The Moment I Realized Why I Was So Jealous — & What I Did About It

Photographed by Winnie Au.
In every serious relationship, I’ve had a jealousy problem. Boyfriends have pointed it out. My parents have pointed it out. Therapists have pointed it out. It’s obvious, and it’s embarrassing. If given a choice, I’d take amputation without anesthesia over the discomfort of running into someone my current lover once dated — imagining their bodies doing the things our bodies do now and wondering if her body did it better. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But it’s definitely not one of my favorite scenarios.

Sometimes, I can become momentarily enraged at seeing a current lover flirting, or sometimes just talking to (or maybe even just looking at) a woman who is attractive. I can’t help but imagine what their bodies would do if I weren’t in the equation.

Mature, responsible, confident women are not supposed to admit these things, because insecurity is unsexy. There are books and TV shows and glossy magazines that make a ton of money saying the same thing: Men don’t like insecure women. So, fix it — or, at the very least, hide it.

Despite knowing this, there are times when I can barely hide my jealousy. On a recent trip to an upcycled vintage shop, I came across my husband bantering with the salesgirl about a black leather jacket hung from the wall. He was referencing a Marlon Brando movie he couldn’t name. She couldn’t name it either. I didn’t try to rack my brain to help them out; I was too preoccupied by her pink-tinged cheeks, her toothy smile, her hip bob, and her cowboy boots. I was even more preoccupied by the sight of him talking to her, his hands in his pockets, the tangle of words falling out of his mouth, punctuated by that chuckle I love.

Mature, responsible, confident women are not supposed to admit these things, because insecurity is unsexy.

Even though I knew this was something he would deny later, I was convinced, in that moment, that they were flirting right in front of me. How could he make me stand by and watch?

I stood, smiling and seemingly unfazed, fingering the oversized flannel shirts and 1950s dresses. But internally, I started cycling through the nasty things I would say to him later. Soon, we’ll be alone, and then I’ll let him have it, I thought. I’ll push all his buttons and bring up a topic I know I shouldn’t. We each have a list of “Forbidden Subjects” — stuff from our sexual and romantic histories — that we know to avoid. When we mention them, we bring out the worst in each other: the critical, the insecure, the mean, and the jealous.

For example, I could casually mention my past French lovers or find a way to bring up my ex-boyfriend in New York. Maybe I could suggest polyamory. It’s not that we don’t value honesty; we’re not ones for white lies. But it’s the intention that is important. There’s a difference between an innocent story about the past and using the past as a weapon.
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Here’s the thing. I know in my rational mind that jealousy is ugly. It makes both parties feel bad. But that day in the vintage shop, it felt like someone had flicked a switch in me that started my blood boiling, my head throbbing, and made my throat clench in panic. And I couldn’t flick the switch back off. When we left the vintage store, I wrestled with whether or not I should bring up his “flirting” and release the barrage of nasty things I had been accumulating in my head.

As we walked down the street, he couldn’t yet tell I was upset. He was already pointing out new stores, their windows filled with cute T-shirts with witty sayings. I was silent, not because I wanted to give him the silent treatment, but because this relationship is the first relationship in which I am truly trying to be the best version of myself. Not the slimmest, or the most financially ambitious, or the funniest or the coolest (all “best" versions I dreamed up in earlier years), but a kinder, more self-aware, and less judgmental version of myself.

For years, I had told myself that my jealousy was really my intuition saving me from future disaster. I allowed myself to identify with that tightness in my gut, the awful things I felt justified in saying, both to myself and to my partners. I’m just a jealous person, I thought. That’s who I am. People always say to “trust your gut,” but what I was beginning to realize — and grow tired of — was this notion that my gut was always right, and that all those guys were assholes out to hurt me. What I really was feeling was fear: fear that I’d lose someone I loved. Fear that I wasn’t good enough.

What I really was feeling was fear: fear that I’d lose someone I loved.

My jealousy was rooted in this irrational terror. Slowly, I realized that despite my “gut feelings,” those men rarely hurt me. Seeing how rarely my fears turned out to be based in reality helped me see this “intuition” as what it was: an out-of-proportion response to my fear of not measuring up.

Recognizing that my pattern of jealousy was just that — an irrational pattern — didn’t mean that I never felt jealous again. But now I can recognize that I get to choose how to react when I feel this way.

That day, after my husband pointed out an adorable pillow featuring the wrinkled face of a pug, I still couldn’t crack a smile. I knew those feelings weren’t going away on their own. So I chose honesty — only this time, unlike many times before, I chose my words carefully. “I’m feeling really scared because I felt like you were flirting with that girl back there,” I said.

Though I could see how he wanted to react — throwing up his hands, rolling his eyes, and calling me crazy — he checked himself, too. He knew that defending his actions or trying to prove me wrong would be counterproductive in that moment. Because it isn’t about what he did. It’s about how I’m feeling. And I’ve done my part in admitting that I was scared — instead of being angry or vengeful or disappointed in him.

And that’s what my jealousy has always been about. I am scared. I love this person, and I don’t want him to go away. I love myself, and I don't want to feel this way.

That day, we hugged, and he told me that he loved me — that I don’t have anything to worry about. And that was enough. It’s not that his words were the antidote to my insecurity. It’s that finally, I’m able to be vulnerable enough about my jealousy to defuse its power over me. We continued on, together, still looking in shop windows, our bond just a little stronger than before.


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