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Navigating Jealousy When You've Been Betrayed Before Isn't Easy, But It's Possible

After you've been cheated on, it's easy to have a distorted view of relationships.
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Here's a truly terrifying horror movie idea: you roll over in bed to look at your sweet, supportive, loyal partner. But — cue the screechy music — they've been replaced by your worst ex, the one who cheated and lied and broke your heart and left you with mounting therapy bills and a ton of emotional baggage.

You thought you found a new, healthy relationship — but in fact you're just living through your worst heartache, yet again. It's worse than Linda Blair in "The Exorcist." Worse than that beheading cult in "Hereditary." Worse than Hannibal Lecter.

After you've been cheated on, it's normal to have these kinds of fears, said Dr. Tracy Dalgleish, a psychologist and couples therapist with the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships in Ottawa.

After a betrayal, "it can seem like it's not your [new] partner standing in front of you, but rather the previous hurts and traumas from old relationships," she said. "And we know that we often repeat old patterns in relationships, especially if we don't heal those old experiences."

Watch: Learn how to handle jealous feelings in the first episode of our new series "Navigating," with host Kait Howell. Story continues below.

There's an image she often uses with her patients, Dalgleish said, to help them realize how distorted their vision of the new relationship might be.

"After someone cheats on you, they've taken your clear glasses and they've replaced them with a blue-tinted pair. Now everything you see in your relationship has a tint to it," she said. "And there's a bias that you are now bringing into this relationship from your previous experience."

You're normal for worrying that the terrible thing that devastated you before might happen to you again. But it's also not healthy for you — or your new relationship — to dwell too much on past hurt, and to wait for it to strike again, if you have no good reason for your jealousy.

So, what are you supposed to do about it?

There's no way to stop feeling jealous, or to magically become totally secure all at once. But one relatively easy thing you can do is to investigate your feelings rather than reacting automatically, Dalgeish said.

If your new partner is out and you haven't heard from them, you might be tempted to keep messaging them until all of a sudden you've sent 20 texts in a row and you're full of shame. That's acting automatically.

But, "if you can tune into: I have these thoughts, I have these feelings, I know where it comes from, then you can decide what to do next," she said.

Instead of assuming the worst, you can start challenging some of those thoughts. Has your new partner ever given you a reason not to trust them? And, most importantly: is this an old belief you're applying to a new person?

Often, if you're focused on past heartbreak, you'll see things that reinforce the idea that the same situation will play out again — but you might be missing the things your partner is doing to build up the trust and connection you share.

"The emotional part of our brain doesn't know how to differentiate between what's happening right now and what has happened in the past," Dalgleish explained. But the intellectual side does, "and that's where your job is to do something different."

One of the most important skills she works on with couples is emotional validation: figuring out how to validate your partner when they feel vulnerable, and trying to get them to do that for you in a way you'll respond to. Maybe you'll feel secure if you get a simple text back within a few minutes, and then you can calm down and stop thinking about it. Maybe you'll feel better if you and your partner plan a special date night, or if they just hold you.

"Jealousy stems from a motivation, and that is to protect the relationship and keep others away," Dalgleish explains. There's nothing wrong with feeling that way — you just have to work on how you deal with it.

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