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The body language of the couple in front of me indicates a complete disconnect. Christopher has his arms crossed and has turned away, while his partner Jessica has tears rolling down her cheeks. Her body is bent over in shame. She looks down. “I don’t know what is wrong with me”, she says with a small voice. “I get so jealous when he looks at another woman and I get really mad when he flirts with somebody else. And then there is his ex-wife…” Her body language gets defensive. “It makes me absolutely ballistic that he accommodates her every whim.” Christopher reacts, “She is even jealous of my daughters”. He adds with contempt, “that is just ridiculous!”
Is it ridiculous? Let’s see if we can understand jealousy better, based on our evolutionary heritage and Jessica’s past experiences.
What is this emotion that we call jealousy?
Jealousy is the fear that a special relationship we have, with a romantic partner, family member or close friend, is threatened. We fear that our partner, family member or friend will form a closer relationship with someone else and that we will be excluded or abandoned. Jealousy is not envy. Envy occurs when we believe that someone has achieved an advantage and we resent their success or happiness. We interpret their success as our failure. Envy is about comparing ourselves to others. Jealousy is about a threat to a relationship in which we are deeply invested.
Jealousy is not a single emotion, but a mix of anger, anxiety, fear of loss, confusion, helplessness, hopelessness, sadness and great vulnerability. These powerful emotions go hand in hand with certain fearful thoughts, e.g. “I am being replaced. I don’t measure up. He/she loves another person more. He/she will leave me”. These thoughts and emotions usually trigger previous relationship experiences, often all the way back to childhood. We might be triggered into feeling the same way as when our younger sibling came along and received all the attention, or when we had another painful experience of a relationship changing or ending.
Jealous feelings are normal and not a problem. They can become problematic when we act on those feelings of fear, when we ask pointed questions, interrogate, follow the other person, spy on them, check their GPS, read their email or text messages on their phone and obsess about a potential dishonesty, betrayal or infidelity.
Jealousy is a primal emotion just like our fight or flight response. Evolution helps us to understand why jealousy can be so powerful and all consuming. There are two evolutionary theories that explain the terrifying fear behind jealousy. Parental Investment Theory and the Theory of the Competition for Limited Resources explain that we are more likely to protect and support individuals who share our genes, like biological children, siblings or parents. Both men and women can experience sexual jealousy and attachment jealousy but a man is more likely to feel jealous over perceived sexual infidelity because of the biological need to protect and continue his own genes. A woman is more likely to experience jealousy over perceived emotional closeness between her partner and another woman because that could mean that resources and protection will be provided to someone else.
Robert L. Leahy points out in his book “The Jealousy Cure” that historically, jealousy was viewed differently than today. It was a central aspect of Greek mythology and literature. In Medieval Europe, it was viewed as a necessary, even positive, emotion that was linked to honour. Only in the 19th century did jealousy come to be increasingly viewed as interfering with domestic harmony. The Victorian period emphasized the need to control our powerful emotions. Today, jealousy is an emotion we are expected to be ashamed of and feel we need to hide. We believe that jealousy is a sign that there is something wrong with the jealous person. Jealousy has become a symbol of inability to trust and lack of self-confidence.
Jealousy does not only show up in romantic partnerships, but also in families. Today, 35% of all households in North America include stepchildren. When there is a new partner, children often experience feelings of betrayal, anger, anxiety and resentment. Stepparents can also experience competition with their step children. To deny those feelings only creates inner conflicts and passive-aggressive interactions. There is no shame in jealousy and it can be worked through and cleared out either in individual sessions or through couples coaching, or both.
Jealousy even shows up at work. Job security in today’s day and age is constantly in question. It can depend on whom the boss favours and who gets socially included or excluded. The fear to lose one’s job can fuel jealousy with work colleagues.
Social media gives us all opportunities to feel that we have been excluded or rejected. We might perceive that others seem to enjoy friendships, relationships and families that we don’t have. Not being invited to an event or not being tagged can become an experience of exclusion. Or we view others seemingly happy private lives, romantic declarations or trips to exotic destinations with jealousy or envy. We don’t realize in those moments of jealousy that Facebook or Instagram are anything but a full reflection of reality.
Just know that you are not alone if you are experiencing jealousy. Anyone can be provoked to feel jealous because evolution built jealousy into our human nature. Whether jealousy is a problem depends on how much jealous feelings overwhelm and preoccupy you, and if you act on them and if that interferes with your relationships. Feelings of jealousy can be balanced out by working on your past experiences and beliefs about relationships.
If you experienced a traumatic separation, divorce, sickness or death in your family of origin, you might have learned the belief that people you love and rely on will leave. Your learned attachment style also has an influence on the relationship beliefs you have learned. If you have experienced that you can rely on your primary caretaker to always come back and adequately take care of your needs, it is more likely that you have learned to trust that others are reliable and caring. If you have learned as an infant that your primary caretaker cannot be relied on, does not care or does not respond in an appropriate time or manner, it is more likely that you expect—and recreate—the same in your adult relationships. If you have learned an insecure attachment style, you are more likely to be jealous.
Your comfort level with closeness is also related to how jealous you feel. If you don’t feel comfortable with closeness, you are less likely to be jealous. You won’t rely on the relationship as much as somebody who needs closeness or is comfortable with it.
If you answer to one or more of these questions with yes, you are probably more likely to be afraid of loss and therefore more jealous.
- Did one of your parents leave or were there threats of a separation or divorce?
- Did you worry as a child or teenager that one or both of your parents might leave you, disown you, replace you, or that they might get sick or die?
- Did your childhood include infidelity by one or both of your parents?
- Did you family move a lot so that you did not experience longer lasting friendships with other kids?
- Were you ever in a relationship with a narcissistic or dishonest person?
- Did someone you dated or were married to let you down, even cheated on you?
You can read how Christopher and Jessica have changed their situation,
in Jealousy PART 2 – Working Through Jealousy and Fear.
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The book “The Jealousy Cure” by Robert L. Leahy is available from Amazon.