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What are signs of unhealthy jealousy?

| Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012, 9:43 p.m.

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Hi, Carolyn:

I get extremely jealous and insecure. For instance, the other night, my boyfriend was getting work-related text messages from a female co-worker, which was fine and understandable. However, when she sent a text at 12:30 a.m., I got mad at my boyfriend for allowing her to text so late at night.

He told her to please stop texting, and she did. After reading a past column of yours, I feel like I am a controlling abuser. How can a person tell the difference between extreme jealousy and “normal” jealousy (if there is such a thing)?

For what it's worth, I have been cheated on before, by my ex-husband, and felt that I overlooked his seemingly innocent contact with female co-workers that led to his cheating.

— Jealous

“I got mad at my boyfriend for allowing her to text” — her actions are his fault? How does one “allow” someone to text at a given time?

There's nothing wrong with acting on an alarm that something isn't right — and that's what jealousy is in an emotionally healthy person, an alarm.

But when your alarm is so sensitive that benign things set it off; when you're forbidding partners from doing things you don't deny yourself; and when you're dictating how others live their lives, then you've got unhealthy jealousy.

Look at the language you used, saying you overlooked “contact with female co-workers that led to his cheating.” But that's not how it works. What led to his cheating was his decision to act on his impulses to cheat. A person who doesn't have those impulses won't cheat, nor will someone who has them but chooses not to act on them. And, these cheaters and non-cheaters have one thing in common: They have contact with temptation. You can't prevent cheating by keeping people on a leash.

Here's what you can do:

• Live with integrity yourself, and choose partners who do the same.

• Be realistic. No one does, or even can, behave perfectly; people who are more forgiving of human frailty seem to be the victims of it less than those who are rigid or intolerant.

• Be respectful of your internal alarms — and be pro-active in dealing with an alarm that's too touchy by getting into therapy. If you've been burned to the point of “trust issues,” it's your job to deal with that; it's not your partner's job to follow your rules to avoid upsetting you.

• Realize that if you don't trust your partner but stay in the relationship anyway, leveling accusations and imposing stricter limits on him, then, you are, in fact, abusive.

If that's you, then it takes guts to see and admit it. The next step is to admit it out loud to someone who is qualified to help you.

Email Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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