Monday, March 9, 2020

WTF Is The Deal With Jealousy

Invoke in your memory a situation when you were jealous. Perhaps your partner went out to meet with a friend of theirs - maybe someone they may find attractive. Perhaps it was a new person in their life - to whom they were getting closer. Perhaps they were doing something fun or exciting or meaningful. Perhaps they were old friends, reconnecting after years of silence - or (god forbid) ex-lovers.
Or perhaps you saw them being flirted with? Perhaps it looked like your partner was flirting back?
Or maybe you met your recent ex - all happy and cheerful and cute and cuddly with their new partner - instead of feeling as horrible as you about the breakup?

Can you remember the physical sensation? That pit in your stomach? Perhaps a wave of heat, or the fight-or-flight adrenaline rushing through you? In extreme cases - perhaps your hands were shaking? 
Not to mention the wonderful blend of pain, anger, sadness and helplessness...

I hope you did not get to experience this too often in your life - but if you did at least know that you're in the good company of most humans... 
Unlike popular belief, jealousy is not restricted to romantic relationships. Children - coveting parental love and attention - sometimes exhibit signs of jealousy, even hatred, towards newborns. Close friends sometimes feel it when one party drifts away - often due to a new romantic relationship.
Jealousy is such a big deal in fact, that many social norms - and even some laws - are in place to protect us from it (not very successfully).

As humans we get to experience quite a large range of emotions, yet few are as strong and as destructive as jealousy. Sometimes it manifests in the form of a controlling husband that tries to distance his wife from her friends. Sometimes it's the wife who starts a fight every time her husband smiles at a woman. Sometimes it's the guy who becomes a stalker after 3 dates. 
So what's going on here? 

It's commonly claimed that jealousy is "natural" - in the sense that there's an obvious evolutionary advantage for "protecting what's yours". The man (presumably) wants to be certain that the children his mate bears and he helps feed are actually his, and the woman tries to ensure the man to invest most of his resources into her and her young. Both maximizes the chance that "jealous genes" propagate - and everything we see today is a result/adaptation of that basic primal drive.
Though this explanation has some merit, it doesn't seem to give a full picture. First, our ancestors spent most generations living in various tribal/group structures (even as apes) - so the 1-man-1-woman framing is false. Second, it doesn't explain jealousy unrelated to propagation. Third, seeing your partner flirt in front of you (or even online - perhaps in a Facebook group) is more painful than knowing they did it but not actually being exposed - which goes against "making sure the offspring is mine". 
We are long past the point where some interaction between my girlfriend and a random guy at some event would realistically lead to me raising someone else's children - and if I'm so worried about it then I can do a DNA test. But you’ll probably agree, that it doesn't help at all with the pain in the stomach...
Let's go deeper. 

Jealousy and Loss

By definition jealousy is related to losing something you already have/had before (that's the fundamental difference between envy - wanting what someone else has - and jealousy). 
That's why it's scary to watch as new people enter your partner's life - even if it has no romantic "danger". What if they get close? What if you'll lose your "the first one to call when sad" status? What if they can give your partner something you can't?
Not to mention the "classical" fears - "what if she's more attracted to that new guy?", "what if she'll leave me?" etc.

{A moment of hard truth: these are actually good things. You want your partner to have close friends, a strong and supportive environment, to experience new things (especially those you can't give), and being attracted to random handsome guys is just a sign of a reasonable sex drive. And you're an asshole if you try to prevent it. I know it's hard and painful - it's hard and very painful for me as well - but I try to remember that I want her to be happy even more than I want to keep her all to myself} 

This loss of "status" or intimacy, whether real or imagined, can feel like rejection. Like your partner is wrongfully taking away your "property".
The fallacy is of course that your partner isn't actually choosing a friend over you - though some resources have to be divided (like time), it's not a zero sum game and you fulfill different roles and needs. Unfortunately jealousy is far from rational...

Jealousy and Insecurity

Jealousy is tightly knit with insecurity. Whether it's about the relationship as a whole or specifically about your place in your partner's life regarding the "challenged" area (who does she call first? who does he find most attractive etc.) and even with the general sense of self-worth you have. The stronger you feel, in general or about the relationship, the easier it is for your subconscious to not freak out - interpreting the same events as benign rather than horrible.

To be honest, this point makes a certain amount of sense. If he screams that he's going to leave you whenever you fight, then it's hard to believe him when he says that the new girl he's flirting with doesn't pose a threat to your relationship. Or even as simple as when you're at an event and she doesn't pay attention to you all evening but does talk a lot with a few other guys.
In both cases the initial issue is already a destabilizing problem, the second part invokes jealousy - and together they form a corrosive mix.

A slightly more tricky scenario is jealousy of the past. That's why it's considered bad manners to talk about how good your ex was in bed or (god forbid) the size of his genitalia compared to the current partner...
The guy from the previous example can stop flirting with the other girl - or even stop talking to her at all, the girl can spend the event with you instead of the other guys, but the ex is always there - nothing (barring a mind wipe) will remove them from your partner's life.
This is one of the reasons behind slut shaming: if your girlfriend slept with 30 guys - what are the chances that you're the best she had in bed? Feels unlikely. It would be a much easier competition if you had less competitors - right?...

{I'm talking a lot about sexual insecurity and feelings of inadequacy compared to previous partners - because it really is a very large concern. If you feel or even know that your partner had sexual encounters better than you, remember:
1) Sexual compatibility rises over time - the more you get to know each other.
2) You can get better at anything in the world - sexual prowess included.
3) Even if you are "just OK", you have other qualities they must really like - since they’re with you and not the metaphorical “big-dick-asshole-ex”.}

Jealousy and the Dark-Bottomless-Pit-In-Your-Stomach

Recall the rush of fear and anxiety we often feel when exposed to a jealousy invoking occurrence. The physical response is similar to the fight-or-flight reaction we have when faced with a life threatening situation.
I'm sure your partner is scary when you're fighting - but not as threatening as a lioness in the savanna. And if my girlfriend never wants to talk to me ever again - it will destroy my world, but only metaphorically. Contrary to what I may feel at the moment - I will survive.

The problem is that it doesn't feel this way. Especially in long relationships, where you went through a lot together, grew together, built a life together. It's so hard to imagine a life alone. Starting again, from scratch. A breakup sometimes seems like death - of the life you know and the life that you could have had, the life you imagined and expected.

Is it really a surprise then that anything threatening the relationship and the life it stands for invokes a life-threat reaction?

{A moment of hard truth 2: losing a long relationship really is heartbreaking - but almost always it's because of the relationship itself - not due to an overwhelming external factor.
The relationship doesn't end because you break up, you break up because the relationship died.}

And at a certain point we already know how strong that reaction is, how horrible it feels - and become scared of the jealousy itself. 
Which only makes it worse of course - since now we have an emotional response to the situation (let's say house parties - like the one your girlfriend ignored you and talked to others instead) - even before anything actually bad happens. You're now scared of going to house parties with your girlfriend. Congratulations...

Even worse, sometimes we really do need our partners - perhaps to help us through a rough patch or to stabilize our life against the turmoil of reality. It's somewhat logical to be terrified of this loss.

So whether the threat is logical or only emotional - the pain is very real. We get a stress response to the pain - and the only way I know to deal with it is to lessen the pain. 


The combined feeling of loss, inadequacy and insecurity - and the huge emotional power people in love have over one another - is an extremely volatile mixture. It leads to anger and hatred and heated arguments about the smallest things and explosions of emotion in benign situations. It's very hard to be with a very jealous or insecure partner.

The heartbreaking part is that they actually do it because they care so much. It's a horrible feeling when you realize that you act in a toxic pattern towards the person you love, because you can't control yourself, because of your irrational thoughts and emotions, because of how much you're in pain, because you care and love and need your partner. Perhaps you should love them less - for their own good? Maybe they're just better off without you? 

Honestly, who knows? But remember that this type of thinking is part of the initial problem: "I'm not good enough" -> insecurity -> jealousy -> being an asshole. So, if you can, just try to do your best for your loved ones, and focus on the thought that you truly are giving everything you can (without hurting yourself or other people in your life too much) - and striving to improve every single day. That alone usually makes you "good enough".

In case you're wondering, despite the analysis I still haven't defeated jealousy. My only advantage is that I'm well acquainted with various types of toxic emotions - so I try to recognize them in time and handle them well, in a rational and controlled fashion.
And sometimes I feel like a piece of tossed away garbage that's being stepped on.
Results may vary...

Until next time, may your loved-ones safeguard the special place they have for you in their heart.


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  1. This description of jealousy hits very close to home.
    I feel like you only portray jealousy as a negative emotion, not giving space to the useful and powerful aspects of jealously.
    Before getting there, I want to refine that definition of jealousy.
    I believe it isn't just about the loss of what you have or had, but what I expect/am entitled to have. In the trivial case, something that I already have is something i'm entitled to have.
    For example, early in a relationship you might not be in a situation that requires a lot of emotional support from your partner, yet you'd still expect to get that support when needed. Once a situation that does require a lot of support from your partner arises, and you don't receive it while other people in your partner's life do, you might feel jealous.

    Which brings me to the useful parts of jealousy.
    Jealousy can be used as a highlight for needs or wants that aren't being met (arguably, its purpose).
    When in the middle of that spiral, trying to change focus from "What if X is better than me" to "What do I fear losing" or "What am I not getting that I feel I deserve". Usually the answer to these questions is tied to insecurity, as you said. But having an answer to those questions could help address insecurities in the relationship. Instead of focusing on what happened at the party, and who your partner talked to, focus on your needs that aren't being met. "I need/want to feel attractive", "I want to feel special", "I don't feel sexy" etc. This mindset allows you to address the unmet needs in the relationship, which in turn, usually ends up "diffusing" situations which previously caused jealousy

  2. A few comments if I may:

    1. "our ancestors spent most generations living in various tribal/group structures (even as apes) - so the 1-man-1-woman framing is false" while it is hard to know what are the relevant timescales for biological evolution to affect psychology, in "cultural evolution": 'not sharing one's girlfriend' has been our thing for probably 5k-10k years (which is about all the history of culture), and maybe more.
    Not to mention, we clearly did not have DNA tests throughout evolution.

    2. Regarding "sexual insecurity": I find it very hard to believe that something as complicated as human psychology would care so much about the physiology, the mechanics or the kinematics of the thing.
    I think it is more about ones self-worth or feeling of "being special", being related to sharing something special with someone. If that special thing is shared with too many people, it kind of stops being this "special thing".

    3. Some of the behavior you describe as "toxic", are actually desirable in my opinion. I am sure different people have different feeling\opinions on that matter, but I guess I am not the only one who would kind of expect one's SO to be annoyed if he flirts too much with other girls.