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Romantic Jealousy: The Unrecognized Disorder?

Posted Jan 03 2012 4:23pm

A version of this post originally appeared on my Yahoo Health page (per contract, I can’t post those pieces here in real time; thus, ShrinkTalk gets them a few months later).

When I was in graduate school, I had a very short-lived relationship with a fellow student. When she ended it after only a few weeks, I mentally painted the event as having my heart ripped out and shoved it in my face as I died a slow and painful death. I wrote about it in my book, ‘Crazy,’ and readers found it odd that a simple breakup could have led me to the fallout I described: irritability, poor sleep, depressed mood, anxiety, calling my professor a ‘soul sucking witch’ for making me stay one hour late to grade undergraduate papers, etc. In fact, my functioning declined enough that I ultimately went on anti-depressants for several months. And, while they helped tremendously, I still spent many sleepless nights and foggy days obsessing about my ex-girlfriend and who she was dating instead of me. I pictured her having sex with men, all of whom were better than me in every way possible, at least in my own head. It was only through some grueling therapy sessions that I was able to get past all of that.

When it came time for me to write my dissertation, I thought about how my jealousy had nearly destroyed my psyche. I noticed that there wasn’t much about romantic jealousy in the clinical literature, and it certainly wasn’t anywhere in the DSM-IV. I wondered if what I experienced could be considered a “disorder,” given that I didn’t formally meet the criteria for either Major Depressive Disorder or any specific anxiety condition, yet had a lot in common with both. And so I studied it for my doctoral thesis. Ultimately, what I found needed to be tempered by the fact that I studied only undergraduate students (as opposed to the general population), but I did learn quite a bit about the psychological phenomenon of romantic jealousy. Without going into the mundane details of how the study was conducted, here are some of the basic findings, both expected and perhaps somewhat surprising*:

- Romantic jealousy (RJ) does not increase or decrease as the length of the relationship increases. This suggests that its present quickly and remains stable over time.

- RJ is not related to socioeconomic status, age, gender or ethnicity. In short, jealousy doesn’t discriminate.

- RJ is correlated with symptoms of both anxiety and depression; specifically, feelings of being punished, self-criticism, self-dislike and fear of the worst happening. In other words, jealousy can make you hate yourself and terrified about the punishment you are and will receive.

- RJ is correlated with fears of abandonment, defectiveness and feelings of mistrust. Somewhat surprisingly, fears of intimacy are also associated with romantic jealousy. So while jealousy tends to make us try to hold on as much as possible, many people struggling are also fearful of getting close. This creates quite a conflict.

- RJ increases when sexual intercourse is involved in the relationship (e.g., when you’ve sealed the deal, something changes).

Based on these preliminary findings, could we consider romantic jealousy an actual disorder? Not with just my dissertation. Disorders, according to the mental world, are based not just on distress, but also impairment. Clearly I was impaired – my ‘soul sucking witch’ professor would have attested to my decline in school/work performance – but more research is needed to see if what happened with me is more of an exception than the norm.

That said, if you are struggling with jealousy, don’t assume that you won’t benefit from help. I’ve seen a fair share of the problem in my office, and there are ways to help you. If your job or relationships are suffering because of your jealousy, or even if you’re just miserable because of it, get assistance. Most of those who do are happy with that choice.

* For purposes of clarification, theorists often describe jealousy as wanting what others have and believing you are entitled to it (what I felt in that scenario), envy as wanting what others have without a real belief it should be yours (I envy Lebron James and would like to be awesome at hoops like him) and possessiveness as having something and not wanting others to possess it.

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