We have all felt it.
The green-eyed monster.
An emotion that takes on a life of its own and turns otherwise reasonable, rational people into a desperate, fearful exhibition of base emotions.
So, are we stuck with it? Are the terrible feelings of jealousy inevitable? Is it a sign that we aren’t compatible with our partners? Are they going to leave us for someone more interesting?
The good news is Jealousy is completely normal. You aren’t broken.
The bad news is we have been trained to react to Jealousy in a very destructive way.
Our expectations and values drive the fear that is the basis for feeling Jealousy.
We have an expectation that love is a rare, and scarce resource. If we share love with someone then there is not enough to share with someone else. If we give love or attention to someone else, then it must first be taken away from someone else first. Love like most other emotions is not a game of winners and losers. We give love to multiple people in our life already without being under threat. It is only romantic love that we consider too rare to share.
When did we learn how to be Jealous?
Our cultural expectations are based on a belief that monogamy represents the ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ relationship style. It may surprise you to know that monogamy has not always been the ‘norm’. In fact, the social value we put on monogamy has very little to do with relationships at all.
How we think about monogamy or the expectation that we can only share love with one person has its origins in Roman Society and the Roman Catholic Church.
In Roman society, it became law that a man could only take one legal wife. This was not because it was good for human relationships but because it was good for the social economy. This law prevented elite males from monopolising all the eligible women. It ensured there were enough women to become wives of lesser men. This made society more stable due to men staying in the social structure, working and paying taxes. Happy soldiers meant that the Roman Empire could expand prolifically. Over generations, more children were born because of monogamous unions which further expanded the population of Roman civilisation. In short, it was an efficient way of growing the population quickly and creating taxpayers and productive social units.
Up until about 800AD it was common even for priests to have multiple wives and mistresses. The church, however, was concerned that the offspring of these relationships would drain the church of money and wealth. So, coupled with the rise of asceticism (the idea that greater spirituality can be achieved through sacrifice of personal pleasure and possessions) and Roman law, the church imposed celibacy on its priests and monogamy was imposed as the ‘norm’ for ordinary folk.
The idea of sex for pleasure was replaced by the Church with one that demanded sex only be used for procreation and that should only happen between one man and one woman. Sex as a pleasure of the flesh was denounced and so began the Dark Ages.
For some those Dark Ages still exist. Sex is still seen by many as shameful, and non-monogamous relationships seen as unhealthy and immoral.
Understanding the Fear
The way we behave when we feel Jealous is a direct result of the social expectations we impose on our partners. Fear is normal. However, the part of our brain (the Amygdala) responsible for assessing threat is very primitive. Its job is to assess sensory input for threat and to create a fight / flight response. This input may come from something experienced physically or it may come from our mental processing. The Amygdala has no way of determining real from perceived or even imagined. All threats are the dealt with in the same way, by creating a Threat Response or “fight/flight and freeze”.
An additional problem for humans is our mental processing is passed to the Amygdala for threat management before it is passed to our frontal cortex for analysis. Meaning our fight or flight response will begin to engage even before we start analysing the threat. This is survival. This is great if you are running from a bear, but not so great if you are by yourself in the dark or worried about who your partner is with.
Taking control of Jealousy
Rational, thinking human beings determine if their fear has a rational basis. We slow down analyse and evaluate the threat and fear and then adjust our reaction accordingly. Right?! Oh! if only it was that easy!
Jealousy is distinct from Envy. Envy is what we feel when we desire something someone else has. Jealousy is what we feel when we fear someone is going to take something valuable from us. Jealousy is threat. Threat is determined by our cultural and social expectations of what is valuable to us whether those expectations are relevant to our lives, true or even useful to us.
What if our expectations are flawed? What if how we define what is valuable in our life is not actually what is valuable? What if we are defending the wrong things in our life. Our history certainly tells us that valuing monogamy, sexual ownership and people as property is not our ‘natural’ state. It is a product of social leadership that was designed to achieve outcomes in a society 1300 years ago and had little to do with personal happiness.
What if what we believe about our relationships, our partners and human capability is not actually something we can achieve and maintain as a human species? Failure of monogamous relationships are as high are 50%.
To unlearn jealous behaviours, we have to unlearn generations of blind acceptance about what it means to be in human relationships.
The first step is to recognise and accept the fear that goes hand in hand with Jealousy. Accepting the fear means we no longer fear Fear. We accept that feeling fear means that our brain is sending us a message about being under threat. That’s OK! Situation normal. We want our brains to always do that. It keeps us safe. However, what we do want to know is if the Threat is real. To avoid the destruction most often associated with jealous behaviours we need to wait for a report to come back from our thinking brain before we choose to take action.
So, the change in our cognition goes something like this.
Threat is ‘felt’. Fear is ‘felt’. We ‘think’ about what is valuable. Is it valuable? Are we focused on the right thing? Are we honest about what we are feeling? Can we communicate about it with respect and honesty to our partner? Can you overcome your immediate fears and meet the problem with respect? If we can then when we practice and emulate what we want to feel, it will begins to become the new pattern of behaviour. Your new default way of reacting to feelings of jealousy.
What is the value that is threatened? Learning what is of real value to you is an eye-opening realisation. When you decide that the person you love is what you value instead of social expectations, status, reputation, feelings or service they give you. It changes the conversation around the type of threat you feel. You create real and valuable connections with your partner that you both have a unique understanding of.
You are at a party with your significant other. Your SO is talking to someone who you perceive to be more attractive than you are. They certainly seem to be having a good time. In fact, they seems to be enjoying the conversation a lot more than they do with you. You can see your SO laughing and flirting. Playing with their hair (that means they like each other, right?).
You might try to justify and rationalise your feelings in this situation – there is one fear running monopolising your thoughts – they like this new person more and is thinking about having sex with them. It’s obvious, right? Your threat response engages, and you are now angry and jealous nothing will calm you down except a fight and apology, right?
For someone who has unlearnt these ‘rules’ of Jealousy they would determine there is very little threat and therefore experience very little fear in this situation. Their experience would go more like this: I have a solid, and happy relationship with my partner. I am rational and know that I am not only not the only person on the planet, and not necessarily the most attractive either. I enjoy seeing my partner relaxing and making connections with interesting people because I know that the experience of meeting new people is exciting for them and is something all human beings need and thrive on. I love seeing them laugh and enjoying themselves, regardless of how it happens, and a bit of harmless flirting not only doesn’t hurt my relationship with them but is more likely to make it better. I respect their right to make their own decisions. In the end, I can only control how I react to what is going is happening. I want that reaction to demonstrate that I am confident in myself and the connection I have with my partner.
Is the Threat Real?
Is the threat real? Is what you are feeling actually based on fact regarding what is happening right now, or is it a fear regarding something that might happen in the future but hasn’t.
What if we gain an understanding that the concept of ‘win or lose’ love has been conditioned into our collective subconscious over a few hundred years of human existence. What happens when we realise that everything we are exposed to, our parent’s conditioning, our social structures, our laws and especially our media, are all focused on reinforcing this idea of valuable, scarce love? That being by yourself is terrible and loneliness might kill you.
It would be a very short season of the Bachelorette if she decides that all the contestants are decent guys who she is happy to have a relationship with.
Magazines would sell a lot less copies without headlines about what celebrities are having affairs and the ensuing jealous fallout. Our favourite soap operas would not be very fun without the Drama, would it? Jealousy is certainly dramatic.
When you determine that the threat to your valuable relationship isn’t significant, or even real. When you understand that every single person has a right to determine their own path, you can start releasing control over your partner. Jealousy will not stop your partner leaving if they are unhappy. It also won’t improve the quality of your existing relationship. In fact, when you begin to properly rationalise you will realise that Jealousy itself IS a threat to your relationship and that what is of value is in maintaining the quality of the connection between you and your partner. The unavoidable conclusion is that the only threat comes from our own insecurities and imagination.
After all, if you remove the fear from Jealousy … what is left?
We should never stop setting and re-evaluating boundaries and ensuring we stay safe and have what we need to survive. However, equally we should always examine what it is we believe we need to survive, why we believe it, and whether it is real. Is it driving us to a better version of ourselves or limiting us by perpetuating the mental manipulations of the past.
HELPFUL DOT POINTS
- Is the THREAT real? Are we imagining or observing? What is the viewpoint?
- What is it we FEAR? Loss? Loneliness?
- Has what we FEAR happened? Are we imagining? or catastrophising?
- We can only control our response to what is happening, no what is happening.
- Jealousy is a much larger threat to our relationships than other people.