Surviving the Green Eyed Monster - Assessing the current situation

When faced with a situation that puts us on the defensive, we sometimes jump to the wrong conclusion.  Sometimes a "jealous" response is prompted by more than the other person's insecurities.  The reaction could be based in injury from a breach of trust.


Were boundaries broken?

Stop SignThis may seem like an odd question in an already tense situation, but hear me out!  Sometimes the “jealous person” is lashing out for reasons beyond jealousy.  Unless you, your friend/partner, and their partner are all openly talking to each other, you may not have the full picture.  Sometimes relationship boundaries are clearly visible. Other times, they’re hidden underneath the surface like landmines waiting to be stepped upon.


But we didn’t [insert physical activity here]…

Physical touch isn’t the only form of intimacy in a relationship.  Any type of relationship (friendship, sexual, romantic, family, etc.) has a physical, emotional, and intellectual dimension. That means (at least) three different sets of boundaries to account for.  

Unless a conscious effort is made to establish those boundaries upfront, the limits of the relationship are left implied and unspoken.   This can lead to a lot of unnecessary pain and hurt as one partner breaks relationship expectations that they were previously unaware of!   As one study found out, it's even possible - within an assumed monogamous relationship for one partner to believe that their relationship is sexually monogamous while the other partner doesn’t.   If a couple hasn’t explicitly established their physical boundaries, it’s likely they haven’t discussed what’s allowable on the emotional or intellectual sides.


Intellectual intimacy:  The Meeting of the Minds

We connect with others through common interests. Sometimes, one partner in a relationship may have a hobby or passion that the other partner doesn’t share.  Perhaps you’ve experienced this in a current or past relationship.  Is there a topic that you are interested in that your romantic partner doesn’t (or didn’t) care for?

In my own marriage, my husband and I have different tastes in movies.  He’s into blockbuster action flicks where I like independent, artsy films. We had three options:  still watch movies together (with one of us left less than fully entertained), watch movies alone (which sucks), or agree that we could watch movies with other people (which included those of the opposite gender).

Intellectual intimacy sometimes goes beyond hobbies and interests and into the realms of beliefs (spiritual, political, etc.).  This is a higher level of intimacy because beliefs are tied to a person’s experiences, values, worldview, and identity.  We seek to connect with others that validate our beliefs and experiences, or at the very least acknowledge them. 

Imagine a relationship where one person believes in the existence of gods, spirits, magic, and other things that could be seen as “supernatural”.   Meanwhile, their partner doesn’t share those beliefs. They may either be agnostic, or (on the extreme end) believe that reality only encompasses that which can be scientifically measured and that ‘mystical’ experiences are based on imagination and myth.  Depending on the couple's communication dynamic when it comes to differing ideas, the mystic-minded person may not feel comfortable sharing their experiences with their partner.  Should that person keep their spiritual belief hidden from their partner, assuming that they might not understand or be sympathetic?  While that course of action avoids (or delays) potential conflict, it also distances one partner from the other because there is a part of them that they are choosing to not share. 

For there to be an honest connection, the couple would need to learn how to allow those ideas and experiences to be shared in a non-confrontational manner, to allow those beliefs to be more deeply explored an discussed outside of the relationship (and acknowledge it may never become a point of connection between the two of them), or to end the relationship based on incompatibility of beliefs. 

Did you notice the option that I left out? Nowhere did I say that either partner should change or deny their beliefs for the sake of the relationship.  While relationships involve commitment and compromise, they should not require the sacrifice of one’s values or identity.

I recently went through a similar scenario with my husband.  Corey doesn't follow any specific spiritual path, and has occasionally been skeptical of experiences that can be seen as “supernatural” or “mystical”. Meanwhile,  this spring I resumed my studies into Celtic-based shamanism. I also believe in the potential of magic and started researching ritual and different forms of divination.  I started to spend a fair amount of time experimenting with meditation and trance,  reading tarot, and building various tools and outfits for my ritual work.  I could have chosen to either keep this a secret or glossed over the details of what I was doing when asked. However, I chose to be upfront about my changing views and beliefs.  “Coming out” to my husband was a huge step for me.  While he doesn’t share my beliefs, he knows how much courage it took to open up about that aspect of myself.  He now listens with interest when I speak of encounters with spirits, my attempts at lucid dreaming, or my experiments with energy work.

If intellectual intimacy is based on sharing common interests, hobbies, and beliefs, then intellectual infidelity occurs when a person shares such things ith someone that is outside of their relationship, and

  • They don’t tell their partner, and/or
  • They do not give their partner the opportunity to share that interest with them.

Take a step back and take an objective look at the situation. Is your friend or partner leaving their romantic partner out of certain aspects of their lives?  Are there certain topics that they aren’t talking about? 


Emotional intimacy: Affairs of the Heart

Some time ago I made an agreement with one of my guy friends when it came to the boundaries of our friendship.  He and I have similar beliefs and share other interests.   I knew he was in a relationship and reached out to get to know his partner, but sadly we didn’t “click” enough to keep the lines of communication open (which sucks because she’s a cool and interesting woman).  As time progressed, I could tell that my friend and I were spending more and more time talking to each other and checking on what was going on in our respective lives.  I told him that if I ever felt that he’s spending too much time talking to me – more importantly, spending time with me that he could be spending with his partner – I was going to call him out on it.  He agreed to this condition and held me to the same standard (which he used within the first month of us putting this system in place).  When my friend confided some of his personal thoughts and feelings to me, I encouraged him to talk to his partner about those topics as well.  I enjoyed his company, but did not want to place us in a position where our friendship made him less available for the person with whom he was in a committed relationship.

Talking to Jennifer on the subway

“Emotional affair” has become a common buzz-word; its form ranging from secret pen-pals to work spouses.   The mainstream stance seems to be that emotional intimacy with someone of the opposite sex (or your gender of preference) that isn’t your partner/spouse is bad, dangerous, and can wreck your current relationship.  Realizing how much time we spend at work, some sources recommend maintaining acquaintance-level relationships with your co-workers so as to not even tempt the formation of deeper emotional ties.   For those of us that work in offices that are predominantly of a different gender (like women in aggressive sales or tech positions), that can make work boring and lonely.

Conventional wisdom seems to assume that relationship-threatening “emotional affairs” occur along lines of sexual orientation.  Given our culture’s hetero-normative bias, this is why there’s a discouragement towards friendship with those of the opposite gender.  Interestingly enough, I’ve yet to see Dr. Phil or any other professional condemn emotionally close same-sex friendships (like bromances), even though it’s also possible for those types of dynamics to affect a person’s romantic relationships.

The fear surrounding emotional intimacy and emotional affairs is based on a zero-sum / scarcity model; that becoming emotionally close to someone outside of your primary relationship means that you have less love, attention, and energy to devote to your romantic partner.  There is also the assumption that the outside emotional relationship will cause you to focus on the flaws of your primary relationship while idealizing the partner of your new relationship.

Can this happen?  Yes, if there is a lack of communication and awareness.  Will it happen? Not always.  This is like saying that if parents have a second child, they will not only love their older child less but focus on the bad in them while idealizing the newborn.

I think that developing emotional intimacy with multiple people is a healthy and normal part of being human.  However, I also believe that these social and emotional bonds need to be built with honesty and integrity.  Partners in a relationship need to be very explicit on what they consider to be emotional boundaries within their relationship.  These typically involve limits on:

  • Personal disclosure of thoughts and feelings
  • How much one confides to others about relationship issues
  • Actions and rituals that all those involved in the relationship commit to keeping “in the relationship” (like date nights at a favorite restaurant, gift giving, etc.)


Barring explicit boundaries that were previously agreed upon, emotional infidelity typically occurs when someone

  • Builds emotional connections distance them from their (primary) romantic partner or avoid “fixing” problems in their relationship
  • Creates further distance between themselves and said partner by keeping that emotional attachment a secret


Take a step back and take an objective look at your situation. Is your friend or partner spending a lot of time and energy on you? Do they have positive things to say about their (primary) romantic partner?  How open are they to their (primary) partner and friends about your friendship/relationship?    


If you and your friend (or partner) realize that a boundary was broken in their relationship, tell the affected partner.  It is possible that their "jealousy" is really suspicion that something has happened.  While telling them the truth will be painful, it is less painful than letting them linger in their thoughts and fear about the situation.  Ideally, the person who is in the relationship with the affected partner should be the one to come forward.  Keeping "what happened" a secret changes the lapse of judgment into a full blown affair.  It's also more painful for the affected party if you deny that anything is happening (lying) and then they find out later that their partner has been keeping secrets from them.

Cheating involves more than doing things in secret. Cheating is a breach of trust, and the person that decides whether trust was broken is the affected partner.   If your friend (or partner) didn't know that they were violating their partner's trust, that should be a warning sign that the couple should mutually discuss the boundaries of their relationship. 

The question that you're probably wondering is "now what" (after the boundary breach is made known)?

If the breach occurred with a friend that is in a monogamous relationship, their partner may urge them to break contact with you as a way of "ending the affair".  It is up to your friend to decide whether to do this, or to negotiate a different arrangement.   Anticipate that the affected party may lash out at you personally or socially and plan out how you are going to respond to questions or confrontational moments.

If the breach occurred with a romantic partner that has another significant other (we're assuming a consensual non-monogamous relationship here), their partner may also urge them to try and end their relationship with you in order to focus on the two of them.  Again, it is up to your partner to decide what is best for them. Try to anticipate how you'll react to personal/social drama.  Just because a couple says that they are poly / open doesn't mean that you won't face a territorial reaction.

Either way, if your friend or partner is able to negotiate things so that you are able to stay a part of their lives, you have a rough road ahead.  Trust is not something that can be quantifiable "re-earned" like a salary. It takes time and for the affected party to come to heal and forgive (which may never happen).


Hopefully in your case, no boundaries were broken, and that you are simply dealing with someone else's fears and insecurities. Tomorrow I'll talk about the anatomy of jealousy, the fundamental beliefs in which it is rooted, and how to spot signs of it.

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