Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Emotional Intelligence (8): Jealousy

Jealousy and Flirtation by Haynes King (1831-1904)

Jealousy — along with her equally twisted twin sister, Envy — is one of the strongest, most unpleasant, futile and all-encompassing of emotions. There are two types of jealousy I'd like to consider. The first is that all-too-common envy we can feel at times towards others. Whether we are jealous of another person's perceived or imagined health, wealth, happiness, status, success, talents, good fortune, family, car, house or garden, it's all the same: the bottom line is that we become insecure, frustrated and bitter, wondering why others seem to have all the luck, and resenting life's injustices. And envy tends to be a state which breeds more envy, just as maggots multiply on rancid meat. No matter how many times we may satisfy our cravings for what our neighbour already appears to possess, more cravings inevitably take their place. There is always something else to be envious of.

Fortunately I learnt long ago about the ugly mechanics of envy, and I am so relieved not to be in its cold, life-denying embrace. It's a great freedom and liberation not to be tied to that ceaseless emotional treadmill. Acceptance of what one is and what one has, gladness at being oneself and not another, contentment with one's lot no matter how unfairly the cards have been dealt — these are the secrets of a happy life. Now, I'm not saying that I'm always content, and cheerful about the way things are, and overjoyed that much of life seems to be a succession of pain, tragedy and disaster. And I'm not saying either that we shouldn't have the ambition to change things, to improve our lives in whatever ways we feel are right. But if such desires are for shallow or impossible things, and if they are fuelled by jealousy and envy, than we are heading straight down the road of unhappiness and dissatisfaction.

The other type of jealousy which comes to mind is, for me, much more difficult to restrain: that is sexual jealousy. I've met a few people who have insisted they do not understand this emotion, and have never felt it, but I don't think this is the case for most of us. Like all kinds of jealousy, sexual jealousy can be a destructive, consuming passion — based, I believe, on insecurity, and a fear of rejection and abandonment. I have felt sexual jealousy at some periods in my life, sometimes obsessively, and have always found it pointless, demeaning and a waste of time and energy — yet this strong, unreasoning emotion always seems to override logic.

Astrologically I am a Scorpio, and "Scorpios are known for their possessiveness and jealousy but on the other hand, they are extremely loyal", according to this Zodiac Signs website. Be that as it may. Shakespeare, however, has more elevated things to say on the subject. In Othello, Iago famously describes jealousy thus: "It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock / The meat it feeds on: that cuckold lives in bliss, / Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger; / But, O, what damnéd minutes tells he o'er / Who dotes, yet doubts; suspects, yet soundly loves!" And Othello's misplaced jealousy gets out of hand: " ... Yet I'll not shed her blood; / Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow, / And smooth as monumental alabaster. / Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men."

How does one come to terms with sexual jealousy? The issue is far too complex for me to deal with here in a few words. Suffice to say, I think the trick is to recognise that we are all independent beings in the end, that we are all existentially "on our own", and that we do not possess anyone else, even partially. Possession implies power over someone, and that is not good; it is not our right to expect or exert this. Our loved ones are human like we are and they are not perfect. They are not our property. They are separate beings. They change, they evolve, they may hurt or betray us. Their minds are not our minds. Other minds may contain unshareable secrets and depths we can barely guess at. If we can look at things in this way, with a more realistic kind of balance, we can then begin to differentiate between love and sex, and realise that, although sex may be an important part of love, it is not love itself. Real love should transcend human failings, disappointments, sex and sexual jealousy.


  1. While I still have monsters to slay, jealousy is not one of my major foes. I have always suspected that, if I truly knew all of the facts, including the "unsharable secrets and depths" of the lives of others, I would not be prepared to exchange my life for that of another. With respect to sexual jealousy, your point is well-taken. Sexual jealousy is indeed a form of possessiveness that has no place in the realm of authentic love. Just as I would resent another's claim to a property right in my life, I must respect the same sentiment in others.

    This, of course, is the ideal world, and the experience of love usually falls short of the ideal. How can one be expected to simply admire a fine Belgian waffle without wanting to taste it for oneself?

  2. I haven't had to deal with jealousy in quite some time since having given up on romantic relationships. However, I can recall times when I certainly did not act with any sort of grace or love with my loved one.
    Part of the problem I think is that although we are independent on a day-to-day basis, we also have that a strong need for the other and a need/desire to be as one with the other so that when someone is seen as a threat to the relationship we are overcome with fear/anxiety which displays itself as anger.

  3. We're fascinating beings, we humans.

    I was just reading about Don Juan, and how his success at seducing women was due to the way he found in each woman what he could find in no other. By sharing this passage, I don't mean to suggest anything except I do wonder how Don Juan himself would handle a Don Juanita. Would he be jealous?

    It's from the great blog "Paying Attention to the Sky" and this is the post:

    Consider Don Juan. The essence of his personality is seduction, and seducing means eliciting consent, through representing your own consuming interest in doing so. Don Juan is seductive because he feels passion for every woman he meets, and yet his passion is not transferable. It would be absurd to break into his seduction of Zerlina (in the version that we owe to Da Ponte and Mozart) with the announcement `take this one, she will do just as well’ (hence the pathos of Donna Elvira’s interruption). This point is made clear by Casanova in his Memoirs, in which his intense and interrogatory desire singles out each object in turn for the very person that she is, and for whom no other could possibly be a substitute — which is why Casanova was irresistible.

  4. i admire the candid nature of this post. when i think of jealousy the aspect of sexual jealousy doesn't resonate as much with me, but when you mentioned you are a scorpio (and i am familiar with a few in my life) then it makes sense. in a broader sense, coming to terms with envy can bring the unexpected consequence of freedom and liberation, as you state, from that ceaseless emotional treadmill. to learn to find in one's self what you would normally covet in another is one of life's most pleasant realizations.

  5. Robert,

    I wanted to thank you for your kind comment when my father passed. I tried to find your email to contact you directly, but was unsuccessful, so this will have to suffice.

    My deep sympathies to you for your own loss. I'm so happy you were able to hear those healing words. All my best to you.


  6. Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

    Ruth — I've certainly never considered myself a Don Juan, even for an instant, but I do understand instinctively and totally your thesis about seductive uniqueness.

    And Amanda — This new blog is supposed to be candid, in its posts and responses, so I'm glad you appreciate that. Many thanks for these sympathetic words about the loss of my own father.