Robert Leahy on Jealousy
By Lynn Mollick
On Sunday, December 4, Robert Leahy presented this workshop to 57 NJ-ACT members. Dr. Leahy described jealousy as a response to perceived threat to a valued relationship. Jealousy may occur in relationships with intimate partners, siblings, colleagues, parents, or children.
Although jealousy can have catastrophic consequences, e.g. murder, physical fights, stalking, destruction of relationships, Dr. Leahy believes that feeling jealous is not a problem. But how people express their jealous feelings can be a problem.
When people are uncertain about their partner’s commitment to them, they are more likely to experience jealousy. When people believe that they have other relationship options, they are less likely to experience jealousy. Therapists can use this information to help patients develop treatment goals that will reduce jealousy.
Be alert to the function of jealousy in a relationship. Some patients try to evoke jealousy in their partner as a sign of commitment. Not experiencing jealousy suggests a lack of commitment, while feeling jealous often suggests low self-esteem.
2. Psychoeducation – Normalize Jealousy
Dr. Leahy explained that jealousy is universal and occurs in every culture. Ten month old babies appear to experience jealousy, as do dogs, cats, and horses. To help patients accept that jealousy is universal, tell them to ask others if they experience jealousy.
Explain that jealousy may have evolutionary advantages. Men – who experience sexual jealousy – want to be certain they are the fathers of the children they are protecting. Women – who experience jealousy about their partners’ attachment to others – want to be certain men will protect them and their families. Siblings may feel that they must compete for their parents’ resources in situations of perceived scarcity.
3. Cognitive Strategies
Distinguish between jealous thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Encourage patients to say “I can feel jealous, but I don’t have to behave jealously.”
Address dysfunctional cognitions that create jealousy:
“If you really loved me, you would never find anyone else to be interesting or attractive.”
“If your partner disappoints you, you can never trust them again.”
“You need to know everything about your partner in order to trust them.”
Challenge these dysfunctional cognitions by asking “what’s the evidence?” Use role-playing, schema work, and other CT techniques to modify these jealousy-provoking cognitions.
Do pro’s and con’s. Examine the consequences of holding on to jealous thoughts and feelings and behaving in jealous ways.
4. Behavioral Techniques
Eliminate safety behaviors. Encourage patients to relinquish “safety behaviors” such as checking their partner’s whereabouts, asking for reassurance, and searching for clues.
Jealousy exposure. Setting aside a specific time of day to think jealous thoughts teaches patients that they can control their thinking, that jealous feelings ebb and flow, that they can focus on more rewarding aspects of their lives, that they can be present. Writing jealous thoughts down creates distance and disengagement from the thoughts.
Opposite action. Do the opposite of what the jealous thought pushes you to do. Repeating or writing a jealous thought 100 times makes it boring and meaningless. Even better, repeat or write “I want my wife to cheat on me” 100 times.
Punishment. Repeating jealous thoughts 100 times is an excellent punishment for performing safety behaviors.
5. Acceptance Strategies
Validate patients’ jealous feelings. You can say:
“You are not alone.”
“You must be very scared.”
“Dealing with this is very difficult.”
Teach patients to validate themselves.
“I am not alone.”
“Other people have jealous feelings, too.”
“Sometimes I will feel alone but unable to express these feelings. This is difficult for me.”
“I can have a jealous thought/feeling, but it doesn’t mean that something actually is going on.”
Externalize jealousy. Talk about the “jealous mind.” Identify what the “jealous mind” tells the patient to do.
Reframe the jealousy as something positive. Say “You are feeling this way because you are a committed person, because you value intimacy, because you are very honest, because you care about your partner.”
6. Metacognitive Strategies
Patients believe that jealous thoughts are important and deserve attention because they stand out and occur repetitively. Work with patients to change beliefs about jealous thoughts.
“Just because I have a thought doesn’t mean they are important.”
”Maybe it’s just an old habit. These thoughts have often been false alarms.”
“I can have a thought, notice it, and let it go.”
7. Relationship Strategies
Dr. Leahy emphasized the slogan: “I’m not OK. You’re not OK. But that’s OK.” He recommended that partners give each other one “get out of jail free” card every day to lower perfectionistic expectations for their relationships.
Dr. Leahy also suggested that partners “make room for jealousy” in their relationships rather than trying to abolish it. The jealous partner can acknowledge jealous feelings and ask “How would you like me to treat you when I feel jealous?”
Use the Court Technique to help jealous accusers understand how interrogation feels to their partners. Ideally, the accused partner can validate the jealous one and provide comfort because responding to jealousy with criticism and anger further threatens the jealous partner.
Expressing jealous, angry feelings about infidelity means “I’m not going to be treated this way,” and can be a sign of good self-esteem.
Dr. Leahy asks patients to think of the consequences of infidelity in relationships they cherish and want to preserve. He reminds patients considering infidelity that unfaithful individuals usually get caught, provoking a jealous response from their partner. He asks “Is the potential benefit of infidelity really worth the cost?”