Jealousy is a paradox. Think of a mirror. A mirror helps us perform physical tasks, such as shaving or combing our hair, but when a second mirror is needed to perform a task that cannot be accessed with just one mirror, such as when attempting to view the back part of our bodies to negotiate a clothing fastener, for example, and no one else is available to help, it’s not so easy. Not only are we encumbered by losing the use of one of our hands in order to hold the mirror as we perform the task, we find ourselves challenged when tracing our movements because in order to do so we must move in the opposite direction shown in the mirror. This is so difficult because our natural inclination is to align our movements in parallel with what we see. When we must perform tasks through a second mirror, doing so thus produces movement in the opposite direction of our intention. Jealousy, like the second mirror, confounds us because when it gets “out of hand” it produces the opposite of what we most desire to happen.
Natural and Destructive Dimensions of Jealousy
Jealousy is a social emotion, a natural part of being human because we are social creatures. Therefore, inasmuch as it would be healthy to accept that we are human, it follows that it is natural to be susceptible to becoming jealous. It is just who we are. We all want to be desired and admired, at least to some degree if not moreso. However, when it gets out of hand, viz., becomes chronic or excessive, it can cause us to obsess and behave in ways that diminish our stature and drive away those whose opinions and feelings we care about most. Paradoxically, jealousy creates the opposite of our deepest wishes and longings.
Jealousy is a 3-person phenomenon. When we feel jealous, we want someone to feel toward us what we fear they feel toward someone else. It could be attraction or romantic interest from someone we care about or someone toward whom we are interested. The subject of jealousy can even be generalized, such as a feeling of competition with someone who we feel is more popular, attractive, successful, etc., than we are. In this case the third person is generalized as represented by a group of people or the population, so to speak, in general.
Jealousy, when excessive, is destructive. Shakespeare, the 16th-century playwright whose greatness stems largely from the psychological insights of his work, illuminates in the eponymous play through his character, Othello, how jealousy can fester and grow insidiously toward a violent and tragic demise of a relationship and end of a life. Famous authors, such as Dostoyevsky in his novella, The Eternal Husband, D. H. Lawrence in The Fox, and other playwrights such as Harold Pinter, Betrayal, have keenly shown how the undercurrents of jealousy in love triangles reveal that which within us can take on the dimension of a morbid, and in some cases, masochistic, preoccupation.
The Origins of Jealousy
When we feel jealous, we are threatened by someone who we believe is better than we in ways we deem important to our sense of self-esteem and security in relationships. It is not unusual for jealousy to arise, therefore, when someone enters our world, or the world of our loved one, who is attractive or notably held in high regard for different reasons, when we are in an insecure place in our lives currently, such as Othello was as king in a far-away land, or if we have deep-seated insecurities within us that derive from our childhood experiences. Probably more often than not, it is when more than one of these factors come into play that jealousy can take on the dimension of a preoccupation.
In childhood, jealousy can be elicited when a child is compared unfavorably with a sibling or is pitted, unwittingly or otherwise, in competition with others, such as a sibling, a schoolmate or peer, or even a parent themselves. Competition, rivalry, and social comparison are natural parts of what it means for us to be social creatures. If these tendencies aren’t balanced with the necessary attention, emotional support, and validation to keep these emotions in check, however, low self-esteem, resentment, and chronic or excessive jealousy can ensue. Conversely, children raised with a sense of entitlement or for whom a sense of responsibility toward others isn’t cultivated will come to see other people as rivals, potential competition and, therefore, a threat to their sense of security and self-worth.
When jealousy arises as a problem later in life it may reveal either deep-seated insecurities already there or result from one’s current situation in life, such as when matters aren’t going well in our personal lives financially, socially, or in other life circumstances. When these kinds of situations lower one’s sense of stature or attractiveness, feelings of insecurity and susceptibility to jealousy may ensue, even when these judgments aren’t necessarily shared by others. The nature of an intimate relationship or even friendship can also be a source for chronic jealousy. A relationship with a partner who might be highly attractive, successful, or popular, can despite its benefits, challenge the limits to jealousy one can tolerate. If, however, they are also excessively flirtatious or, worse, unfaithful, toxic jealousy seems almost inevitable, even in the absence of jealous tendencies that could have existed previously.
How Do We Deal with Jealousy?
There are many self-help books that offer advice for chronic or excessive jealousy. The Jealousy Cure: Learn to Trust, Overcome Possessiveness, and Save Your Relationship by psychologist, Robert Leahy, offers insight and advice using cognitive-behavioral therapy principles. For those troubled by their partner’s past relationships, a book by podcaster, Zachary Stockill, who also offers an 8-week course, Overcoming Retroactive Jealousy: A Guide to Getting Over Your Partner’s Past and Finding Peace, may be helpful.
Here are some tips:
Robert Hamm Ph.D