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August 1993

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1993 by William A. Henkin

<Q> When my women's group of seven community members first met we all said we didn't mind if our partners played with other people; but in deeper discussion most of us admitted some discomfort and jealousy over the matter. How can we deal with these feelings?

<A> Almost everyone who becomes romantically involved with other people feels jealous at some time or another, and when we're in the grip of this complex emotion life can certainly seem uncomfortable; sometimes it may even seem desperate. Certainly I've had uncomfortable and desperate experiences with jealousy in my life; I even remember one particularly nasty, young, and (for me) stupid episode when I took to carrying a large knife with the specific intent of doing one singularly non-erotic cutting.

Under the best circumstances we could simply reject the feeling we don't like, but if that had worked I wouldn't have honed that hefty blade and you wouldn't have written to me. Under the worst circumstances, the feeling can become overwhelming. Then people fight, or suffer, or change their agreements with their partners, or change partners altogether. During my own most dramatic bouts with jealousy I ranted and raved in a variety of ways designed to make my partners change, but since it's almost impossible to change someone else, in each of those cases I, too, finally changed partners.

Another tack is to consider the experience of jealousy as an opportunity to expand your awareness of what makes you tick. I don't just say this as a curse, the way the ancient Chinese are supposed to have said, "May you live in interesting times." Taking your misery by the horns and turning it into a consciousness-raising process can, at least, become a step along the way to understanding the feeling you're in the throes of, and in an odd way, to understand jealousy is to understand something special about the nature of love. If you take this approach you may not only alter your experience of jealousy, but also of yourself, profoundly. This is the approach I eventually took, though I confess that only necessity drove me to it.

When I met my current partner I would have sworn I needed her to be monogamous in all erotic and affectional ways. But it's in the nature of her life to have erotic encounters with multiple people, and besides, she tends to be friendly with her former lovers. One evening about a month after we'd met I picked her up to go to a Janus meeting. As I walked up the stairs to her flat I heard her ex in conversation with her previous ex, and she greeted me with the news that someone was coming from out of town to do a scene with her – for a whole weekend.

Adrenaline flooded my blood, and the blood itself fled to my extremities. Flushed and light-headed, I went into full-fledged fight-flight-or-go-crazy mode, and settled into a deep blue funk I might charitably call murderous situational despair. I couldn't change her, I couldn't change the situation, and I wasn't sure I wanted to change me or even that I would have if I could. But since I had no idea how to change myself in this situation anyway, the question was moot.

So I lived with my feelings. I knew that my partner was not to blame for them – she hadn't made me feel wretched, enraged, and in despair, even if hers was the metaphorical finger that pushed my wretched, enraged, despairing buttons – and I knew that I valued her too much to kiss off our new relationship just because I was feeling pissy. By choosing to live with my discomfort, rather than blaming my partner for it (fighting) or leaving her over it (fleeing), I found I felt crazy with grief and rage. Since I was either unable or unwilling to live in that condition there was no option left but to examine my feelings of jealousy and resolve them.

As I explored I found that, for me, jealousy was based partly in my fear that I would lose my partner; or that I didn't deserve to be happily in love; or that she was giving to others what was rightfully mine; that I was somehow not good enough for her, or that I was so good and special that she and the rest of the world and all the people in it were supposed to defer to my wants before they took care of their own. And the more I examined the feelings I was having, and the more I discussed them with my partner – who had the great good grace and intelligence not to feel slighted or attacked when I did – the more those feelings began to soften and to change.

Like some SM Goldilocks, I started to recognize that I was not too good and not too bad but just right; that playing with other people was not going to cause my partner to leave me – if she was going to leave, she would do so whether she was playing or not; and that she couldn't give to anyone else whatever it was that belonged to me – if she could, it wouldn't have been mine.

In addition, working through this process proved to me that even if I had never deserved a loving relationship in the past, I had surely earned one now. And over time the alchemy of consciousness changed my life, and jealousy receded. I don't mean that I don't still have jealousy issues: I do, and maybe someday I will see jealousy rear its head again. But the green-eyed monster has lost some of its power in my life; it has become simply one more feeling in my emotional wonderland, available and important as any other emotional information I can give myself through my anger, affection, sorrow, and joy: one more inner teacher I may and must acknowledge.

Well, thanks for sharing, Bill. So what is this jealousy thing, anyway, and what can we do about it?

In the simplest terms, jealousy is the agitation you may feel when someone you are attached to emotionally shares an intimate experience with someone other than you. The usual explanation for feeling jealous is that somewhere deep down inside yourself you believe you are somehow losing, have lost, or will lose something or someone valuable and even vital to your physical or (more likely) psychological survival because of your loved one's experience. You feel you have been robbed or otherwise deprived of what you feel is yours, and you see no way to stop the loss.

Of course, despite our beliefs and desires, and despite our most sophisticated negotiations around Mistress-Master/slave ownership we can never control another person's feelings. As a result, our jealousy may lead us to feel guilty as well, for trying to dictate what is already beyond us. Moreover, because we've been trained to believe that as sophisticated adults we shouldn't feel jealous we may try to deny our jealous feelings, only to find that lying about them to ourselves takes from us even the opportunity to rage and grieve.

Finally, brought to our knees with despair, we start to hope that the person over whom we feel jealous will rescue us: that he or she will do something to relieve our intolerably unpleasant feelings. Specifically, we hope s/he will stop doing what s/he's doing, stop feeling the way s/he's feeling, and/or stop being the way s/he's being. If s/he doesn't do these things we may get angry at her or him for our own jealousy, guilt, and hopelessness, as if our painful feelings were somehow our beloved's fault.

If jealousy expresses something about insecurity, insecurity itself may be a principal reason jealousy often appears in sexual relationships: sexual jealousy defines the possibilities of intimacy in sexual terms, even though true intimacy is far more likely to be based in trust. Along with the belief that our beloved owes us something, sexual jealousy implies that s/he can only love one person at a time; therefore, s/he must love either us or another person, but could never love both the other and us.

Since, in addition, most of us believe that we cannot change our jealous behavior, or that even if we can change our behavior we can never change the deep-seated values that precipitate it, jealousy can lead us to wish that we were dead, that our lovers were dead, or that the other objects of their affections were dead. Sometimes people act on these sorts of wishes.

Another problem with jealousy is that it's a compound emotional state that contains – and may also inspire – two or more of such simpler feelings as anger, fear, sadness, joy, or lust. This may be part of the reason the experience of jealousy is different from one person to the next and from one moment to the next: jealousy may be experienced differently at the same time by different people, and it may also be experienced differently at different times by the same person. As a result we can never establish one proven way to deal with it.

Jealousy may also have to do with cultural, as well as personal, insecurity. Compared with all the other emotions except the dependent, entangled attachment that often passes for love, jealousy gets a lot of air time. Jealousy murders make hot tabloid headlines, and the heartbreak of jealousy is a staple of art, music, literature, and office gossip. Moreover, since the media usually portray jealousy as bad and it feels uncomfortable, we've learned to have a low social tolerance for it: when we feel jealous most of us seek to get rid of the feeling as quickly as we can.

The actual experience of jealousy takes place in our bodies, in our thought processes, and in our emotions. In this regard it is much like any other normal stress response: we sense what we believe is danger, and our bodies automatically prepare to fight or flee. Indeed, when we feel jealous we tend to think those are the only two ways available to respond – fight or flight. But actually, there are many.

For instance, we may withdraw by sulking, indulging our feelings of being betrayed or victimized, and hiding out, all the while longing for our lovers to seek us out so that we may know they care, and thereby end our agony. We may interrogate our lovers about their feelings, moralize about their behaviors, accuse them of violating our trust, say that they've wronged us, try to make them feel guilty and remorseful, and otherwise beat them up emotionally by placing on them responsibility for our distress. We may demand that they stop doing what upsets us, or threaten to retaliate by hurting them as they have hurt us. We may threaten to do them harm, to do their other lovers harm, or to take ourselves away from these people who mean more to us than anyone else in the world.

But if we recognize that no one is to blame for the emotions we feel, we can use our experience of jealousy to grow as human beings. We might not grow to anyplace where jealousy doesn't exist, but we can grow to someplace where jealousy teaches us about who we are, and who our lovers are, without praise and without blame. It is that intense dimension of intimacy in which we may, if we're lucky, suddenly find that love is a condition, not a place, and that we may love in pain or in grace, whether we feel jealous or not, and whether we wish to or not. Then our jealousy may fade over time, introducing extraordinary new depth and intimacy into our relationships.

On the other hand – since you asked – while I think testing and expanding your limits can be a fine way to grow, I don't hold with the self-abuse that results from agreeing to, or maintaining agreements about, something you regret or resent when you have to live with it. If the discomfort of the jealousy you describe is more than you really can bear, save yourselves and your partners a lot of grief: alter your agreements or find other partners.

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