The Washington Post

Carolyn Hax: When does jealousy cross a line?


Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Hi, Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

At times 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 felt she was crossing a line. I got mad at my boyfriend for allowing her to text so late at night.

He said it was nothing like that but 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 I felt that I overlooked his seemingly innocent contact with female co-workers that led to his cheating.


“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 even 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 can and can’t 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 all these cheaters and non-cheaters have one important thing in common: They all have contact with temptation. You can’t, can’t, 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 that something’s wrong — and be proactive 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 next 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 using them to justify imposing stricter and 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 the same thing out loud to someone who is qualified to help you.

None of this means your boyfriend isn’t (or is) cheating. My point is merely that your ability to trust is about you, independent of any one person’s worthiness of that trust. You need to be able to trust for your jealousy alarm to work.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Subscribe at



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