiety model*, we find the important principle that all defenses backfire, creating more of the fear that they were supposed to relieve. And the defense of jealousy is no exception. The jealous person can become constantly suspicious of their partner, imagining signs of a threat from others, and signs of interest from their partner in these others, where no such signs exist.
This predicament can be an especially painful and tragic one. Their partner may be offering the secure attachment they so desperately long for, having no interest in anyone else. But the jealous person cannot trust this fact. As in Freud’s concept of the repetition compulsion, they continually regenerate their childhood experience of an insecure attachment, hoping for a resolution, but never allowing one.
When we understand that jealousy is but a form, another disguise for, the core fear of loss of love, we have a fast track to healing. Because jealousy is specific to relationships, we can focus our attention on resolving not just separation anxiety, but relationship anxiety as a whole. To overcome relationship anxiety, using the Deconstructing Anxiety model, we recognize that it is the defense against the core fear that 1) keeps regenerating the fear, 2) exacerbates the fear, and 3) can even create the fear out of nothing as we imagine signs of that which we are afraid of all around.
And because the defense is the real culprit to be addressed, we have our master key for how to help with relationship anxiety (or any anxiety): “doing the opposite” of the defense. In our case, the defense is jealousy, the hypervigilant awareness of signs that your partner is interested in others. How do we do the opposite? Any successful therapy for relationship anxiety must offer a more powerful medicine than simply telling someone to “stop being anxious”, stop being hypervigilant. Rather, we must “invade the anxiety”, and have a full exposure to it.
Thankfully, this does not require watching your partner run off with someone else and simply tolerating it. With the various exercises of the Deconstructing Anxiety program, we can have our exposure in imagination. The Alchemist, for instance, is one such exercise in the program. It would have the patient visualize on an imaginary movie screen each consecutive scene of their fear, slowly and thoroughly. They might first: notice their partner looking at someone else with interest. Then they might watch them start up a conversation with the other person. This could be followed by a scene where they are laughing and making a connection with the other person. Their partner may then create an excuse to leave the scene with the other person, not come home that night, etc., etc.… all the way to the final scene of them leaving the original relationship. All of this is done safely in imagination and, experience shows, without undue distress.
The exercise continues: the patient sits in the scene where they have been abandoned for longer and longer stretches of time, all the way out to hours, days, weeks, months and years. Since one’s anxiety may say “I will be in this abandonded state forever”, they may need to imagine sitting in that scene beyond the limits of a lifetime.**
Eventually, desensitization or “extinction” of the fear comes spontaneously and inevitably. The jealousy loses all of its meaning as it is swallowed up in the eternity of time. Such a spontaneous shift out of fear comes as a result of having “lived through it”, even if only in imagination, and coming out the other side in one piece. This is the only way we can be convinced – – by having a living experience of the fear – – that it cannot fulfill on its threat.
There is an additional consequence of the defense of jealousy: because, like any defense, it backfires and creates more anxiety, their partner may become tired of the unfounded jealousy. It can be very difficult being in a relationship with someone who has anxiety disorder of any sort. And if their anxiety is making up false ideas about you (where you are not, in fact, interested in other people), it can become especially uncomfortable. In this way, jealousy as a defense can backfire to the point that it actually creates what the jealous person is afraid of…their partner may begin looking elsewhere for love.
Hopefully, this awareness can become a motivation to get help with relationship anxiety, rather than being interpreted as a reason to become even more anxious. And there is help–the principle of exposure and desensitization is a reliable path to healing, as long as one understands what fear must be faced, and what defense we are to do the opposite of. In all cases, the answer is to face the core fear, and do the opposite of the chief defense, as prescribed by the Deconstructing Anxiety model.
*See my book “Deconstructing Anxiety: The Journey from Fear to Fulfillment” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2019).
**It is impossible to convey the experience that The Alchemist can give unless one goes through it thoroughly. These instructions, clearly, are abbreviated and not necessarily sufficient to achieve the desired results.