When Does Jealousy Become Abuse?

A young guy wrote to Slate's advice columnist today, seeking help with his pathological jealousy. Prudie ripped him a new one — and left me wondering where the line is between jealousy and abuse.

Here's the letter:

I am in my early 20s and was recently dumped by my long-term girlfriend. This shocked me because of how in love with me this girl seemed to be and because of the revelations it brought about. Even though 90 percent of our relationship seemed blissfully happy, the remaining 10 percent was miserable because I was extremely verbally abusive to her and gradually restricted her social world because of my jealousy. I insisted she avoid contact with guys she had slept with (and I promised to do the same with my previous partners); I used her romantic past to make her feel awful when she wanted to spend time with friends at places where her past flings would be; I held the fact that she'd had casual sexual partners against her. At the time, I thought I was a good guy who simply held his girlfriend to the same standards he imposed on himself. I did the same thing in my previous relationship. Now it's painfully obvious what a monster I was. I've pored over self-help books and tried to make sure I do not revert to being this horrible person, but I always do. Now I am in a fresh relationship with a girl-we've fallen quickly for each other-and I'm keeping quiet about my discomfort that she's friends with guys she has slept with. But I know something will eventually slip through the cracks. I'm sure a therapist would help, but I'm an in-debt college student and can't afford it. Is there anything I can do to avoid ending up the monster that I seem destined to become?

— Scared

Now, Scared identifies himself as emotionally abusive, and appears to have controlled and isolated his girlfriend in such a way that it's no wonder she left. Such behavior can escalate into physical abuse, and trying to cut someone off from her social life is a major red flag. Still, I was surprised by Prudie's response:

I hope you can hear in that characterization of your relationship how even now you view her purpose in life was to confirm your lovableness and absorb your rage. It's a positive sign that you see the maliciousness of your behavior, recognize that you aren't in control of yourself, and accept that you need to change. But declaring yourself a monster paradoxically allows you to make your problem so big, so "destined," that you can't be held responsible-after all, fairy-tale monsters were just made that way. The first thing I suggest you do is come clean to your current girlfriend about your problem, and the fact that you are already feeling the worm of unease about her past sexual partners. I hope she leaves, but if she doesn't, then the next thing you have to do is slow the relationship way down.

She then offers some good advice, telling Scared to examine his partner choices to see if he goes after vulnerable women, and to seek therapy through his school. But does his letter really show that he thinks his ex existed to "confirm his lovableness and absorb his rage?" Is his use of the word "monster" really a way of excusing himself? Scared has done some fucked-up shit, and if my friend were dating him now, I might advise her to leave. But he also seems to have recognized relatively early in his life that he has a problem, and to be looking for a way to fix it — does Prudie's extra criticism really help matters?

What Scared's letter really highlights, at least for me, is the difficulty of identifying and dealing with emotional abuse. At what point does jealousy, for instance, become abusive, no longer an emotion but a behavior that's toxic to another person's well-being? Earlier this week, the coverage of a study about jealousy and attachment style referenced "the kind of sexual jealousy that contributes to domestic violence." But what kind is that? And how do we spot it, and combat it in ourselves and others, before it escalates?

Scared belittled his girlfriend for her sexual history, and tried to control where she went and who she talked to — all of which sounds abusive and wrong. But while I haven't stooped to any of these behaviors, I've certainly felt uncomfortable about a partner's exes — and while I've never forbidden anyone to have contact with people they've slept with, I have to admit I can kind of understand the impulse. Of course, you could argue that abuse is ultimately about power and control, with jealousy acting, in Scared's case, as an excuse. But does jealousy, in some ways, always stem from a desire to control one's partner? Is any level of jealousy acceptable in a relationship? Does concern about a partner's fidelity always contain the seeds of abuse? Do these issues come up in polyamorous relationships as well as monogamous ones? I don't have the answers to these questions, but I sense that they're not simple, that they tap into a vein of human fucked-upness that exists in many of us, even if we'd never go so far as Scared.

Abuser Seeks A Way Out [Slate]