Monday, August 25, 2008

The Nature of Jealousy: The Whys and Hows and Whos

I'm researching jealousy in order to expand my understanding and teaching materials and write a book on the subject. I've presented a program on making peace with jealousy in polyamorous relationships probably 20 times or more over the last few years and have helped others deal with jealousy in their lives more times than I can count. So I've heard a lot of personal stories. What I know about the subject is partly from personal experience, partly from the experiences of others, and partly from what I've read from those who are experts in the field.

I even have references - check out Avah's comment to the blog entry on jealousy here. I've never before been referred to as "the sh*t", at least not to my knowledge and not in a good way. (grin)

It is well documented that jealousy is indeed hard wired into humans. Even Oprah's expert, Dr. Gail Saltz, said this on an episode that included a poly couple and recently re-aired. She actually acknowledged that humans are not hard wired for monogamy, but she cautioned that what we *are* hard wired for is jealousy and possessiveness. (More about the hard-wiring she references below.) The fact that jealousy is inate is observed even in little children, who must be taught to share toys, their mothers, etc. My daughter is preparing for that challenge with her entirely self-centered 2 y.o. (self-centeredness being consistent with what is known about 2 year olds and early childhood development) when the baby she is expecting arrives at the end of the year, for example.

My understanding thus far is that jealousy is a primitive emotion that originates in the amigdula, a/k/a the reptilian brain, which is also responsible for our fight or flight response. It developed/evolved as a protective mechanism over the millenia, with anthropologists believing it served primitive humans at a time when mates and resources necessary for safety and survival of the family and the species were scarce and the world was a very dangerous place. Yet survival of the species also depended on humans spreading their reproductive resources around in a very non-monogamous fashion. This explains how it is that we can quite happily have more than one mate ourselves while at the same time feeling uncomfortable sharing a mate with others. IT IS NOT A RATIONAL IMPULSE - but it is a human one.

It is also well documented that human biology hasn't changed over the millenia enough for it to make any noticeable difference as far as our base instincts and emotions are concerned. Certainly we are much more highly civilized than our ancient ancestors, and we can and do control our emotional and behavioral reactions to a large degree, but just about everyone struggles from time to time with the emotions that make up jealousy. They are a natural part of being human, but that doesn't mean we must remain at their mercy and have them ruin our relationships.

Also, that doesn't mean that everyone feels jealous. Some people, a minority, seem to be immune, and the reasons for that are not well understood. I suspect that those lucky people who don't experience it find polyamory especially appealing, and for obvious reasons, so it's not uncommon to encounter people in our community who say they never feel jealous. It's a lot less of a challenge for them.

Certainly social conditioning plays a role in how we experience and express jealousy. Our society reinforces it and even idolizes and makes a fetish of it in some ways. It tells us when we are little that there is one special person out there who we will find one day, who is our soul mate with whom we will live happily ever after. No wonder we get jealous when we perceive a threat after we think we've found "the one." Jealous partners are often encouraged to act out their anger, especially if they've been wronged by a partner who has broken a promise of monogamy. It's everywhere, in our popular music, movies, TV, books, magazines. In fact, it is so common and so much taken for granted that most of us don't even give it much thought when it is part of a story line. So as I like to say, we are all marinated in a culture that tell us from an early age that jealous feelings are OK and even justified. In some ways it is put up on a pedestal - as recently as the early 1970s, a man who killed his wife who he caught with another man was not guilty of murder in the State of Texas but instead of a lesser crime. (Women, however, WERE guilty of murder, hence another reason that law is now history.)

As to the part insecurity and low self-esteem play, yes, these are another layer of complexity in the way jealousy is expressed and resolved (though they are far from the sole source of jealous reactions and feelings, as I've illustrated above.) That's why in the program I give I talk a lot about making sure existing relationships are healthy and that all partners have reason to feel generally secure in their heart and in their partner(s)' love, no matter who else their partner may also love. I urge people to work on trust if there are trust issues, as these are incompatible with resolving jealousy. I also urge people who aren't very self aware to become so, and to engage in self-help and/or see a therapist to deal with any serious self-esteem and/or abandonment issues they may have. These are also incompatible with resolving jealousy. There is no reason for self-blame if these exist. Bad things happen to us, sometimes from experiences with former partners, with our parents, etc., that can set us up to feel insecure. It stinks, but it doesn't mean we have to live with it for the rest of our lives. But it does mean that with all the factors I reference here, these emotional issues can and likely will make managing jealousy in poly relationships a greater challenge than it would be otherwise.

The handout from my jealousy program can be found on my website under Downloadable Documents. As I learn more about the anthropological underpinnings of jealousy, I plan to add that information to it.


Anonymous said...

Really interesting post,seriously. The jealousy issue intrigues me.I'm one of those people who are "immune". My partner on the other hand,is not and has some pretty intense feelings of jealousy. Not having the same reaction, it's hard for me to relate and understand where he's coming from . I respect his feelings,of course and try to empathize but deep down,I just don't really get it.

Anonymous said...

I come from the Jealousy side.. and I can tell you its a big insecurity issue. In my eyes she is the ideal hottie I want to be. She's picture perfect.
But he reasures me, I am his ultimate hottie/love/soul mate. She is a lust that SHE has to work at to keep him.
Communication and reassurances are all you can do to help the jealous one to get over it.
And it can be a long painful process.

Anita Wagner Illig said...

Diana, hopefully you've met this woman. We find that getting to know our sweetie's other significant other can go a long way toward gaining perspective. It often becomes more apparent that this is just another normal person with both strengths and imperfections. I encourage you to check out the handout from my jealousy program for more ideas about how to make peace with jealousy - see the link to it under Jealousy Resources down the left column of this blog. And good luck!

Anonymous said...

Anita, no I have not officially met her. I have seen pictures and I know of her imperfections via hubby's say so.
I really don't understand my own jealousy. Yeah she's prettier, younger and has that ideal body I'd kill to have.
But what really helped is hubby telling me things that he loves about me. And how well we work together. Reasuring me that what we have is a good thing and he is not going to give that up.
Best of all is that desires my body type over hers.. so its helping me get to that place I need to be. Happy and secure.

Anonymous said...

I'm wanting to understand jealousy more. As of now, I'm not really buying the biology arguments. I can't find them at all compelling because they seem to dismiss so easily the realities of today's vast consumer society and its effects on the human psyche in terms of insecurity, which seems to be the root of jealousy.

Unknown said...

A great read on the whole! But one nitpick: I would be careful about statements like "science says this is hard-wired" and so on; for every scientist that confidently asserts that's the case, there's another who's equally confident from the opposing camp. On the other hand, there may be a general consensus like we have with atomic theory, but I'd really doubt it with murky matters such as human evolution. Plus, often the popular press takes scientific findings and strips them of all "may" and "some evidence suggests that" type qualifiers and prints the most exciting finding as Fact, out of context. So I'd find out what a broader range of scientists say (not to imply that you haven't done your homework here!) and be sure to make your assertions no less tentative than they are in the primary literature. OK, pedantic moment over, thanks much for the helpful insights!

Anita Wagner Illig said...

Thanks for the tips, wrm, much appreciated. Glad you enjoyed the post.

The Yoni Age said...

Absolutely insightful and well explained.

Grackle said...

Lord! I'm so glad I found this blog. I have been struggling with my lovers belief that she is polyamorous. I have met her lovers, though she has never met mine. I think its important to acknowledge that jealousy is not always a sign of insecurity, lack of self-awareness, or just a biological knee jerk. That sometimes you just want to throw all your eggs in one basket and run with it and that having your lover not feel the same way can be frustrating, and saddening. Anita, thanks for your support it this rollercoaster called life!

Anonymous said...

I recently got into a relationship with a guy who is polyamorous. I've always toyed with the idea in my head but I've only ever been in monogomous relationships. I really like this guy and i want him to be happy but i think we want different things. I understand having multiple sex partners, that doesn't bother me one bit. But the thought of him having serious intimate relationships with other women makes me feel like I'm just not good enough. However, I know that is not the case because he constantly reassures me that I am. I just can't seem to curb my irrational jealousy, I guess. Do you think this can be resolved? Or do you think that maybe I'm just not cut out for that kind of relationship? I just don't know what to do because I think we have something really specail.