You’re pretty sure your partner is faithful to you, but every once in a while you feel you need to check this out for sure. There’s an office party that your partner has to attend, and although you don’t think there’s any reason to be suspicious about what might go on there, a little voice in your head insists on conducting due diligence. After your partner comes home, you ask a prepared set of questions to find out who was there, who talked to your partner, and whether your partner spent any time with a coworker who you feel is up to no good. When the coast is clear, you see if you can find any incriminating evidence in your partner’s clothes or work backpack. The next day, as much as you hate yourself for doing this, you ask a few more questions designed to elicit any possible holes in your partner’s story about the events of the previous evening.
People will put the highest stakes on testing the loyalty of their partners, but they may also try to test other people in their lives. Perhaps you suspect that a repair person who’s come to your home isn’t doing a thorough enough job. You set a few “traps” to see if the person is indeed leaving out important areas that need attention. Maybe you’ve brought your auto in for detailing by a car wash specialist. You leave a few tiny pieces of paper under one of the seats and then inspect the area later to see if they were picked up. The tendency to suspect your partner of infidelity is most likely on the same spectrum as is suspiciousness toward others who most people would trust without giving it a second thought.
Being plagued by the conviction that someone is cheating on you (or cheating you) can become pathological when it reaches constant and chronic proportions. According to University of Sheffield (England)’s Louise Curling and collaborators (2018), constantly needing to test people, particularly when it’s your closest romantic partner, can be seen as an extreme manifestation of the emotion of jealousy. A “basic and common emotion,” jealousy involves “fear of loss of a valued relationship to a potential rival;” it becomes “morbid” when “chronic and consistent preoccupations with infidelity frequently drive associated jealous behaviors” (p. 537). Jealousy isn’t the term that works best when applied to your need to test that carwash detailer, but your desire to ensure 100 percent service can reflect a similar irrational fear. In both cases, you’re driven to behave in ways that do not reflect the commonsense conclusion that unless shown otherwise, there’s no reason not to trust someone.
Morbid jealousy, as noted by Curling et al., can have a detrimental effect on the very relationships you’re trying to maintain. You certainly don’t want to make your partner resent you for your lack of trust, and less importantly, it would be inconvenient to lose a reliable service person. The kind of morbid jealousy that the British team wished to investigate was not the delusional variety but the “obsessive” kind with “intrusive jealous thoughts” that “drive compulsive behaviors such as clinginess, interrogating, and checking” (p. 537). This would seem to come closest to the notion of testing your partner’s loyalty out of concern that your partner will fail to make the grade.
People who experience obsessive morbid jealousy (OMJ), according to previous research the British researchers cited, know that their behavior is problematic and as a result, feel shame or guilt. Their personalities are characterized by high levels of dependency, aggression, lack of trust, manipulativeness, exhibitionism, impulsivity, and a tendency to entice others. Indeed, these personality traits suggest that those with OMJ may have one of several personality disorders, including borderline, dependent, histrionic, and narcissistic, and they may also show signs of passive aggressiveness. In other words, constantly testing your partner’s loyalty my be a symptom of larger mental health issues. Fortunately, according to Curling et al., OMJ can also be treated.
The British authors used a framework that they refer to as “Cognitive Analytic Therapy” (CAT), which is based on three core constructs: reciprocal roles, target problem procedures, and the multiple self-states model. The reciprocal roles in CAT are based on object relations theory, and refer to the ways that “individuals anticipate, create, experience, and react to relationships” (p. 539). People who experience OMJ would have therefore experienced neglect, abandonment, or abuse as children. The target problem procedures are the “traps, snags, and dilemmas” the individual with OMJ creates. Finally, the multiple self-states model incorporates the ways that individuals seek the ‘perfect love’ merger state between self and partner. When this happens, the individual’s own sense of identity becomes completely enmeshed with that of the partner. OMJ would therefore reflect the belief that your partner should be completely aligned with you and to try to become independent would represent disloyalty in the extreme.
To test their model of OMJ, the authors assessed the effectiveness of CAT in an in-depth manner with three patients who received from 16 to 24 sessions of treatment. They were assessed before and after therapy with measures of jealousy, depression, interpersonal problems, and current distress. Over the course of treatment, participants also completed daily diaries in which they recorded intensity of jealousy, as well as the frequency of jealous thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The time series data from diary measures revealed that treatment in fact reduced the intensity of jealousy, an effect that continued for at least a month after the conclusion of therapy.
Prior to treatment, all three patients showed the characteristic signs of OMJ in that they experienced enmeshment, cross-examining, checking, and concerns over abandonment in their interpersonal relationships. The components of CAT-based treatment included role play with the therapist which also included the therapist “leaving” the patient, exposure therapy to intrusive jealous thoughts along with response prevention, and assertiveness training. In this novel approach to therapy, the final session also consisted of the therapist and patient writing “goodbye letters” to each other in which they reflected on the ending of therapy. The themes of these letters included, for example, naming abandonment feelings as well as highlighting ongoing challenges that the patient still faced.
At the end of therapy, two out of the three patients showed significant improvement in the symptom-related measures and even for the one who did not, there were decreases in jealousy intensity across the treatment period and into follow-up as well. The authors also reported favorable results regarding the apparent effectiveness of therapy in preventing relapses. They noted, “there was evidence of significant improvement in the ability to trust partners over time, which would be indicative of establishing a protective factor against future jealous episodes” (p. 550). Additionally, during therapy, the patients showed the characteristic behaviors of OMJ in trying to become too close and dependent on the therapist, and also showing feelings of abandonment when therapy ended. The goodbye letters seemed to be important in providing patients with concrete feedback that they could use to benefit their future relationships once therapy had ended.
To sum up, the Curling et al. study shows not only that people who experience extreme jealousy can benefit from treatment, but also provides insight into possible causes of OMJ that stem from disturbances in early parent-child relationships. The findings also suggest what it means if you are one of those individuals who feels the constant need to assess your partner’s loyalty and devotion to you. Whether you recognize it or not, it’s jealousy that leads you to engage in these overly zealous attempts to track down your partner’s every move. Although the British study didn’t examine the need to check on other people’s loyalty to you outside of close relationships, we might expect that the constant vigilance you show toward others on whom you feel you should rely may be worth examining. Fulfillment in all relationships depends on having a certain amount of ability to trust. Leave the testing to the classroom, and you’ll be closer to achieving that fulfillment.