How Jealousy Can Lead To Toxic Relationships, According To Experts

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Jealousy in a romantic relationship can lead to some really destructive behavior — and I'm not talking about your partner snooping on your phone or computer. According to a new study,  some common romantic beliefs may be related to controlling behaviors, and even violent behavior, so it's really important to be aware of what they are and how they can affect you and our relationship.

Research from the University of Mary Washington of 275 heterosexual women found that having romantic beliefs, including viewing jealousy as a positive trait, was linked to thinking that controlling behaviors were romantic as well. And those beliefs, in turn, were linked with physical and psychological abuse in relationships.

"We emphasize that some common yet problematic romantic beliefs may be related to romanticizing potentially controlling behaviors, and that seeing those behaviors attractive in a partner were related to experiences of physical and psychological intimate partner violence," Leanna Papp, study author and doctoral student in Psychology and Women's Studies, tells Bustle.

And this may have to do with the popular (yet problematic) romantic beliefs that have become so normalized in our culture. "Research on young people's relationships has revealed a reproduction of gendered power imbalances similar to those seen in abusive adult relationships, and, in some cases, they are rationalizing or even romanticizing it," Papp says. " The way our culture has constructed and presented love and romance needs to be reevaluated. Media (such as movies, television, music, etc.) that conflate intimacy with control may be one site where children and young people see these patterns and internalize them. Seeing men's aggression or dominance normalized in a family or social setting may also contribute to how women view controlling behaviors in relationships. There is a larger cultural conversation going on right now about toxic hegemonic masculinity and the pervasiveness of harassment and abuse, which has been building for years (seen through online discursive activism such as #MasculinitySoFragile, #WhyIStayed, #RapeCultureIsWhen, and #MeToo, among others). My hope is that by drawing attention to certain pervasive and damaging popular romantic beliefs (e.g., love conquers all, women find their worth in romantic relationships, and jealousy is a sign of love), we prompt a conversation about reframing what constitutes romance and a desirable relationship dynamic. Relationships should be based on mutual trust and respect, rather than fear and control."

When Jealousy Becomes Toxic

It's important to point out that having a positive view of jealousy isn't the same as realizing that a little bit of jealousy is completely normal in relationships, in moderation. But having a positive view of jealousy means thinking that it's almost romantic. It means thinking that — no matter how strong or destructive this jealousy is — it's a sign of how much  your partner loves you. That's a very dangerous game.

"Minor jealousy is common and normal in relationships," Aimee Hartstein, LCSW tells Bustle. "But jealousy that involves controlling behaviors, threats, or even violence is definitely cause for concern. I think that women sometimes may have the mistaken idea that intense jealousy shows them that their partner loves them. But this is a very distorted, unhealthy idea about love. Sometimes the person doesn’t really believe that the jealousy is a sign of caring, but is trying desperately to rationalize the behavior by calling it 'love'. In reality, it’s a slippery slope between a very jealous guy who always needs to know where you are and a guy who will take a swing at a woman. Often his controlling, jealous threats are really a way to set the stage for why he has to threaten or even hit his partner." It's a real problem, so it's crucial to know how to identify it and how to get help.

Are You Trying To Rationalize Your Partner's Jealousy?

Andrew Zaeh for Bustle

One of the more difficult aspects of controlling behaviors — and even some abuse — is identifying when they're happening to you. We can often see it in other people but, as Hartstein points out, it can be difficult to admit when it's happening to us because we try to rationalize it. "If you find that your partner’s jealousy is so bad that you have to placate [them] or even omit certain facts from your life, then it may be a problem," she says. "The dynamic where one person is always 'in trouble' or apologizing is also definitely a problem. And if your friends have concerns that [your partner's] too jealous and controlling, you would probably do well to listen to what they have to say."

Don't Be Afraid To Get Help

If you have any fears that your partner's jealousy isn't healthy, don't be afraid to reach out to your friends and family for help. If your partner is behaving in a controlling or abusive way, then definitely seek help. But remember, it's not always obvious. "When [your partner] suspects you and everyone around you of having the worst of intentions," they can be pretending to be protective, while actually being controlling psychologist Nikki Martinez tells Bustle. So make sure to be honest with yourself about any jealous or controlling behaviors that don't sit well with you. And, you can always ask people close to you what they think.

Make sure that you're realistic about what controlling behaviors really mean and that you understand how toxic they can be. Like Papp says, romantic relationships should be founded on mutual trust and respect, not control.

Editor's Note: If you need help getting out of your relationship or figuring out what to do next, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233.