Of all the emotions that are difficult for couples to deal with, nothing can be quite as degrading and destructive as jealousy. Its process is one of moving its host from a place of security to one where merely a look or glance can leave the heart racing and the mind frantic, as it searches for a degree of assurance. If one thing is for sure, jealousy and
certainty cannot exist in the same place.
It is an emotion which has captivated writers through the ages. Homer to Shakespeare and from Browning to Dostoevsky, jealousy has provided fruitful ground for the study of character, perhaps because these great commentators on human life recognised its potential to drive its protagonists from the reasonable to the irrational in a heartbeat, with, as Shakespeare puts it, only ‘trifles light as air’ as the motivation. How do we explain that a
handkerchief might lead to a partner’s murder? Or a friendly smile to a servant might prompt Browning’s Duke of Ferrara to stop ‘all smiles’ in his (last) Duchess?
Whilst for many of us, these great literary reflections on jealousy might feel a touch overblown, we will understand the places jealousy can take us in our thinking and emotional selves – leaving us prone to the irrational, the paranoic and sometimes even the psychotic.
What is Jealousy?
Put simply, jealousy is the drive to guard or hold on to something we possess – and, importantly, the determination not to let someone else take hold of it. In this way it differs from envy, which is driven by a desire for something which lies outside of our belonging.
The latter can be uncomfortable to deal with itself but handling its symptoms is more prone to reason. Jealousy, on the other hand, leaves reason trailing in its wake, which is of course is why it is so interesting to observers of human behaviour.
There are some further interesting traits worth mentioning regarding jealousy. When it is part of a regular behaviour pattern across relationships, it can often be traced back to the jealous person’s early attachment to parents and siblings. If, for one reason or another, the developing child felt insecure in those relationships, then it is likely that insecurity will feature in future relationships. For others, the emotion might be viewed as a vigorous defence against some perceived form of loss. Psychoanalysts might argue that this los is a symbolic one (separation from parents, for example), but it can often very real, as in the death of people close to the child.
Whether drive by attachment difficulties or loss, the two explanations point the lack of certainty, which seems to be the main difficulty for anyone dealing with the emotion. It is just impossible to find any sense of peace. If our certainty in the world is shaken, then jealousy becomes an existential problem of considerable significance.
The Jealous Mind
Jealousy, then, is a desperation to hold on to something, and the consequent effects of the anxiety generated by the perceived loss. In a couple, the jealous partner fears the loss of the other. For the partner in a jealous period, everything will touch on the inner vulnerability of loss and uncertainty. One’s partner is texting; one’s partner is late home; one’s partner seems distant – all will add to the anxiety, spun by the mind into myriad thoughts of loss and driving further the underlying feelings of uncertainty, which in turn feed back into the thoughts.
One of the features of jealousy is the irrational behaviours often associated with the person suffering its effects. It may not be as dramatic as the literary purveyors mentioned above, but the lengths to which we are prepared to protect against the sense of loss is extreme – and often some way out of character of normal behaviour. When Kirkegaard remarked that a ‘man inevitably renders himself ridiculous as soon as he become jealous’, he had in mind
this substantial loss of reason. That this behaviour is so ‘out of character’ is important, for it points to how the person sees themself. Jealousy thus becomes a wrecking ball for the person’s sense of self, leaving feelings of shame, humiliation and self-loathing in its wake, as it drives behaviours which normally the person would view as alien. It is degrading.
Jealousy as a Weapon
In jealousy’s most famous fictional outing – Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ – it is a third party (Iago) who brings about the destruction of the protagonist’s relationship by employing jealousy as a weapon. Othello, a man used to absolute certainty, is reduced by Iago’s constant touching of his vulnerability – that the world may not be as easy to control, may not be as certain, as he once thought. We all know the ending!
However, in couple relationships, it is not unusual for one of the partners to make use of jealousy to manipulate the other, particularly when he or she knows that the other fears losing them. That vulnerability – the fear of loss – is easily played upon, often helping to develop an insecurity, which manipulative partners might make use of – often unconsciously – for their own benefit (and security).
Jealousy is not uniform in the way it is experienced. For some it will seem rational. The threat to the relationship will be transparent – often a third party, whom the jealous partner will see as a direct threat. For many, though, the threat is more generalised and is often not identifiable by either party involved. In these cases, jealousy will often be experienced as a generalized anxiety, perhaps the result of an ambiguous attachment model operating within one – or both – of the couple. Interestingly, both these situations can generate paranoia, which will feed back into the loop of feelings, and may well have to be ‘acted out’ at some stage. For the couple, this is likely to be in skirmishes or full-blown rows, which will, in their turn, further add to the anxiety and fear within one or both of those involved.
Given the intensity of emotions involved and the likely ‘acting out’ at one stage or another, there will be other feelings with which to deal, usually after the jealous (‘acting out’) episode. The behaviour of the jealous partner may well seem to them to be irrational –perhaps out of character. He or she will be left with feelings of guilt and shame: perhaps even humiliation and self-loathing. Imagine, the reputation and sense of self – carefully tended over years – left in tatters because of an episode of behaviour which the protagonist is at a loss to understand. Jealousy, then, has the power to diminish and degrade us – which adds to its power, leaving us prone to greater anxiety and further episodes of irrational behaviour.
Living and loving in the shadow of Jealousy
Jealousy is something that preys on the relations we have with the people and objects in our environment. Not surprisingly, the better we feel about ourselves, and the more secure we are regarding where we stand in relation to our environment, the more easily we will be able to cope with the anxiety associated with jealous feelings. In short, by working on ourselves, we will have some protection from the anxiety associated with the emotion.
The ideal position is to see the partner’s potential loss as a choice not as a threat. Very few of us would place much value on the love of a partner who is forced to love us. Most of us would want that love to be freely chosen. Thus, if, in our minds, we can set our partners free, and accept their love as a gift (freely given), we will free ourselves from ever having to deal with the green-eyed monster.
Brighton and Hove Psychotherapy is a collective of experienced psychotherapists, psychologists and counsellors working with a range of client groups, including fellow therapists and health professionals. If you would like more information, or an informal discussion please get in touch. Online therapy is available.