Jealousy is a primal emotion which is known to breed fear within anyone who feels it; but have you ever stopped to wonder what, in fact, is jealousy, and are there ways of conquering the green-eyed monster? The origins and survival of jealousy are based largely upon its evolutionary triumph; solidifying its place as a strategy for survival. The ‘primal instinct’ aspect of jealousy and its omnipresence in our lives may lead one to question whether the influences responsible for its continued existence are more a matter of nature or nurture. To what degree is jealousy biologically innate and how much do our socialization, environment, and culture contribute? Clinical psychologist and key founder of the polyamorist movement, Deborah Anapol, suggests that it’s a combination of the two, leaning more towards the belief that we live in a culture which cultivates jealousy as a normal aspect of romantic and erotic relationships.
To help understand the intricacies of jealousy, we will explore the neurological, psychological, and evolutionary origins of jealousy through the lens of relationship structures such as monogamy and polyamory. This exploration will seek to illuminate whether or not our traditional notions of love, commitment, and fidelity are innately bound by the crippling presence of jealousy; or if perhaps through these explorations of other relationship structures, we can find alternative mechanisms to unlearn jealousy altogether.
So, What Is Jealousy?
In today’s society, not being able to clearly name or define something makes it hard for us to understand it, such is the complicated case of jealousy; where even the Oxford Dictionary can’t offer a singular definition for it. This being said, it is no wonder that jealousy gets used incorrectly or even interchangeably with other emotions.
When we refer to jealousy in everyday conversations we often actually mean envy. If you’ve ever heard or said yourself, “ugh I’m so jealous” in response to a friend’s weekend plans, a holiday in Barbados, winning the lottery, or going on a cruise with Tom Cruise, you actually mean envy. Distinguishing between the two may seem unnecessary but it can help expose the more subtle characteristics of jealousy and aid us on our journey to discovering the core of the beast. Envy, by Oxford Dictionary standards, is “a feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else’s possessions, qualities, or luck.” Contrastingly, jealousy is not so straightforward and has a confusing amount of definitions. For the purpose of this exploration, we will use the definition made by the American Psychological Association, expressing that jealousy is “a negative emotion in which an individual presents a third party for appearing to take away (or likely to take away) the affections of a loved one.” Peter van Sommers, the author of the book ‘Jealousy,’ more comprehensively puts that “envy concerns what you would like to have but don’t possess, whereas jealousy concerns what you have and do not wish to lose.” This notion of fear and loss is pivotal to understanding the true roots and nature of jealousy and how we might approach unlearning it all together.
Where Does Jealousy Come From, and Why Do We Feel It?
Like all strong emotions, jealousy has remained intact through the evolution of humankind. A study conducted by neuroscientist Hidehiko Takahashi found that through the neuroimaging of men and women’s neural responses to jealousy, a reaction to either sexual or emotional infidelity is triggered dependant on each sex. Takahashi highlights that when jealousy is activated in men they respond more to threats of sexual infidelity, whereas women respond to emotional threats. Key evolutionary psychologists such as David Buss, support these findings expressing that through the codependency of our male and female ancestors, sexual exclusivity meant that men had the biological insurance of their offspring, and women had the support, safety, and security they needed; meaning jealousy fundamentally acted as a deterrent to potential, or real threats of infidelity, thus playing a large role in the survival of mankind.
While these fidelity oriented arguments prove beneficial in understanding some of the evolutionary roots of jealousy, they should not be seen as solely responsible for its survival. Author Peter Toohey highlights that jealousy is additionally a hardwired and fundamental aspect of social awareness, being “a response to the frustrations and negotiations necessary for life in society, for getting and relinquishing what we want and need”. This suggests that jealousy should not always exclusively be associated with romantic relationships, but rather highlights implications for its use in the broader means of survival in modern society.
Chronologically speaking, jealousy develops in the early formative years of children. This can commonly be seen in the example of the interaction between child, toy, and peer. If the toy is taken away by the peer, the child becomes upset and angry, trying to take back the toy. This jealous response and threat of loss posed by the triangular interaction directly relate to the definition made by the American Psychological Association; highlighting the integral part a third party member plays in the process of jealousy. Additionally, in adulthood, this is also reflected. The growing dependence on partners and relationships places us in a vulnerable position where insecurities and fears are heightened by the potential or real threat of loss posed by a triangular interaction. This inadvertently encourages the unwilling engagement with jealousy as an active attempt of survival, and a direct expression of trying to keep what you already ‘possess’. While not exclusive to, Individuals with lower self-esteem and greater insecurities tend to suffer the most and are more susceptible to the pangs of jealousy; subject to feelings of possessiveness, fear, inadequacy, exclusion, competition, and a threat to the ego. While it is clear that jealousy has some evolutionary benefits, it is undeniable that it physically feels like the absolute opposite.
The Negative Face Of Jealousy
The negative face of jealousy is sadly and essentially the only face we get to see. If I could put it better than Shakespeare I would, but alas, as Iago once said, jealousy is indeed “the green-eyed monster which doth mocks the meat it feeds on” with its all-conquering capacity to affect our minds, bodies, emotions, and even relationships. The exact physical feeling of jealousy is primarily hard to explain, but for the most part, it evokes an almost outer body experience where our heart starts pumping, gut starts churning, and you feel as though your body is ‘hijacked’ by a power-ranger like transformation. Need I go on? Unless you are Dalai-Lama-level enlightened, I think it’s safe to say we’ve all felt it at least once in our lives, and would probably prefer to forget every instance in which it ever happened.
Comparatively speaking, jealousy is one of the least researched emotions in the fields of neuropsychology and explorations of ‘real life’ emotional experiences. However with what research has been done, there is a somewhat unanimous distinction that the actual physical feeling of jealousy is the same for everyone; while the intensity and triggers which cause the experience can vary from person to person, and sex to sex. Clinical psychologist Deborah Anapol expresses that jealousy often feels like a complex blend of every emotion at once, where “love, sexual arousal, fear, and anger may all be blended together into one gigantic ball of energy that threatens to overwhelm the rational mind.” Given that the experience of jealousy is universal, coupled with the fact that it’s an intersubjective emotion; meaning it needs at least three to tango; it only seems natural that romantic relationships would become a primary hotspot for jealousy to unleash itself. But to what extent do social and cultural factors such as the relationship structure itself, contribute to this fertile incubator of jealous thoughts?
Jealousy and Monogamy
When thinking about the essential themes of our personal lives such as the nature of romantic relationships, it is important to understand how their ‘currently understood’ structure has been socially created and can be subject to change; meaning it has not always been the same throughout history and can continue to be re-defined in the future. However, given this, monogamy has definitely been the favored relationship structure for at least the past few centuries. While monogamy is the most popular, and by societal standards the only ‘real’ relationship structure recognized, this does not necessarily mean it wins the title as the best model. In saying this, it also does not mean that monogamy should be rejected; but rather, as sociologist Anthony Giddens asserts, it’s a suggestion that there may be some outdated structural aspects of monogamy that do not equate with the rapid transformation and development of modern love, sexuality, and relationships.
With this said, monogamy can sometimes be seen as being best friends with jealousy; in the sense that you rarely see one without the other. In fact, a key structural aspect of monogamous relationships is that you are committed to one person and your commitment is shown through your sexual exclusivity. Additionally, one of the jealousy’s key functions is that it acts as a deterrent to sexual infidelity. If this isn’t a match made in heaven I don’t know what is. Monogamy essentially has its own bodyguard; the presence of jealousy makes sure no funny business goes down which could threaten the fidelity of the relationship, while monogamy sits back and relaxes. This might be a bleak way to look at their interconnected nature, but it is undeniable that the two have similar goals. Despite this connection, monogamy sadly does not equip us with the coping mechanisms necessary to deal with the harsh hijacking nature of jealousy.
From personal experiences, and almost every other experience I’ve ever heard about monogamous relationships, it’s safe to say that there’s a somewhat universal understanding that monogamy is laden with an unspoken rulebook; ultimately, if not explicitly, defining what love, commitment, and sex should look like in a committed, romantic relationship. It should be prefaced here that there is nothing wrong with the rulebook, and the rule book, for the most part, works, but sometimes we may be susceptible to following the rulebook a little too blindly; letting expectations form from rules we haven’t personally defined. Monogamy’s silent dialogue with society typically goes hand in hand with sets of expectations, which we sometimes carry from relationship to relationship; regardless of their success, or accurate placement within the reality of each individual relationship. It could be argued that certain expectations we have of love and commitment defined by the ‘rules’ of monogamy, may play a larger role in riddling our minds with unwarranted, or occasionally warranted, jealous thoughts and feelings of inadequacy, possessiveness, competition, and exclusion. Exploring another relationship structure may give us an alternative perspective on the issue, and perhaps equip us with some coping mechanisms, so as to give us a fighting chance against the green-eyed monster.
Polyamory and Jealousy
Polyamory can alternatively be seen as bringing some progressive and radical ideas to the table which have a long history and continue to be practiced, dating back even to ancient Rome. While not for everyone, polyamory is a structure which promotes love and commitment through the fluidity and exploration of erotic and romantic relationships. An individual has the freedom to have multiple simultaneous relationships at any given time. There is a common misconception that polyamorists are not ethically concerned with commitment, due to the sheer fact that by monogamous standards polyamory revolves around ‘infidelity’. However au contraire, loyalty, and commitment are in fact central to polyamory, the only difference being that ‘fidelity’ is defined alternatively to its typical association with sexual exclusivity and commitment; as seen in monogamous relationships. ‘Fidelity’ and commitment is rather derived from other aspects of the relationship, such as, keeping promises, staying open to emotional discussions, individually defining an agreement, and setting rules for any given relationship which reflect the wishes of the participants, and most importantly abiding by these rules and agreements.
The dialogue surrounding polyamory usually brings up the topic of jealousy. While the common response to polyamory may be ‘I could never do that, I’d be too jealous’, it is for this exact reason that polyamorists may know, and have the best techniques for breaking the chains of jealousy. Polyamorists have had to navigate uncharted territory and find new ways of managing, and essentially unlearning jealousy in order to practice a new self-determined way of all-inclusive love. The main tactic used by polyamorists, which could be adopted by anyone, is compersion.
Compersion is a term specifically only used in relation to polyamorous relationships, in essence meaning the opposite of jealousy. It describes the act of feeling joy or pleasure when you see or know that your partner is enjoying or finding love or pleasure in someone else. Although initially, it may sound like a challenging concept, in order to be freed entirely from jealousy you ultimately want to try to work towards compersion. It could start simply by you finding joy or happiness when your partner is having a good time with someone else or without you, rather than feeling jealous, excluded, or like you’re missing out. Compersion aims to transform the learned feelings and triggers of jealousy into a positive experience, breaking down our insecurities, fears, and opening our minds to the possibilities of inclusive love. Deborah Anapol, a key founder of the polyamory movement, additionally offers some polyamorous techniques which could be applied to any relationship to help combat the pain of jealousy, and hopefully, contribute to the eventual un-learning of it.
Tips To Unlearn Jealousy:
- Admitting to yourself and your partner that it is a problem is arguably the first step. Being able to recognize the intensity of your jealousy and when it arises is imperative to the overall management of your feelings of jealousy. Don’t be afraid to be open about how it’s affecting you.
- Be reflective, and trust yourself. Anapol expresses that it is imperative to learn to “listen respectfully to the part of yourself that feels jealous without believing everything you hear”. Additionally, if you don’t feel comfortable or are not familiar with how this process works, reaching out to a professional is always encouraged to get the ball rolling.
- When you do feel jealous, don’t be afraid of saying it aloud. It is okay to be jealous. Openly admitting it, and wanting to discuss it is key to managing the feeling. Treat it with the respect and seriousness of any other significant emotion.
- Have open dialogues about these types of jealous feelings at the moment they arise, rather than letting them grow. This will help you to understand where your feelings are coming from, and help your partner to learn what triggers you.
- Additionally, an important thing to remember when bringing up feelings of jealousy is to make sure you are not accusatory. Start the conversation with ‘I feel like this…. in response to this….’ and let the conversation be open. Forcing blame will only cause you and your partner unnecessary pain and stress.
- Try calming yourself down before you enter into a conversation about jealousy. You want to be as rational and clear as you can when communicating how you’re feeling. Anapol suggests some simple techniques such as “taking deep breaths, vigorous exercise, yoga, dance, massage, listening to relaxing music, a breathwork session, or even watching a funny or uplifting movie” to dissipate the charge of jealousy.
- If you face conflict or resistance in your attempts to communicate your feelings of jealousy, carefully evaluate your relationships. Anapol highlights that If you are with someone who is resistant to teamwork you may want to ask yourself whether there is some sort of ‘payoff’ for having a jealous partner. Anapol asserts that in some instances people have a preference for being in a relationship with a more jealous partner than themselves, allowing them to not have to come face to face with their own vulnerabilities and insecurities.
- Ultimately you want to try to work towards ‘compersion’. Take baby steps. Simply being open and actively aware of the possibilities, and small ways you can activate ‘compersion’ in lieu of jealousy, will slowly bring it out of the shadows.
- Knowing where jealousy comes from will help you in understanding when and why it happens to you and how you can manage it. If you’ve read this article this far, you hopefully know a little more about the origins of jealousy than when you woke up this morning, meaning you’ve already started your journey to unlearning jealousy!
So, Where Does This Leave Us?
This discussion of polyamory does not aim to discourage or ‘put down’ monogamy or monogamists, but merely illustrate how our notions of social structures (such as monogamy) which we may take for granted as being set in stone, can and may need to change. It is important as thoughtful and enlightened individuals of society that we challenge our own understandings of what ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ define love and commitment. This exploration proposes the potential to open our minds past the inherited social structure of monogamy laid out for us and define what it is that would satisfy our personal romantic needs. As Anapol has highlighted, creating your own scripts in social relationships is incredibly important for working towards self-love, equality, and developments of emotional expression. We all have unique desires and needs which can be met and satisfied in a healthy love-filled way, devoid of rampant jealousy. However to achieve this we need to define for ourselves what it is we want in a romantic and committed relationship, and how we can work with our respective partner(s) to hopefully unlearn the very ingrained enigma that is jealousy.
We hope that our readers enjoy exploring their own special love relationships with a view to making them even more loving and more satisfying. Whether you’re a Monogamist or a Polyamorist, here are some tips on how to stay open, self-loving and confident in your relationships in life and love.
Self-Love is the Best Love | Self Love Tips:
Self-love is arguably the most important aspect of any relationship. In order to love others, you must first establish your love and respect for yourself; enabling you to share and receive the love you deserve.
- Try not to compare yourself to others.
- Accept that affirmation and acceptance of your worth will ultimately not come from others.
- Try to be more self-reflective. Being conscious of how your actions affect others and how others actions affect you.
- Stay healthy and physical. Feeling strong in your body will inadvertently help along the healing process of your mind and spirit.
- Surround yourself with people who genuinely care, love and respect you for being you.
- Engage yourself in things that stimulate you, intellectually, emotionally and physically.
- Take time for yourself. Whatever that may be, make sure it’s just for you.
- Don’t be afraid of asking for what you want and need.
Tips on How to Celebrate Those Around You Rather Than Being Jealous:
Celebrating the differences and similarities of the people in your life, and those in your partner’s life is important to creating a positive and affirming environment.
- Focus on the things you like about others, not in relation to how you feel about yourself. Appreciating qualities in others that you do or do not possess will help you to appreciate the individual unique qualities in yourself.
- Try not to compare yourself to others. Comparisons often only lead to unaddressed feelings of inadequacy, and insecurity within yourself. However completely shutting off in these moments is also not an option.
- Alternatively, if you find yourself making comparisons to others, coupled with the pangs of envy or jealousy, try and look inwardly in the moment to reflect on what might be triggering your feelings of inadequacy, and separate them from what or who you are comparing yourself to.
Tips to Help You Feel Confident In Your Relationships:
Feelings of inadequacy, possessiveness, competitiveness, and ego derail love and must be addressed before they take a permanent toll on a loving relationship.
- Practice and work towards self-love! Knowing and reminding yourself that you are a complete and competent person on your own will help you in feeling confident and secure in your relationships.
- Accept that you cannot control your partner, nor do you yourself want to be controlled. Loving your partner’s free will and agency is a large part of the attraction, and most importantly is what makes them, them, and you, you.
- On your road to self-love, If you need specific emotional or physical affirmation from your partner to help you feel confident and secure in your relationship, discuss it and have an open conversation where you can express when, where and in what ways you would like to be reminded of their affections for you.
- Asking for something from your partner is not a bad thing. Although there is a common negative association with ‘asking for something you need’ with ‘neediness’ in relationships; if you have needs that need to be met and your partner is not aware of them, you cannot expect them to know, you have to ask!
- If something, in particular, is upsetting you or making you feel insecure in the relationship, target the feeling and where it’s coming from and bring it up with your partner.
- Remember your feelings are always valid, however, where they are coming from may sometimes be misplaced or misinformed. Communicating is the only way you will be able to address these feelings and resolve the issue.
- Accept your partner’s insecurities, and help to promote their confidence the way you would like to be accepted and encouraged. Mutual respect and support are key to a secure and loving relationship.
Anapol, D. (2012). Polyamory in the 21st century: love and intimacy with multiple partners. S.l.: S.n.
Anapol, D. M. (1997). Polyamory the new love without limits: secrets of sustainable intimate relationships. San Rafael: IntiNet Resource Center.
Aumer, K., Bellew, W., Ito, B., Hatfield, E., & Heck, R. (2014). The Happy Green Eyed Monogamist: Role of Jealousy and Compersion in Monogamous and Non-Traditional Relationships. Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality,17. Retrieved January 20, 2018, from http://www.ejhs.org/volume17/happy.html
Buss, D. M. (2011). The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy Is as Necessary as Love and Sex. Riverside: Free Press.
Giddens, A. (2013). The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies. Oxford: Wiley.
Toohey, P. (2014). Jealousy. London: Yale University Press.
Van Sommers, P. (1988). Jealousy: What is it and who feels it? (Penguin). Penguin Books.