Jealousy and Language

Jealousy is a problem that irks many a relationship. It’s possible to be jealous of many different kinds of people or things, to be jealous of people who have what you want, or are with who you want to be with. You can be envious or someone for being the kind of person you’re not. In many instances, though, jealousy in the context of relationships means feeling annoyed or frustrated or hurt or angry when your partner (or love interest or crush object) pays attention to someone else instead of you, whether that means going so far as cheating or simply flirting.

Since I have the good fortune to be a relatively un-jealous person, friends often come to me for advice about how to handle jealousy issues. A lot of the time, our conversations revolve around communication and language. First, I think it’s important to learn about the concept of compersion, which is the opposite of jealousy in that you learn to be happy that your loved ones are having fuller experiences, rather than sad or angry at being left out.

I also think it’s essential to learn better communication techniques for discussing jealousy. One strategy used in non-violent communication is the practice of “I-statements” rather than “you-statements.” As in, don’t say “You make me angry when..” because that puts the responsibility for your feelings onto the other person. Instead, take responsibility for how you feel, and phrase things, “I feel angry when…” This lets you own your feelings rather than trying to always push the blame onto the other person. It has the additional bonus of not making your (conversation) partner feel like they’re being pushed into a corner or guilt-tripped. And when your partner’s not on the defensive, you can generally communicate more effectively.

Another way of dealing with jealousy is to view jealousy as a sign that something in the relationship should be talked about, kinda like viewing jealousy as a symptom rather than as the underlying problem. Sometimes jealousy is in fact the problem, like if someone is truly and deeply jealous of a given situation or person and cannot find a way to constructively resolve the issue, which can lead to controlling, manipulative, or even outright abusive behavior. Or sometimes jealousy is just itself: it rears its nasty little head and is annoying until you work through it. However, I think that most of the time, jealousy is an emotion that points to an adjacent problem that needs to be discussed. Like, if you’re  getting jealous of your partner always going out to bars and flirting, maybe it’s a sign that you need to talk about whether you’re spending enough time together – time is the real issue, and jealousy’s simply the indication that something’s up.

For this reason, I think jealousy is worth exploring when it’s felt. It’s not gonna be fun, and it’s not gonna be easy. It requires honestly assessing your emotional state and your situation. I think it also requires finding a better vocabulary, as “jealousy” is a pretty broad term. Do you mean that it feels like your heart’s being ripped out every time A bats his eyelashes at B, or do you mean that it’s annoying and frustrating but not heartbreaking when your partner chooses video games over  you? Finding more precise language to describe your experience of jealousy could then help you communicate those feelings to the relevant parties or to a concerned friend or therapist.

Jealousy is far from my favorite emotion, but I think that if we learn to use language to help us describe and communicate about it, we’ll learn to cope with it better. Perhaps a utopia where nobody ever gets jealous doesn’t exist (yet?), but by harnessing language to help us out, we can live with it, rather than fight against it.

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