Jealousy is one of those demons that just seems to take everything over when it is felt – even when you know on the inside that your jealousy doesn’t make sense somehow, it often still rips through and takes you hostage. Many people even go so far as to call jealousy an innate emotion, as though, no matter what, we will always feel some jealousy sometimes, and there’s nothing we can do to help that.
Some people even think jealousy is a healthy thing, because it means that you care. You know that you are in love, it is said, when you feel tremendous pangs of jealousy about that special love that you share being shared with somebody else. Without jealousy and other associated negative involuntary emotions, the relationship might as well end, it is said, because then you have no more passionate divine spark. If you don’t ever get jealous, it must mean that you can turn your emotions on and off at a whim, and thus no more organic drive exists to feel.
I want to correct some assumptions here – because it is obvious, if you look around you enough, that there are people who do not ever really feel jealousy. I am one of them. Such people do not have shallower emotions; rather, they have an inbuilt understanding that channels negative emotions away from feelings of jealousy. This holds a lot of hope for those other folks who tend to become prisoner to jealousy’s grip: it’s not an inevitable process.
The difference between envy and jealousy
Envy happens when you see somebody else experiencing something you’d like to have. You get a wishful feeling inside, like you want what they have. But this feeling does not necessarily lead to jealousy, you see; you can be envious of somebody’s situation and make common cause with them. For example, say one of your friends is doing a workout routine and has gotten into really good shape. You envy them, and thus you come up to them and ask them what their secret is, and maybe even whether you can join them and do what they do. This is an example of an envious response that leads not to jealousy, but rather to motivating, progressive thinking.
Jealousy is different; it is an altogether negative, regressive state of mind. The jealous thought says “I want what you have, and thus until I have it, you shouldn’t have it either.” This is very different from simple envy, because now the emphasis is not on you moving forward, but rather on keeping the other person back. That’s why jealousy can be so destructive and all-consuming; the jealous individual gets into a state of mind that presumes the right to control other people’s pleasure! Yikes. Even if they say nothing at all, the feelings are still there, and the air becomes heavy with them.
Little feelings of jealousy are understandable sometimes, and I will talk about why in a minute. However, once we get into a situation of chronic jealousy, I don’t think it is extreme to say that there is potential abuse down the road, since jealousy involves that sense of entitlement to control. There’s definitely a really big incentive out there for folks that are prone to jealousy to work on themselves to minimize the recurrence of such all-consuming feelings. Jealousy is not an emotion that should be embraced as a sign that strong love exists. In fact, it’s the opposite; jealousy comes from a perspective of self-preservation, not love towards others. Now let’s talk about why that is.
The real roots of jealous feelings
Most societies seem to characterize jealousy as a natural reaction to when something sacred or important to you is shared with someone else (the primary example usually being romantic, sexual, or otherwise intimate love). This has things completely confused. Jealousy’s force does not derive from the sharing of something special to you; rather, it comes from the feeling that you are about to lose that special thing that is being shared – that, by sharing it, you are in danger of losing it. This aversion to loss is quite natural! Of course, even people that feel no jealousy also have times when they fear losing something precious. It’s part of the human experience.
I remember at one point asking myself: people don’t usually seem to get jealous if they are best friends with somebody that also has another “best friend,” so why is there such a strong norm about being in a romantic/sexual relationship with somebody who maintains such a relationship with others?
It is clear to me now that this perspective has to do with fear of loss – something that the property-oriented thinking that predominates around romantic relationships is really good at setting us up for. Whether it’s dogmatic monogamy or a “one male, multiple females” version of polygamy, social norms strongly dictate to us that intimate relationships = property relations. Now, you may be thinking that this is a ridiculous idea, but really, think for a moment about how marriage is regulated: you have to get permission from a judge to get married or divorced. The government must recognize you and your partner as being organized into a family unit – you cannot do this yourself.
Then there are those creeping terms we use in language to indicate relationship ties which surreptitiously bring ideas of ownership to mind: “my one and only,” “till death do us part,” “he’s mine,” “she’s spoken for,” and other such expressions bring with them the burdens of rigidness and restrictions consistent with a “contract” – because hey, that’s what marriage truly boils down to, isn’t it? You can have the deepest, closest relationship which is not a marriage, and you can have an unintimate, unpassionate “marriage of convenience,” on the other hand – but there’s no escaping, either way, that marriage is, even in popular discourse, regulated by the government, and thus not innately some sacred thing that you create with your partner. All these norms and expectations floating in the background about what a relationship is supposed to be does have a huge effect on how we orient to such relationships – even when the thought of marriage is nonexistent, especially in normative, heterosexual contexts.
Now, if we take this ever-present background of relationships = property, it becomes a lot easier to see why feelings of loss and envy get confounded into jealousy. The reality is that you cannot control how your partner feels or what they want. Despite all the chatter out there that talks about how to “keep your man” or how to “stop her from walking out,” the truth is that you don’t have this control. Loss and breakup can happen at anytime, and “putting a ring on it” or moving in together will not erase such thoughts and possibilities.
Want to know what does help? Honest, open communication – in which, rather than facing loss with a restrictive jealous mindset, we become open about our fear of loss, and can talk about it more calmly. It may be very hard to do this sometimes, because that exposes you to being vulnerable – but guess what? Vulnerability is part and parcel of intimate relationships! You’re vulnerable all the time, whether you like it or not, and I say that it’s better to have a handle on that vulnerability and be able to manage it, rather than it suddenly flaring up and managing you.
If you tend to get jealous, I challenge you to monitor yourself: see if you can find the grain of fear that you are going to lose something precious to you that fuels your jealousy. I guarantee you, it’s always there. What other reason could you possibly have for wanting to restrict somebody you care about from enjoying themself?