Mean, Green, and a Bit Obscene: The Sting of Jealousy

I’ve been consumed by jealousy many times in my life. It’s an ongoing struggle. But I don’t quite understand the emotion. What is jealousy? Why is it there? Is it masked insecurity? Is it a survival mechanism? There are at least four kinds of jealousy that I’m aware of, or at least that the dictionary mentions, and they all seem to involve some form of control.

When I went searching for an image to introduce this post, these results popped up, and they jibed so closely with the dictionary definitions of “jealous” that I include them as quotes above my own commentary. (P.S. Thanks to Edvard Munch for the painting.)

“Jealousy comes from counting others’ blessings instead of your own.”

I often find myself jealous of others’ success, especially when it’s someone I know well. Instead of being happy for them, I feel a bit of jealousy because it wasn’t me who succeeded. This is the first kind, the jealousy that projects envy. Envy is discontent or longing for something that someone else has. Envy is a sick little snake that burrows into my soul and squeezes out the pleasure I might have otherwise gotten from seeing a friend succeed. And truth be told, I’m much better about this than I used to be, but there is still a bitterness that comes with acknowledging the success of others. In the process, I lose sight of my own success. What good is it to spend time stewing about what others have when I could be hard at work creating my own success? Perhaps it’s that I feel like I have no control over my own success. Perhaps it’s that I feel like it’s too hard or I’m not good enough or I just didn’t get lucky like they did. The truth is that I will succeed if I keep trying, if I work hard, and if I use the success of others to inspire me, not to inspire jealousy.

“Jealousy is the fear of comparison.”

Opposite to the first is the jealousy that’s fiercely protective of one’s rights or possessions. The example the dictionary gives is, “they keep a jealous eye over their interests.” I admit that in the past I’ve guarded my possessions quite jealously. I hated to share. I remember an ex-girlfriend of mine who would always want a bite of whatever it was that I was eating. Just one bite. She would always offer me a bite of her food, but when she wanted a bite of mine I would quietly bristle at the request. I didn’t like to give money to beggars, so jealous was I of what I had. If I don’t share, if I don’t give what I think is mine, I won’t be lacking and thus when comparison strikes I’ll have my full arsenal of possessions. If I let my guard down for even a second, I may show weakness, and weakness won’t win the imaginary battle that jealousy wages. What an unfortunate way to live!

“Jealousy is nothing more than a fear of abandonment.”

And speaking of possessions, the third type of jealousy is a feeling of suspicion of someone’s unfaithfulness in a relationship. For me, it’s maybe a little bit of this, but I think it’s mostly a fear of abandonment. I’ve always been a jealous boyfriend. I’ve gotten jealous of the time a girlfriend spends with her friends. I’ve gotten jealous of time a girlfriend spends with her family. I’ve even been jealous of a girlfriend’s hobbies. I know, I know, I hear what you’re saying… what a control freak! And you’re right, I suppose I am. I’ve always tried to be super cool about it, though, because I know that the jealousy is mostly unfounded. It’s unreasonable to expect a significant other to derive pleasure solely from my presence. But the emotion is still there, no matter how many fake smiles and “no, it’s ok”s I give. It cuts through me like a trembling shard of ice. It grips my throat. It squeezes and gags and make me sick, really physically ill. Well, this is fear, after all. What am I afraid of? Abandonment. Desolation. Betrayal.

“Jealousy means that I am the owner.”

Finally, we come to the big one – jealousy that demands faithfulness and exclusive worship. Aww yeah, this is the jealous boyfriend x 1000. Exclusive worship. If you worship me that means that I own you. If I own you then there’s no possibility of jealousy, because I’m in complete control. But what kind of relationship is that? Parents, do you own your children? You’re responsible for their well-being, for teaching them how to be positive members of society, but these do not implicitly indicate ownership. Husbands, do you own your wives? Sure, you’re responsible for partnering with them, for helping them, for loving them, but these do not implicitly indicate ownership. How many relationships involve the owner and the owned? This has a long history in American culture, from the concept of private property to the jealous God that once dominated American spirituality.

We feel like we own our material possessions, but when they become objects to be controlled they wind up controlling us. Enter jealousy. So maybe we shouldn’t see them as our property, but as being in our care until they need to move to something else. “But this won’t work with people!” I hear you scream. “No, I don’t own my husband or wife, my girlfriend or boyfriend, my children or my parents,” you insist, “but I certainly won’t allow them to just move on to other things when they feel like it.” Why not? If there is a loving partnership then each person will maintain her or his own autonomy while still having a responsibility toward the other. Responsibility is not ownership. If a relationship is going to last, all parties involved will do what it takes to preserve it. This puts the responsibility on the individual, not on the other. I’m not responsible for my girlfriend’s actions, I’m responsible for my actions. If she is going to wander away, then no amount of jealousy, no amount of control is going to change that. Perhaps jealousy does operate as a survival mechanism, but like so many others it’s likely nothing more than an anachronism, something that belongs in another time.

We may once have needed the emotion of jealousy, but we don’t anymore.

We can survive without it.

I can survive without it.

I just need to learn how.

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