Jealousy: Survival Instinct Gone Awry or Love's Protector?

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“Am I all right?” I repeated into my mobile. “Am I all right?! Of course I'm all right! I'm perfectly fine! I only wish her disfigurement, dismemberment and a last gasp at the end of the hangman’s rope!”

“I can see this evening is going to require my hazmat suit, querida,” Atherton was laughing, but only because he's my best friend and he is used to what he calls my “nuclear episodes.”

This particular detonation had been caused moments before at a dinner party at my mother's during a college break. During said dinner, an acquaintance had regaled the company with exploits of her time hiking through the jungle with my boyfriend. She'd looked at me directly and said, “as a result, he now calls me his favorite side dish.”

The company had chuckled politely, not looking at me. I'd held my head, smiling pleasantly and then, casually inquired, “how's that working out for you, darling, not being sufficiently filling for anyone to entertain the notion of you ever being the main course?”

“More wine?” my mother had cut in, effectively disrupting the deadly silence. I'd taken the opportunity to excuse myself to my study, where I'd immediately dialed Atherton and proceeded to singe his evening with my nuclear diatribe.

GREEN-EYED MONSTER

Jealousy. The ultimate response to a relationship threat. A potent mixture of fear of abandonment, sadness, rage, and humiliation. Jealousy is the fuel that propels the sort of (quite often irrational) behavior that, according to evolutionary biologists, ensures the preservation of our bonds with our mates.

“From an evolutionary psychology perspective, jealousy serves an important purpose,” says Karin Anderson, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and professor at Concordia University in Chicago. “It behooves the survival of the species if a man and woman remain involved for at least the first four years of their infant's life. This provides assistance to the mother during the time when child rearing is most intense and time consuming. If a man remains with a woman, providing resources to sustain both her and his child, the child is most likely to survive. It's likely that over the generations, women and men who fiercely guarded their relationships, evidencing jealousy when one appeared likely to stray, would remain together—at least during those crucial first four years—and hence their infants were more likely to survive.”

There is also the argument that a little jealousy can heighten desire and passion towards one's partner—as well as improve the viability of a man's sperm. In Sharon Malonem's book How Sex Works, Maolem discusses findings that men tend to create better sperm when competition is high.

That said, jealousy, our ingrained protector of unions and reigniter of passion has a double edge—taken to the extreme, jealousy can be a corrosive force on any relationship and is considered one of the leading causes of homicide.

In an article on the matter in Psychology Today, University of Texas psychologist David Buss suggests that the propensity for jealousy varies from person to person depending on personality factors. The results of a recent study he conducted with a colleague in Spain of individuals in relationships with various stages of commitment revealed that high incidence of jealousy is strongly correlated with neuroticism (i.e., emotional instability) and the liability to such unpleasant emotions as anger, anxiety, and depression.

"Agreeableness is negatively correlated [to jealousy], and low-agreeable people tend to use cost-inflicting mate-retention tactics," Buss says. These mate-retention tactics include verbally or physically abusing a partner for some minor infraction like speaking with someone else, alienating a partner from contact with people in their lives, and threatening to harm imagined rivals.

JEALOUSY IN THE AGE OF AMBIENT AWARENESS

The events at that dinner party I described earlier were unsettling for two reasons: they exposed information that preyed on my doubts (my boyfriend went hiking on Sundays? Why had he never mentioned that?) and they were revealed in a public setting (at my mother's house, in front of family friends).

The added dimension of public humiliation is a feature of jealousy with which we have become more familiar with the growth in popularity of social networking sites. Before, an exchange that happened in the privacy of the office, in the halls of university, or at the kids' soccer practice is happening in real time on a website online—a website anyone can peruse.

Photos of parties we didn't attend by the side of our partners are now on our Facebook screens, along with the notifications that these have been posted and are available for our perusal. The Associated Press recently reported on the effect this social network is having on relationships:

All this friending, poking and picture-posting on Facebook can get you in trouble with your significant other. Couples are finding that old flames and flirty friends on the social networking site have a unique ability to stir jealousy and suspicion.

Jealous types now have to deal with brand-new kinds of provocations, such as a comment on their partner's wall from a possible romantic rival, or their loved one getting tagged — identified — in a picture from an old relationship. Boyfriends and girlfriends can view all of this on their partners' walls.

"It seems like Facebook is creating jealousy even where there was not jealousy to begin with," said Amy Muise, a doctoral candidate at the University of Guelph's psychology department who led a recent study on how Facebook can spark jealousy in romantic relationships among college students.

She said Facebook doesn't necessarily make people more jealous than they would be normally. But all the information divulged on Facebook — those answers to "What's on your mind?" and reactions to those posts — can increase "triggers" for jealousy.

"Part of the issue with information on Facebook is that it lacks certain context, " Muise said, "so there could be things posted on your partner's wall that you really don't know what it means."

The study was based on anonymous online survey data from 308 undergraduate Facebook users, three quarters of them women. The study, published in CyberPsychology & Behavior, found Facebook users can get snagged in a "feedback loop": Their interest piqued by a cryptic wall comment, they become suspicious and start monitoring their partner's pages, thus finding even more suspicious information.

This isn't true only on Facebook. Commenters on blogs have been known to sometimes leave the sort of ambiguously suggestive comments that can cause a mate to run up a wall. Conversations that run 140 characters at a time on microblogging platforms like Twitter also leave a lot of room for misunderstanding. Song dedications on music networks like Blip.fm can also trigger jealousy.

WHAT TO DO?

I went to what I consider two experts on the subject of jealousy: Jessica, the wife of an actor, and Lily, a woman who is part of a trio (that is, a relationship with two people).

The consensus, from first hand experience with partners who divide their attention, seemed to be that jealousy primarily generates in insecurity and doubt. No relationship based on certainty and communication is so easily threatened.

“I used to help manage his fan mail,” Jessica says laughing. “Back when. I am not going to lie and say I didn't almost go insane looking at all the nudie pictures he was getting from teenaged girls. I think most women would go crazy seeing the kinds of things I saw. So I stopped. I don't even go on his website. The way I see it is: he's with me. I'm secure in that. We both know where the boundaries are and we have trust. I just avoid the triggers that inspire the craziness.”

Lily disagrees in avoiding things that may trigger jealousy.

“Jealousy is supposed to preserve relationships by alerting you to threats,” she tells me. “But I think it can also be a powerful indicator that you need to look within yourself. Jealousy says, 'there's something missing. There is something I am not getting.' If you can use it to focus on what you may be lacking, you can essentially use jealousy as a tool to strengthen a relationship. Next time you feel jealous, ask yourself why. And talk to your partner—don't accuse him or her—talk to them. Understand that jealousy originates in you. Yes, it's a response to something, but it comes from you. Open, honest communication will go a long way.”

As for the boyfriend with the side dish, he never cheated on me with the woman at the dinner party. We broke up eventually anyway—he liked hiking. My idea of hiking? A room at the Four Seasons.

BLOGGIE TREATS

In The Jealous Type, Tertia Loebenberg Albertryn talks about her take on jealousy: “I've never been the jealous type, at all. In my mind, what’s in the past is in the past, and secondly, if your partner is going to fuck around, they are going to fuck around. Being jealous is not going to stop that, so what’s the point? I know this is a little odd (surprise! surprise!) and sometimes I pretend to be a little jealous just to see what it feels like, but then I either forget or I get bored and move on.”

In Love's Destroyer, Hara Estroff Marano writes about the origins of jealousy and its dangers to relationships: “More often than not, feelings of jealousy flare with such intensity that they burn a hole in the brain, obliterating rational thought and setting off behaviors that create a self-fulfilling prophecy by pushing away the very person one desires, or needs, the most. Think of astronaut-in-training Lisa Nowak, who in 2007, at the age of 44, drove a thousand miles nonstop from Houston, Texas, to Orlando, Florida, with a diaper on, the quicker to kidnap the new girlfriend of a fellow astronaut with whom she had had an affair. Ironic that an impulse that arises from love can so easily destroy it.”

Romantic Jealousy, A.M. Pines and C.F. Bowes go into detail about the prominence of jealousy in relationships: “Jealousy is a reaction to a perceived threat--real or imagined--to a valued relationship or to its quality. A nationwide survey of marriage counselors indicates that jealousy is a problem in one third of all couples coming for marital therapy.... Jealousy lies somewhere in the gray area between sanity and madness. Some jealous reactions are so natural that a person who doesn't show them seems in some way 'not normal.' Others seem so excessive that one doesn't need to be an expert to know that they are pathological. A classic example is the man who is suspicious of his loving and faithful wife that he constantly spies on her, listens in on her phone conversations, records the mileage in her car for unexplained trips—and despite her repeatedly proven fidelity continues to suspect her and suffer from tremendous jealousy.”

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