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Exploring the case study of the month – jealousy

January 19th, 2007

Dr Petra

Earlier this week I outlined the case example of David, who was having relationship problems due to jealousy.

Ten years ago when he was 21 David was cheated on by his fiancée. He discovered she had been seeing a friend of his whilst David had been working away from home. David ended the relationship and embarked on a number of flings with women he either ended by cheating on them or through his fears they were cheating on him.

A year ago David met Joanne. She worked in the same office as him, shared a number of his interests, and David found her very attractive. He felt he wanted a more serious relationship with Joanne but although he could never find any proof she had been unfaithful he became increasingly convinced he couldn’t trust her.

David began to check Joanne’s emails and mobile phone records and to create a fuss if she went out with friends or family and didn’t take him along. He felt more comfortable when they were at home together and became anxious when he didn’t know where she was at work. When they did go out together David felt Joanne was deliberately attracting attention from other men that led to a number of arguments between the couple – as well as several arguments with men in pubs or bars.

Last week Joanne gave David an ultimatum. She was moving back to her parent’s home until he could sort himself out. David was devastated but also believed she was leaving him to cheat with a lover. He wants Joanne back but can’t convince himself she can be trusted.

Before looking at what David and his girlfriend Joanne could do about the situation it’s worth looking at what a selection of social science and therapeutic standpoints can tell us about what’s going on in their relationship.

From a behavioural perspective David has learned to protect himself from being hurt by ending relationships, cheating on someone before they can cheat on him, or in his relationship with Joanne trying to control her actions so he can feel less anxious. Joanne may have learned that giving David what he wants makes him act affectionately, but not giving him what he wants leads to an increasingly negative situation.

A psychodynamic approach could look at the start of David’s problems (being cheated on by his fiancée in his early twenties) and see what impact that may have had on his subsequent behaviour. It could also look to see whether Joanne has any experiences in her past that would explain her reactions to David’s jealousy.

An evolutionary view could explain David’s reactions towards Joanne as a means of exhibiting dominant behaviour as a means of making himself more attractive to her and/or limiting the chance of his mate having interactions with other males. It might suggest Joanne acts submissively to encourage David to stay with her, or that she has noticed David’s fear of her being with others may make him safer as he may be more interested in being with her than other women.

A cognitive perspective might indicate David thinks he isn’t worth much and his negative thoughts lead to him believing the worst about Joanne whilst also not being certain he deserves her. Joanne may also have low self worth that encourages her to stick with David when he is difficult.

A social perspective could explain how males can be raised to be controlling whilst females may be raised to be more caring and accommodating – meaning David feels he can check up on Joanne and Joanne may feel to reassure David she should allow this to continue.

Finally a biological standpoint might look at David’s behaviour in terms of brain chemistry to see if this is the cause of his problems (depression or anxiety for example).

The view you take on explaining David (and Joanne’s) actions will inform what could be done about the situation. It might be that David is seen as acting as any normal male would, or that society has created this unequal situation. It could be that David is seen as depressed so could be prescribed medication, or perhaps David and/or Joanne require some form of therapy to either unlearn his destructive behaviours or identify where they first came from.

So what could David do about his situation? If he is feeling depressed and unhappy he could speak to his doctor who might prescribe antidepressants and/or refer him to counselling. It may be David refers himself to a therapist either on his own or with Joanne. However in order for this to happen David has to recognise he is distressed or is upsetting those around him. It may be that he doesn’t feel he is being unreasonable since he can’t bring himself to believe Joanne is trustworthy. David may find that his controlling behaviour works for him since he gets a lot of attention when he acts in this way. Or it may be he is too afraid of the consequences of not being vigilant around Joanne that he cannot stop his jealousy. David may or may not be aware he is being jealous and could well be seeing the problem with past relationships or Joanne.

Joanne has a number of choices. She can stop seeing David (although since she cares about him this is a difficult choice). She may feel she is the only one who can help him or show that she is different from all his past relationships. She may believe that showing how trustworthy she is can help David stop being jealous. Joanne may want to show David he is wrong, or she may seek counselling or support on her own.

Joanne’s background will also influence the relationship. If she is confident and secure she may understand that whilst she loves him she may need to create a distance between them whilst David sorts himself out – even if that means losing their relationship. She may feel that she can still see David but she will not engage with any jealous behaviour. However if Joanne is less confident or perhaps has had problems in her own past, or if she desperately wants to be a ‘good girlfriend’ then she may not be able to challenge David. In such a case she may become increasingly isolated by David who could even become violent or abusive.

It may be David and Joanne never resolve the situation but continue living together with David’s jealousy. David may in time snap out of being jealous. Joanne may eventually leave. Joanne may continue to show David how she can be relied upon while each attempt she makes fails to satisfy his fears and leads to new demands on her. They may decide to tackle the problem together with therapy. If they want to change the situation they both have to agree to this and it may not be an appealing or easy task.

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