For as long as there have been men, women, and relationships, there has been jealousy—the fear of losing the person you love to a rival. Romance and literature throughout the ages have extolled jealousy as the sign of true love. “He that is not jealous, is not in love,” said St. Augustine.
They have also associated jealousy with pain, distrust, anger and anguish. “There is no greater glory than love, nor any greater punishment than jealousy,” said Lope de Vega.
In the actual lives of couples, jealousy is a complex emotion with varied causes and different consequences. While it can re-affirm love and even create enticement, it can also assault self-esteem, reflect betrayal, justify possessiveness and cause violence.
Where does jealousy fit in your relationship? Is it experienced in a constructive way? Understanding the jealousy you feel may be a point of information, reflection, evaluation and healing together.
Wired for Jealousy
According to David Buss in Why Jealousy Is as Necessary as Love and Sex, both men and women are wired to be jealous as a solution to the problem of reproduction and survival. Earliest man had to keep his partner from sexual activity with a rival to ensure ownership of offspring. Women physically “know” their own children (that’s for sure), so they needed to keep man’s attention and love from a rival to ensure protection and survival. The modern translation seems to ring true. Buss found that in studies of men and women in sexually committed relationships, men reacted with more jealousy to sexual infidelity; women responded with more jealousy to emotional infidelity – the thought that their partner could “love” someone else is the most upsetting aspect of betrayal for women. Though with a different slant, both men and women are jealous!”
This is a culture that escalates jealousy and fear of the perfect rival by an endless bombardment of icons and images of hyped sexual perfection and opportunity. Set against the back-drop of high divorce rates, we are continually reminded that the things that belong to us are disposable and replaceable. “Not worth fixing!
Connection and affirmation become invaluable in this cultural context. In a workshop of many couples, everyone reacted to the vignette of the husband thumbing through the lingerie catalogue that had arrived in the mail and his wife’s negative reaction to his suggestion that she place an order: “For the Girl or what she is wearing?”
In processing this, it was immensely helpful for the women to hear the men affirm “Yes we like to look – but we want to be with our own partners.”
Are you Feeling Jealous? Is Your Jealousy Realistic?
If there seems no tangible evidence that your partner has given or not given for you to feel jealous, you may want to self-reflect. In her book Mating in Captivity, Ester Perel suggests that too often the focus is on the object of our love rather than our own capacity to love. Are you secure in your capacity to love your partner in a way that satisfies and adds to a secure relationship?
Consider: Isolation and lack of outside interests and affirming connections may lower your confidence and increase your possessive worry about losing your partner to another. When your partner is not the sole source of affirmation – when in fact you know you are successful in any other venue – there is a positive emotional translation you bring to the relationship.
Is your jealousy prompted by the feeling that “Something is not right?” In our blog post Secrets, Lies and Relationships, we recognized that people often have a built-in denial to the possibility that someone they love could be betraying them. That said, it is sometimes hard to ignore the feeling that “something is wrong,” that “someone” is between you.
Some people react indirectly with avoidance, negative digs, criticism about other things, even competitive flirting – none of which invites clarity or more closeness with the partner.
Some gather evidence and outside supporters as a way to ease the fear of loss – understandable but often adding more people and complications to the bond you need to examine and evaluate.
Some decide to use their suspicion as a point of information, and they move in to reclaim the relationship and the intimacy. Sometimes without too much said, their efforts bring a reciprocal positive response. If the relationship regains life, they don’t look back. It does happen.
Many confront the partner. Confronting your partner with your suspicions and concerns can be frightening and disruptive. Some feel if you don’t want the answer – you don’t ask the question. In terms of authentic relating and healing, however, it is usually in the best interest of both to clarify reality.
• When confronting is done as screaming accusations – it offers little besides making the partner a victim.
• When confronting is met with stonewalling and deceit – it is a matter of time and willingness to live in an unhappy way.
• When confronting makes dialogue possible – it can be a step toward evaluating or repairing the bond.
Is jealousy the collateral damage of a partner’s betrayal?
Jealousy in the aftermath of betrayal is a mix of pain, rage, loss of self-esteem, and esteem of the other. There are endless ruminations of why colored with regret, doubt, resentment, and confusion. Like other traumas, it feels like an assault on self and belief systems. “Was what we had real?” For a couple to go on there needs to be apology, ownership, reassurance, and forgiveness. There must be a willingness on the part of to each to consider what could be different, what they need and how they will rebuild. If the theme is one of crime and punishment, there is no movement. Forgiveness here is not condoning – it is desire to move forward. Working with a professional can help contain the pain and foster understanding and repair.
When is jealousy destructive?
However stirred, when jealousy becomes obsessive vigilance and threatening possessiveness that keeps a partner from living in a free and healthy way, it is toxic to any relationship. If your partner has no freedom to choose to be with you – you don’t have a partner, you have a prisoner. There is nothing romantic about stalking.
Relationships built on fear of loss to a rival have little to do with love and much more to do with personal emotional difficulties. Professional help and outside support can be a crucial resource to both partners.
Jealousy as romantic and mutually affirming
Jealousy can be experienced as an indication of love, even a compliment when it adds to the partner’s feelings. As such it often translates into mutual affirmation of self and partner.
Consider the story of Ellen and Mark: When the waiter begins to flirt with Ellen while describing the specials, Mark notices and is a bit on guard by the attention to his fiancée. When the waiter leaves, he says:
“Well this guy’s into you – I thought he would spill the water the way he was staring.”
“So how old do you think he is?”
“I don’t know – I’m not his mother.”
The waiter comes back with bread and asks Ellen if she went to School in Florida. Smiling, she tells him, “No.”
Mark rolls his eyes
Ellen laughs and says, “Come on – he wants a tip.”
“He wants more than a tip – We may get this meal free.”
Enjoying this glimpse of jealousy, Ellen says, “Did you happen to notice the big guy I walked in with?”
“No – was he good looking or rich?”
“I don’t know – but I happen to love him!!”
If the relationship is alive, there will always be a stir of jealousy. Don’t fear it, don’t create it, don’t misuse it, just use it together to affirm your connection.
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Last reviewed: 9 Feb 2010