There's nothing noble about this emotion: Jealousy arises from insecurity. Yes, it's perfectly rational to feel insecure sometimes — but how can you tell when you've turned the corner to paranoia? "Someone is after the person I love," the jealous individual senses — and that may even be true. But then comes the irrational corollary: "And I just know my partner reciprocates the interest!"
Give in to this chain of thought and it's easy to feel inadequate: too old, too unattractive or too unsuccessful to protect your relationship from competition with an outsider. Suspecting that you're losing out to someone else can also make you feel like you're losing control; in extreme cases, jealousy can lead to despair, self-destructiveness — even, as we know from headlines and crime shows, murder.
You don't want to go there, obviously, but sometimes jealousy is justified: It turns out a spouse or lover is ogling that good-looking stranger at the next table or beach towel, and we don't appreciate the roving eyes one bit.
Among the couples I've studied, this is a common complaint — and a common occurrence: Research for The Normal Bar, my recent book on the "surprising secrets of happy couples," found that 61 percent of women (and a whopping 90 percent of men) "often fantasize about people they see or meet." In another study for the book, 75 percent of men and 71 percent of women reported they had lied to their partners to one degree or another.
So everyday life furnishes plenty of ammo for spousal suspicion. And who among us — be honest now — has not experienced a twinge of jealousy when a mate announces a string of sudden late nights at the office? Such a pattern change may be all it takes to push a jealous type into dishonest behavior: He or she might rummage through a partner's pockets, check his/her cellphone for incriminating texts, even follow his/her car.
Think this couldn't happen to you? Half of all respondents to the Normal Bar survey admitted to secretly viewing a partner's email.
Such measures violate your partner's privacy, of course, but they cloud your moral compass as well. If you're not swayed by that ethical argument, look at matters practically: Spying on a partner is ultimately ineffective because it doesn't fix what's wrong — if anything truly is — with the relationship. And do you really want to create trust issues where none existed? I'm not saying you should walk around with blinders on, mind you; if a partner clearly has too much chemistry with someone else, or devotes too little energy to your bond, it's time to ask why.
Pop quiz: Even if your partner has never strayed, how many of the following statements are true?
- I have steamed open his/her letters.
- I have scrutinized his/her call log.
- I have called a phone number I didn't recognize in his/her call log.
- I have acted rudely to someone attractive my partner spent time with at a party.
- I have started a fight with my partner because I thought he/she was flirting with someone.
- Any attractive person of the opposite sex (or same sex, if you are gay or lesbian) who seeks my partner's company must be coming on to them.
- Even though he/she has no history of such conduct, I worry that my partner will be unfaithful.
- I frequently ask my partner where he/she has been.
- I sometimes try to verify his/her answer to No. 8.
- I have rifled my partner's pockets or desk drawers in search of probative clues.
If you answered yes to more than one question, you have shown yourself to be a jealous person. If you answered yes to almost all of them, it's time to see a therapist: Your jealousy has reached the point where it's making you miserable — and possibly undermining your relationship as well.
Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., is AARP's sex and relationship expert.
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