JEALOUSY–the monster

O magazine column

Your sweetheart calls you by another’s name; his eyes linger too long on your best friend; he talks with excitement about a girl at work; and the fire starts: jealousy.   Jealousy is like a fever; this sickening combination of possessiveness, suspicion, rage and humiliation can overtake your mind and threaten your very core as you contemplate your rival.   The “green eye’d monster,” as Shakespeare called it, is camping in your head. 

Jealousy can arise at any time in a relationship.  When you are madly in love, when you are snugly attached, even when you dislike your partner, this monster can come calling.   Neither sex is routinely more jealous—although men and women tend to handle this demon differently.  Women are more willing to work to win their lover back with appealing clothing, innuendoes about  their own “special” worth, and comments designed to skewer their opponent.   Men flaunt their money or status; and men are more likely to walk out to protect their self-esteem or save face.  But both sexes regularly  try to make their partner feel guilty, flirt with others for revenge, or pretend they don’t care–in hopes of retrieving their lost love.

Psychologists often regard jealousy as a scar of childhood or symptom of a psychological problem.    It’s true that people who feel inadequate,  insecure or overly dependent tend to be more jealous than the rest of us.   But be assured:  the “Big J,” as the Yolngu aborigines of Australia call jealousy, can corrode any human heart.  

The Big J hunts other creatures too, as primatologist Jane Goodall reports.   Passion, a female chimp living in Tanzania, tipped her buttocks toward a young male in the typical “come hither” pose.   He ignored her; and soon began to court another, Pom.   Incensed, Passion slapped him hard.   Jealousy can be even more dangerous.   Take bluebirds.    While the cock was away, anthropologist David Barash placed a stuffed male bluebird on a branch about three feet from where his “wife” was settled in their nest.  When the resident returned, he began to squawk, hover and snap his bill in fury at the dummy.   Then he attacked his “spouse,” pulling some primary feathers from her wing.  Wife beating by a jealous male bluebird?   She fled.

Why jealousy? This monster of the mind evolved for essential reasons: Foremost, jealous behavior can discourage philandering or desertion by a mate—saving men from being cuckolded and bolstering the family unit.   Moreover, many people feel secretly complimented when their partner is mildly jealous; it’s generally a sign that he or she really likes you.  And when you catch another flirting with your beloved, this fire in the brain can ignite feelings of lust and romance, adding fresh passion to the relationship.  Equally important, intense jealousy can drive you away from a “player,” thrusting you toward a more stable and rewarding partnership.   Jealousy is natural—and sometimes healthy.   Throughout our primordial past, it served to protect and strengthen a partnership or push you to abandon a futile match, selecting for this powerful emotion. 

But jealousy can go seriously awry.   Some people become dangerously jealous for no good reason, undermining their self-esteem and driving their partner into another’s arms–exactly what they feared.   Others murder a faithful mate.   In fact, male jealousy has been a leading cause of spousal homicide in the United States for decades.    

    So….how do you know if your jealousy is healthy or malignant?   Well, if you are using field glasses to watch your own front door, snooping through your lover’s pockets, or reading his or her emails on the sly, stop.   This isn’t healthy; it’s demeaning.   Let go.   And do a reality check: talk to someone you respect to see if you might be imagining betrayal.   Then if you think you are over-reacting to innocent flirtations, speak to your partner frankly.  Tell him or her you are working to curb your suspicion, but you would like them to do their part to not provoke it.   If you can’t stop spying or obsessing, (and many of us can’t), it’s the time to consult a professional to help you think this through.   If you find that your suspicions are correct, you have an even bigger problem: what to do about a cheating partner.   Now you must soberly weigh all your options–and the pros and cons of the relationship—before you do something foolish.     And if you come to realize you can’t expel this monster from your mind or feel emotionally secure with a flirtatious mate, you might consider some wisdom from Zen philosophy, “The way out is through the door.”