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Life Kit: What we can learn from our jealousy

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So getting a little personal here, when is the last time you felt jealous? It's not a pleasant feeling. And if it's mishandled, jealous feelings can lead to anything from internal strife to actual violence. But when it comes to romantic jealousy, the experience doesn't have to be all bad. Life Kit's Andee Tagle has more on reframing jealousy in romantic relationships and why it's more complex than you might think.

ANDEE TAGLE, BYLINE: We tend to blame jealousy on a partner's actions - maybe a wayward glance, a suspicious text, yet another mention of that hilarious coworker. But actually, those feelings are often lighting up an internal problem.

JOLI HAMILTON: That's my clue that I'm like, oh, I am imagining that I'm going to lose my influence over this person who I care about.

TAGLE: Joli Hamilton is a research psychologist who wrote an entire dissertation on the nature of jealousy in polyamorous relationships. She says this emotion has a bad rap.

HAMILTON: Jealousy is a wonderful indicator that we care about someone. And then it's the interpretation. It's the meaning that we put on it that really starts to give it its weight.

TAGLE: Lightening the load of our jealousy starts by understanding exactly where it comes from.

JACQUELINE MISLA: Is there something that happened to me when I was younger that connects the dots between how I'm experiencing love and territorialism and ownership and anger and all those things?

TAGLE: That's Jacqueline Misla. She's a change strategist and the co-host of the "Curious Fox," a podcast all about love and relationships. She says when jealousy arises, listen to what those feelings are actually trying to tell you. Maybe don't react to them until your best self comes back online.

MISLA: When I've experienced jealousy, my wife has been out with somebody. And they've been doing walks in Central Park, and they're on rooftop bars having drinks. And I would feel jealous. And I had to dissect, oh, I want to go to a rooftop bar. I want to take a walk through Central Park. And so I realized, OK, I don't need to do all those things with her. I can go with friends out to a bar. And that's an opportunity then for me to have dialogue and say, hey, I'm wondering if we can build in more date nights?

TAGLE: It's a process easier said than done, of course. But Hamilton says resist the urge for cheap Band-Aids like agreeing never to talk about such and such person or demanding to see all of your partner's internet history. If jealousy is creating barriers or causing a pattern of friction in your relationship, problem-solve together.

HAMILTON: Because in there is a much more profound conversation about what our relationship is built on. That's where we can start to actually use jealousy to get closer to our partner rather than as a way to control them.

TAGLE: If you can muscle through that process, the feeling of compersion might just be the reward that awaits you on the other side, says Hamilton.

HAMILTON: Compersion is an antonym to jealousy. It is the sensation that we have when we are watching, like, a little kid have an ice cream cone, but we are lactose intolerant. And we're like, I cannot enjoy that joy, but I am so glad you are happy right now.

TAGLE: Compersion is a term most often associated with non-monogamous relationships. But it's a healthy practice for everyone. Your partner's big win at work, when they finally find time for quality time with their college friends - whatever the case may be, make space to be happy for their happiness. Compersion fosters deeper connection and understanding in your relationship. But it takes practice, even for Misla, who's been in a non-monogamous marriage for years.

MISLA: When there are parts of me that are feeling empty and disconnected from her, it's much harder for me to experience compersion. When I am feeling full in myself, full in our relationship, then her joy just spills over and can become my joy. But it does take discipline.

TAGLE: Discipline, I know. I don't like it any more than you do. But there's growth to be found in the struggle.

HAMILTON: You don't have to suffer through jealousy. And you don't have to destroy it. You can really learn to relate to it differently.

TAGLE: For NPR News, I'm Andee Tagle.

MARTIN: For more tips from Life Kit, you can go to npr.org/lifekit.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE UNDERCOVER DREAM LOVERS SONG, "COME HOME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.