Learning where jealousy comes from can help in our understanding of how to deal with it...
Despite how enlightened we think we are, most of us experience jealousy in our intimate relationships. A few rare individuals never experience jealousy. They are either more highly evolved than the rest of us mere mortals, or else they are pathologically out of touch with their feelings. I advise clients to treat jealousy as a given: assume that it will occur, and be prepared with strategies to successfully address it and minimize the distress.
Of course, jealousy is present in our lives literally from birth, and not just in romantic relationships.
You may recall experiencing jealousy in these childhood situations:
- Your parents were busy with their work or other activities and didn’t give you as much time and attention as you wanted.
- The birth of a new sibling suddenly took all the attention away from you and was focused on the new baby.
- A parent seemed to like another sibling more, or another sibling was better-behaved, did better in school, or was more successful socially.
- You didn’t get picked for the football team but other friends made the team.
- Your best friend started spending more time with another friend.
- A friend becomes more popular than you and is invited into a “cool” clique.
- Other friends seemed to get more dates than you do.
- A friend gets better grades and gets into a better college.
In adulthood, some of these situations may provoke intense jealousy:
- Your neighbor has a nicer house than you or buys a very expensive car.
- Your co-worker gets the promotion you applied for.
- Your boss refuses to give you a raise but gives another co-worker a raise
- Your best friend marries someone with a lot of money or who is much better-looking than your spouse.
- Your partner spends too much time at work, on sports, on the computer, or on hobbies and not enough time with you.
- Your partner would rather drink or use drugs than spend time with you.
- Your neighbor’s kid gets into Harvard and your kid is an unemployed pothead.
- Your friends all have grandchildren but you have none.
- Your partner seems more loyal and committed to their children from a previous marriage than to you.
Many situations in childhood and previous adult experiences provoke intense jealousy. As a result, when we experience jealousy in a romantic relationship we may be triggering traumatic events from our past and projecting those feelings onto the present situation. This may explain in part why we can feel so out of control when jealousy strikes, since it is not just about the current situation but about very painful experiences in the past.
Everyone from philosophers to psychologists to evolutionary biologists have weighed in with theories about the origins of jealousy and why it exists.
Freud's Theory of Jealousy
Sigmund Freud, the inventor of modern psychiatry, believed that jealousy was rooted in the Oedipal conflict. He posited that every child falls in love with the opposite-sex parent, and becomes insanely jealous of the same-sex parent because the child eventually realizes that the object of their affection is in love with the other parent. However, this is a very heterosexual view of jealousy, and the Oedipal interpretation does not explain why same-sex couples experience jealousy just as intensely as heterosexuals.
Freud identified four major components of jealousy.
- First, he believed we experience grief, the terrible pain of actually losing or being afraid of losing someone we love.
- Second, we are flooded with the very distressing realization that we cannot have everything we want in life.
- Third, we are gripped with feelings of enmity towards the successful rival who has won the love of our partner or whom we fear will succeed in stealing our partner.
- Fourth, we turn our anger on ourselves in a belief that we our own inadequacies as a partner will cause our partner to leave us. We fear that we are inferior to a rival and that we will lose our lover, and that we deserve to be abandoned for a “better” partner.
Clearly, Freud viewed jealousy as a nightmare driven by our most primal fears of inferiority, loss, and abandonment. In his construct, jealousy triggers our most intense emotions: terror of being rejected and alone, despair at the realization that we can’t have what we desire most, rage at a rival for trying to steal our partner’s love and attention, self-blame and loathing for being inadequate and “losing” a competition with a hated competitor.
"Darwinian" Theory of Jealousy
Evolutionary biologists have taken a somewhat different approach to the origins of jealousy and have assumed that it serves an evolutionary purpose. In other words, it developed because it was useful in the survival of the species. They believe that jealousy in humans is hard-wired because it is evolution’s way to get us to pay attention to a potential threat to the family unit.
In the days of cave men and women, if a man and woman had a baby, the mother and child were somewhat dependent on the male (during pregnancy and during the child’s first years) to find food and protect them from predators (including other men).
If the male ran off with another female, it decreased the chances that the child would survive to adulthood and reproduce, and continue the human species, which is the main goal of evolution. Similarly, if the woman runs off with another man, the abandoned male would not be able to reproduce and evolution’s purpose is stymied.
In this scenario, jealousy served approximately the same purpose as a car alarm: an early warning system. The more jealous someone was, the more likely they would notice signs that the partner was sexually involved with another partner and was considering defecting to another mate. The more jealous partner would be more likely to take action to intervene to try to prevent this outcome. Since this trait had a survival value, people who were more jealous were more likely to reproduce their genetic material and therefore those traits would be accentuated over many generations.
Are women more jealous than men?
Some biologists have presented evidence that women tend to be more jealous than men. They hypothesize that a woman and her children were much more vulnerable to death or hunger due to the male’s abandoning the family for another mate, than a man would be if the woman left. They theorize that if the woman left for another man, she would take her children with her and they would be likely to be protected by and provided for by the new mate, and likely to survive to adulthood and reproduce. Thus the male did not have nearly as strong an evolutionary reason for jealousy to become pronounced.
However, many other people have presented evidence that men are just as jealous as women, but that they experience and express it differently. Many women tend to experience jealousy very intensely and can become incapacitated and almost paralyzed by fear, depression, and self- hatred.
Men, on the other hand, may not experience jealousy internally quite as intensely, but instead tend to act it out through tantrums, threats, and even violence. Women are more likely to internalize jealousy as fear and despair while men are more likely to project it outward as anger towards their partner or the person they see as a rival. These are broad generalizations and are certainly not true for all men or all women but manifest often enough that some general trends can be seen.
Charles Darwin himself pointed out that men’s jealousy tends to be focused on their female partner having sex with another man, while women’s jealousy is more likely to focus on their male partner developing an intimate or committed relationship with another woman. He hypothesized that there is an evolutionary purpose for these gender-specific manifestations of jealousy.
Modern sociobiologists have elaborated on Darwin’s theory. They believe that the male is more concerned about sex because if his mate has sex with another man, she may become pregnant by someone else and he will be supporting and raising someone else’s children. Conversely, the woman is more jealous of the man developing a committed relationship because she fears he will invest his time, energy, protection, and resources in another woman, and she herself will have less resources and safety if she has to share the male’s resources with another woman and her children.
Both male and female jealousy then have the same evolutionary goal, to protect the pair bond in order to maximize the chances of the couple having children and staying together long enough for those children to survive to adulthood. The difference is that for men, that goal is reached by insuring paternity of his children and making his parental investment of resources worthwhile in reproducing his own genes. For women, that goal is met by insuring that the male does not invest so much of his resources in another woman that it creates a scarcity for the initial mate and her children.
While there are many theories of jealousy, there has not been enough scientific study of jealousy to come to any conclusions. However, each theory may have some kernel of truth and be useful to you in understanding how jealousy affects you and your relationships.
Check out Kathy's new book: Love in Abundance: A Counselor's Guide to Open Relationships