The barbecue at his friend’s house was the last straw.
Melissa had been hoping to spend some quality time with her new boyfriend Ryan.
She’d had a busy week, and she just wanted to snuggle up on the sofa with him and watch a movie.
Instead, they were at his friend’s house. It was 7pm, barbecue smoke was blowing into her face, Ryan had consumed a few too many beers, and she wanted to be home in her pajamas already.
But Ryan was having fun, and she knew everyone would judge her if she told him she wanted to go home.
“I hate his friends,” she told me. “All they do is talk about stuff they used to do together. It’s like they’re rubbing it in my face that I haven’t known him as long as they have.”
There was one friend that Melissa especially disliked, a woman Ryan had known since high school. She felt that this woman judged her and made her feel like an outsider. It didn’t help that the woman was gorgeous to boot.
She decided she would talk to Ryan about it. The next morning, she told him everything she was feeling.
“You don’t have to be jealous,” he said. “We’re just friends.”
Melissa went red. “You think I’m jealous? Why would I be jealous? I don’t care about her. You think, what, I’m trying to compete with her for you? Is that what you think?”
She was so furious that she got up and walked out. His jaw hung open.
She drove back to her house, parked in her driveway, rested her forehead against the steering wheel, and cried.
What do you think?
Was Melissa jealous or not?
Jealousy vs Envy
Social scientist Brené Brown discovered that what we think is jealousy isn’t always jealousy.
When a friend tells us about their amazing vacation, we might exclaim, “So jealous!” when in fact the emotion we’re actually expressing is envy.
As Brown explains in Atlas of the Heart, envy is the feeling we have “when we want something that another person has.”
Envy is what we feel when we’re scrolling through social media, looking at photos of other people’s fabulous lives.
Envy is what we feel when someone else gets something we always wanted.
Being jealous is different.
Jealousy is the fear of “losing a relationship or a valued part of a relationship that we already have.”
You might feel jealous when your partner starts a demanding new job that takes up all his energy, leaving him with less time for you.
More often, though, jealousy involves another person.
You see that person playing a bigger and bigger role in your loved one’s life…
And you’re afraid that this other person will replace you in some way.
Why We Feel So Jealous in New Relationships
We are most prone to jealousy when our relationship feels precarious.
The relationship is new, undefined, or rocky, and we see potential threats everywhere.
People who are more established in a relationships are less likely to feel jealous, because they don’t perceive others as a threat. They know their relationship is on solid ground.
Satisfied couples also understand each other better. They’re less likely to jump to the wrong conclusion.
Both Melissa and Ryan jumped to the wrong conclusion about each other.
While Melissa was trying to explain to Ryan that she felt left out, he jumped to the conclusion that Melissa saw his high school friend as a romantic threat.
Melissa felt accused. No one wants to be told they’re jealous, especially by a new partner.
But what if Melissa and Ryan had a more accurate understanding of jealousy?
Would their conversation have turned out the way it did if they knew what jealousy really was?
What Are You Afraid of?
When you understand that jealousy is the fear of losing a relationship or a valued part of a relationship, you can ask yourself the crucial question:
“What am I afraid of losing?”
What part of your relationship feels at risk?
Do you feel like you’re losing your special place in his eyes? Do you worry that he’d choose his friends over you? Does it feel like he’s confiding in them rather than you?
When I did this work with Melissa, it turned out that she wasn’t feeling jealous at all. She was feeling envious.
She wanted the kind of history with Ryan that his friends had. She wanted to be able to laugh and joke and hang with the gang. She wanted to be more like them.
Getting clear on how she felt helped Melissa communicate with Ryan better, and Ryan unexpectedly confessed that it made him quite pleased to think that Melissa might be jealous of his friend. “I want you to be the only woman in my life,” he told her.
Melissa learned that she didn’t have to be afraid of the occasional jealous feeling. It’s normal to worry that you’ll lose someone you love. You just don’t want to let that fear drive your behavior.