Love patterns from childhood repeat in adult romantic relationships. When early care meant dismissal, rejection, or invalidation, people are more likely to seek the same traits in their adult romantic partners.
Toxic jealousy becomes a dysfunctional way to get unmet, but very normal, childhood needs for affection and genuine care met in adulthood. Think of toxic jealousy as a giant tantrum, the equivalent of a 4-year-old yelling and flailing about on the floor to get what he or she wants, and to get it immediately.
If, early in life, loving one or both of your caretakers left you feeling rejected or undervalued, then these are the feelings you will automatically call up when you reach for love in your adult relationships. These early experiences mean you are likely attracted to people who, similar to your parents, are unpredictable or unreliable. Toxic love ensues when the patterns that you initially experienced are triggered in your adult relationships.
Toxic relationships at first may unfold like love at first sight. It is incredibly seductive to feel the instant chemistry of meeting a person who triggers old love patterns. Sadly, the intrigue and allure that this shiny new partner first emits soon give way, and you are left once again feeling that you cannot get your needs met. This upset triggers old childhood wounds, which can cause a person to lose their footing and tumble into such an extreme emotional headspace that they cannot think clearly. They do and say things they would never ordinarily do or say. After it is all over, the jealousy abates, and self-loathing rushes in.
A wound that never heals is easily re-injured. Take the example of Monica — growing up, she never had full access to her father. He was aloof and uninterested, traveling a great deal for work. But every now and again, the family would go on vacation, and she would get his undivided attention — and she lived for those moments. Now in adulthood, she is attracted to aloof and noncommittal types who cannot reliably be there for her. When they blow her off by avoiding or ignoring her, Monica goes into a toxic jealousy spiral. She stalks the offender on Facebook, leaves messages accusing him of having sex with other women —on one occasion, she even showed up at his place of employment and publicly yelled that he was sleeping with his coworker. She is in overdrive to somehow possess what she could not have as a child.
If you see some of yourself in these descriptions, ask yourself the following three questions as a first step toward escape from the jealousy spiral.
1. What is your attachment history?
Examine how you were loved in childhood and how your needs went met and unmet. What went well, and what went poorly? Was one of your caregivers in some way absent or unavailable to you?
2. What “types” are you habitually drawn to romantically?
Pull off the rose-colored glasses and take a cold, hard look at the people to whom you are attracted. Are they honest, emotionally available, and reliable? Or, are they unpredictable, sending mix messages or demonstrating an unwillingness to fully commit to you?
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3. What is the “love wound” you can identify in #1 and the choices you make in #2 from above?
Identify the hurt that started in childhood and now gets reactivated in your adult romantic choices. It is important to be honest with yourself: If you have a history of toxic love, then something in your background needs to be processed and worked through. Instead of continually looking for others to heal you, consider talking with a therapist or committing to work through it on your own.
Even if a pattern of toxic love describes your relationship, there is a way out of the spiral. I describe in my workbook, Toxic Love: 5 Steps, specific strategies for how to overcome this pattern, and also how to start attaching with healthy romantic partners.
Jill Weber, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in Washington, D.C., and the author of The Relationship Formula Workbook Series, including Toxic Love—5 Steps: How to Identify Toxic Love Patterns and Find Fulfilling Attachments, Breaking Up and Divorce—5 Steps: How to Heal and be Comfortable Alone and Building Self-Esteem—5 Steps: How to Feel 'Good Enough.' For more, follow her on Twitter @DrJillWeber and on Facebook, or visit drjillweber.com.