The Green Eyed Monster-Part 1
Next time you're surfing, looking for some balanced advice on relationships or some wisdom on how to deal with conflicting emotions you might be feeling, don't type in the word "jealousy" and hope to come up with anything useful. What you'll find is page after page on this misunderstood subject, and countless references on how to get over this unfortunate state of affairs, how bad it is for anyone in the grips of it, how primitive and unsophisticated it is and, basically, what a maladjusted idiot you are for even feeling it in the first place.
No single word in the English language has the power to evoke violent protests and indignant retorts like the word "jealousy". It is an incredibly maligned emotion, lingering somewhere near the bottom of the list, vying with "self-pity" and "homicidal tendencies" for the honor of being the least respected emotion a person can feel. Jealous? people say, spitting out the word as if it tasted like an aspirin dissolving on the tongue. No, I'm not jealous. They'll do anything, say anything, act in any fool way rather than admit to their jealousy, no matter how obvious it is to everyone around them or whether they have every right to be jealous in the first place, because they hate the very idea of it. It's petty, small, a sign of weakness, beneath them....and they're right.
They're right if they're talking about real jealousy. Real jealousy is indeed a small, petty little emotion that gnaws at the pit of your stomach whenever you're feeling particularly hard done by. Your jerk brother-in- law who makes $100 000 a year puts a quarter in a slot machine and walks away with a million bucks, the smarmy smart ass in your physics class gets a great scholarship, your new next door neighbor has the body of a supermodel and makes the jaws of every man on the street - including your husband - hit the floor. In each of these cases, you feel real resentment that these people have something valuable or something you want, something you don't have and probably won't ever get. Deep down you know it isn't right to begrudge someone else's good fortune or success, deep down you know that, good luck aside, most people come by their success honestly through talent and hard work. But knowing this only makes you feel worse. This is real jealousy - little, mean-spirited, self-pitying, and with the sophistication, tact and good sense of an eight year old.
Romantic jealousy, on the other hand, which is a loose and inappropriate term but the one I'll use for the sake of this argument, is completely different from the puerile little emotion described above. How can you "begrudge your husband's success" at finding other women attractive? You can't, which is why the traditional definition of jealousy is all wrong when applied to romantic relationships. Romantic jealousy - more accurately described as a threat to your primacy or privacy - is not based on the groundless envy of the good for being good, it is based on just how good you think the good is. It may not feel any better when you're experiencing it, but at its root is a far nobler, far more rational and more admirable reason for this emotion - how highly you value your lover and how selfish you are about love itself.
Loving someone intimately is perhaps the most selfish thing anyone will ever do. We do it strictly for our own pleasure, for the attainment of a lifestyle we want for ourselves, and for the selfish joy and satisfaction we derive from the physical sensations of love and the emotional intimacy it creates. No one has ever fallen in love out of obligation or charity or to please someone else - it is pure ego, and it's wonderful. While love may seem to make us do "unselfish" things, like caring for another person more than ourselves or giving up certain things to be with our lover, the pleasure we derive from doing so makes it anything but "unselfish". We intertwine our entire lives with this other person, in an unprecedented intimacy that scares many people so much they can never allow themselves to fall in love at all. We do it because it is so intoxicating, so fulfilling, such a feeling of completeness that the allurements of true love are hard to resist. Our lover becomes like a god or goddess to us, a benevolent and completely necessary component of our happiness, valuable to us because of the values they share with us but also because of how good they make us feel.
But feeling this fantastic about someone - and with someone - also comes with a kind of proviso; the price for all these wonderful feelings is vulnerability. We are never more exposed than when we truly love someone; our very happiness and well-being are in our lovers' hands, and we can only trust that they won't leave us, or abuse us, or die before their time, or go missing, or any of the other calamities that can strike us down. Love, like life, is a constant risk. No lover has ever been guaranteed that the happiness they find in love is theirs to keep, forever, come what may, but most of us decide that the joys of love are worth the risk, and so we open ourselves up to the pleasures of love and try to forget that it can feel as bad as it does good, if all does not go as we hoped.
The knowledge that all might not go as we hoped is ever present in the back of our minds - some call this excessive worry or obsession or pessimism, but if you regard it as a pure act of self-preservation, if you view it as your mind staying ever vigilant to protect you from the worst kind of emotional pain a person can experience, then it makes sense for us to react strongly to whatever threat we might perceive. We will do anything to protect our lovers from the threat of death or illness or harm from another because in doing so, we are also protecting ourselves from the threat of losing them. If that threat happens to come in the form of another person who may alienate our lover's affection or challenge the specialness of our bond, it is no less serious, no less traumatic, and no less justified than any other kind of threat to our love. And it is most certainly nothing as paltry as "jealousy".
But somehow this idea is lost on most people. Somehow, jealousy remains a dirty word, and even suggesting that it is a healthy, welcome indication of true love still stirs up all manner of protest and indignation. Some people maintain the attitude that only the weak and insecure are jealous, that if you were really in love, if you really had trust in your love and if you really had such a wonderful, intimate bond, jealousy would never touch you. "A confident person who's really in love doesn't get jealous", they say, turning their noses up arrogantly... but it is worth noting that they usually only do so in defense of some inappropriate behavior of their own, as a means of deflecting blame and placing themselves in a position of moral superiority. "So what if I spent four hours on the phone with my ex-girlfriend... you're just being jealous." The sad thing is, it works every time, painting the hurt or offended lover as some sort of megalomaniacal deviant when in fact they have every right to want primacy in their relationship, and should be rewarded with it instead of scorned.
People who take the moral high road when it comes to condemning jealousy are also among the most mystical of lovers, believing that their love was given to them by some special love god and that, as a result, it's good for life. They seem incapable of viewing their lover as an individual, self-realized adult who could very easily choose not to be with them someday - they arrogantly believe that they have no reason to be jealous because their lover would never give them cause to be jealous. They refuse to believe that love is caused by something real, and that it can disappear because of something real, as well, and that reality offers no guarantees to even the sweetest and devoted of lovers, despite what the poets say.
They also tend to be the kind of people who believe that true love is some far-off, untouchable experience that does not require the participation or presence of the object of their affection - this allows them to watch their beloved go off with other people, marry other people, ignore them completely... and yet still "love" this person from afar and claim they don't have the right to expect mutual exclusivity and reciprocal feelings in someone they honor with the title of "beloved". These people, while pontificating to the rest of us about how much more enlightened they are, are actually incapable of experiencing true love based on rational values, since a love based on shared values requires the presence of someone with whom to share them. Whatever the case, people who don't experience jealousy or who think it beneath them, are not really in love, and I challenge them to prove to me that they are. I challenge them to provide me with proof that they don't merely 'admire' someone in some pristine, hands-off sort of intellectual way, but rather have actually merged their whole being with someone on so intimate a level that they can't imagine spending even one day apart. They won't be able to do it. No jealousy means no passion, and no passion means no real love.
You aren't a better person if you don't feel jealousy, or a more confident one, or a more value-driven one. You aren't more enlightened or more respectful of your lover, you aren't more moral or more mature - you simply don't love this person as deeply as you could, because if you did, you'd have a whole new perspective on how keenly it stabs into you whenever you think about losing them. It should only take the average person about twenty seconds to figure this out, if they think about it as objectively as possible - not being jealous equates easily with not being in love, draw from that whatever conclusions you like.
Jealousy can be taken too far. When taken to the opposite extreme, intense jealousy is no more a sign of love than intense indifference or lack of jealousy is. For some people, no relationship is safe from "the green eyed monster", no spouse is above suspicion, no friendship or outside relationship is ever innocent. For these people, jealousy becomes excessive, and therefore loses whatever potential it has to serve as a gentle warning or a confirmation of love.
But what is excessive? Men often complain of being plagued by jealous women, and appear to be exasperated on a regular basis by the "insane jealousy" of our sex. Many men can't look at men's magazines or women on the street without incurring the wrath of their "jealous" mates, others can't have female friends or associates, others can't even spend time with their family, their pets, their buddies, or even go to work without answering for it in some way. Some men are the victims of prying wives and girlfriends who will pore through every scrap of paper, will check every phone record, will hack into email and voicemail, all in search of proof that they are, in fact, right to be suspicious. Some men give their wives reason to be so paranoid - others, however, do not and for these men, their burden is heavy indeed. The only thing that can be said is that women in this state have far greater issues and far more serious problems than simple jealousy, and I honestly don't think anything would satisfy them. They could be stranded on a desert island with their man, completely alone with no other women or other distractions, and they would still demand to know "who he was thinking about" when they lay under the palm fronds at night. The best thing for these women is to get to the bottom of what's really bothering them, and learn to do things that give them self-esteem instead of searching madly through gas receipts to find something that takes it away.
Women, too, have historically had much to fear from the "insane jealousy" of lovers and husbands, who attempt to manipulate them and control their movements so that they are never out of sight, who tell them how to dress and with whom they can associate in order to keep their women faithful. These men view even the most innocent contact, even the most modest dress and the most harmless behavior as evidence of adultery, and punish their wives severely for it. Some women also have much to fear from former lovers and husbands who strike out at them with violent rage when they find the courage to leave or whenever a new man enters the picture. Many, many women have lost their lives or have been seriously hurt by such attacks, as I discuss on my a separate page, and such incidents seem to be on the rise. I believe there are many reasons for this increase in violent behavior towards ex-wives and girlfriends, which, again, I discussed on that page, but I believe the chief reason has to do with some men's refusal to accept that their former lover has found someone new. This is jealousy gone extremely wrong, and perhaps part of the reason that people in general have such a knee jerk reaction to the term; they're afraid that admitting to jealousy makes them the spiritual siblings of those who kill and maim and lose their own lives to the insanity of their emotions.
The answer to what constitutes excessive jealousy is simple; if it disrupts the freedom or the life of your spouse, if it is relentless and unsated even in the face of proof to the contrary, if it results in violence of any kind, if it compromises the happiness of your spouse and if it ruins your life with worry and obsessive thoughts or actions, it's excessive, and it should be stopped.
In most cases, though, people have enough self-control to keep their jealousy well-monitored. Most people would never dream of hurting the person who has made them feel jealousy. Most of us suffer in relative silence, convinced as we are that any twinge of jealousy is wrong, admonishing ourselves for being so childish. It's important to know when jealousy is justified and when it's just petulance, but fortunately, the distinction is not hard to make.
If your spouse is threatening your primacy or privacy by his or her actions or attitudes, you have cause to be jealous. You have the right, as the person they married, to tell them that their behavior is making you feel uncertain about your relationship and that it is eroding the bond you share. You have every right to tell them it threatens you when they have lunch with their ex-husband or spend hours on the phone with their new colleague at work, and that you would like them to put you and your feelings ahead of whatever pleasure they derive from these activities. You have the right to insist that a husband or wife takes precedence, always, over friends, ex-spouses, colleagues or old flames, no matter how "harmless" or "silly" your spouse insists your concerns are. They are your concerns, and you are entitled to express them.
As a rational person, however, you have to take care not to be unreasonable, not to become suspicious over every phone call or every meeting they have with someone else, and be very careful about whether you truly, rationally and sincerely feel threatened by this behavior or whether it is merely your own insecurities getting the better of you. This is an entirely personal process, something you alone can judge, so don't be swayed by someone else's estimation of whether you ought to be jealous or not. What makes you uncomfortable may be perfectly acceptable to someone else, and vice-versa, so determine for yourself what your limits are, what you will and won't accept, and what you believe is a rational concern. If you don't get jealous over "every little thing", if you have rational reasons for why certain behavior makes you feel jealous, chances are when you do say something to your spouse about it, they will take you seriously and stop doing whatever it is that bothers you.
If they refuse your requests, though, if they dismiss your rational concerns as "just being jealous" and fail to appreciate that you are trying to tell them how much you value them and your relationship, then you have a bigger problem than jealousy. Somehow you are going to have to get your spouse to understand that many marriages don't survive under these circumstances, that privacy and primacy are absolutely essential to a successful marriage and that threatening either one leads to alienation and distrust.
One last point...it's fairly telling that whenever you come across stories or websites about people who live "alternative" lifestyles with "open" marriages (a very neat term for someone who screws around on you)- the vast, vast majority of which fail miserably, by the way - the first thing everyone talks about is how they "deal with" jealousy. Every one of them had to "learn to accept" the fact that their lover was out screwing other people - hey, no kidding - but they all claim to be very Zen about the whole thing now, having switched off that part of their brain that protests - loudly - about living like an animal. The point is this: if jealousy is such a non-issue, if we are so above it all and too mature to worry about it, why does everyone have to "deal with it" in some way? Why is it even mentioned? Why is it always mentioned first, even before the question "Who the hell convinced you that rampant promiscuity was part of a healthy marriage?" The issue of jealousy comes up again and again because it's a very clear warning sign, an alarm that goes off in our head when we realize that our romantic happiness may be threatened, and as such, it is an extremely valuable tool for anyone who values their own happiness, their own self-esteem, and therefore their ability to love.