As he thrust himself inside of her, her eyelids lowered, her visual field darkened, and she let her colorful imagination run wild. She didn’t enjoy imagining some other man — her partner was more than enough, most of the time. Instead, she enjoyed visualizing him with another woman. Sometimes, she imagined herself as a bystander, watching along the sidelines as he ravished someone they knew superficially, an attractive stranger they’d walked past earlier in the day, or an alluring woman she’d encountered last week.
Sometimes, she imagined herself as that other woman, no longer herself, and the thought of her routinely loyal partner being unable to resist the temptation of another woman’s erotic tease, of his carnal desire for another woman, would send her into a violent frenzy. A potent medley of jealousy and lust producing a state of arousal unlike any other in her earthly body — her nipples stiffen with excitement as her lower flesh moistens with anticipation. A final image flashes across her mind’s eye of her partner’s impassioned infidelity, and she erupts into an electrifying orgasm.
Upon her return to reality, she feels abashed and nonplussed by her fantasies. Since when did jealousy become the fuel for her desire? Whenever her partner spoke of or interacted with other women she deemed attractive, she would feel a twinge of suspicion, threat and insecurity, straightaway seeking reassurance that there would be no impending infidelity. Yet, in the safety of their bedroom and in the realm of her imagination, jealousy stoked the fire within her for her partner.
Q: Are there any secrets to long-lasting relationships?
A: Infidelity. Not the act itself, but the threat of it. For Proust, an injection of jealousy is the only thing capable of rescuing a relationship ruined by habit.
— Alain de Botton, How Proust Can Change Your Life
What exactly is jealousy and where does it come from?
“That sickening combination of possessiveness, suspicion, rage, and humiliation [that] can overtake your mind and threaten your very core as you contemplate your rival”
— as defined by evolutionary anthropologist, Helen Fisher, jealousy is one of those icky feelings that we love to hate and hate to feel.
It doesn’t help that it’s often associated with crimes of passion, and is thus regarded as a pathological, worthless, shameful, clingy and sometimes manic emotion that we should, for the betterment of humanity, just do away with. For this reason, it’s also a neglected emotion — one we don’t like to admit experiencing, because unlike anger or anxiety or even sadness, which is often situational, jealousy usually reveals something ugly within ourselves. Yet it’s a part of our human condition.
“Contained within this simple word are a host of intense feelings and reactions, which can run the spectrum from mourning, self-doubt, and humiliation to possessiveness and rivalry, arousal and excitement, vindictiveness and vengeance, and all the way to violence.”
— Esther Perel, The State of Affairs
Jealousy operates on a spectrum. On one extreme, intense jealousy can transform into rage, yet a lack thereof might indicate apathy. Most of us fall somewhere in between, and it’s up to us to recognize when the emotion comes up and where we are on that spectrum. Like technology, there is nothing inherently good or bad about jealousy, it’s how we view it, how we use it, what we do with it, that gives it its power, for better or for worse.
Esther Perel, a godsend Belgian therapist, author and speaker, dedicates an entire chapter of her book The State of Affairs to the subject of jealousy, and asks an important question of whether or not we should evolve beyond jealousy. Is jealousy a part of our evolutionary biology or is it a learned response, a social construct born out of the agricultural and industrial revolutions, when division and possession became our modus operandi?
The answer isn’t so simple. Jealousy makes sense in light of evolution as a signal of potential threat to a man’s paternity and to a woman’s available resources to care for her offspring. Yet, social changes may have further promoted jealousy as we’ve become more divisive and exclusionary with each other. Jealousy, unlike love, is not an inclusive, unifying emotion. At its core is the recognition and identification of a self, our ego, and of an other.
In jealousy, we “suffer four times over: because I am jealous, because I blame myself for being so, because I fear that my jealousy will wound the other, because I allow myself to be the subject to a banality: I suffer from being excluded, from being aggressive, from being crazy, and from being common.”
— Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments
On Jealousy & Romance
Personally, jealousy has always been an interesting emotion for me to explore, and it’s the one that has taught me the most about myself. I’ve experienced both sides of jealousy, as the purveyor and as the receiver. I’ve used jealousy as a tool to gauge interest in the opposite sex, especially in the early days of dating. I’ve been the jealous, possessive girlfriend who forbade her boyfriend from having a MySpace account or to have any friends of the opposite sex. I proceeded to then date someone who put my jealousy and possessiveness to shame, by throwing out everything in my wardrobe that was form-fitting and semi-revealing, and prohibiting me from having any friends, regardless of gender.
Needless to say, neither of those relationships were healthy. My self-esteem was at an all-time low, and I held the illusory belief that the amount of love one felt mirrored the amount of jealousy he or she felt. So when my ex-boyfriend got upset about my wearing a short skirt, it sent my dopamine receptors into a frenzy because I interpreted his reaction as a signal of love.
Some might say that jealousy is an intrinsic part of romantic love, and this is true to the extent that most of us may not achieve the kind of enlightened, unconditional love we aspire towards. But even so, jealousy has less to do with the love we feel for our partners, and more to do with the love, or lack thereof, we feel for ourselves. (At least, that’s the lesson I came out of those two relationships with.) Jealousy has its roots in fear, the fear of losing what we have — to an other — and desire, the desire to protect what we have with all of our might.
In romantic love, “I” gradually becomes “we” as identities overlap and merge, some couples more than others. Our lovers become an extension of us and us them. We, often unknowingly, place our self-worth into the arms of our lovers, looking to them for words of affirmation and criticism, losing some of our “selves” in the process.
“When we put all of our hopes in one person, our dependence sores,” writes Esther Perel.
While most of us do not give up total control of our emotions and sense of self-worth to our lovers, we give up more than we think. When much of our identity and self-worth is dependent on another person, it’s no surprise that we experience a sort of identity crisis when our lover isn’t there to reassure us of our worth. This becomes even more pronounced when “an other” enters the picture — because our sense of worth is so fixated upon what our partner thinks of and feels towards us, the threat of him or her liking “an other” more than us becomes too much to bear. It would mean this other is better and more valuable than we are.
“We feel most threatened where we feel least secure,” Perel writes, and when we don’t have a sense of security in ourself nor in our relationship, this other becomes a gargantuan threat, reminding us of just how much we have to lose.
As my self-worth and self-love grew, the intensity of jealousy I experienced and felt in any given moment diminished and became easier to contain. I’m now somewhere towards the middle of that jealousy spectrum. Whereas in the past, the strength of it would have driven me to act out and behave in a deleterious way, I can now identify the emotion as it arises, acknowledge the fear of loss and desire to hold on, and yield to its quiet call of introspection.
On Jealousy & Sex
There’s a section in The State of Affairs aptly titled “Is It Fucked Up That His Affair Turns Me On?” This sentiment may not resonate with everyone, but it may resonate with many of us, even if there’s no affair. I can’t be the only person who’s ever been consumed by a disarming cocktail of suspicion, anger and lust upon witnessing a flirtatious interaction between my partner and an attractive female?!
In her first book Mating in Captivity, Perel drives home a central point in the difference between love and desire. Love, she says, is about having, and security. Desire is about wanting, and insecurity. Hence why sex at the beginning of a relationship tends to be more fiery and impassioned, and simmers down when companionate love takes over. There’s a level of risk in the early days of a relationship that drives our desire. “Desire is fueled by the unknown,” Perel intuits.
When we overlay our identity and self-worth onto another, we not only give up our sense of self but we renounce the distance that makes the heart grow fonder — “love seeks closeness, but desire seeks distance.”
It takes two to play the game of lust, but if my partner and I merge into one entity, if we give up our autonomy and dissolve the lines that separate us as individuals, then who do I feel attraction towards — myself? There has to be a distinct “other” for us to feel attraction towards, that is unless you’re autosexual. Too much closeness sometimes thwarts passion.
“Passion in a relationship is commensurate with the amount of uncertainty you can tolerate.”
— Tony Robbins, author and life coach
For some, passion may be less of a priority than a sense of security, and so desire may be something we’re willing to sacrifice for the sake of closeness, but hopefully not to the detriment of our relationships. Still, a little separation, mystery and perhaps jealousy might just be the injection we need to spice things up, especially in the bedroom. Sometimes, we need a friendly little reminder that our (or my) partner doesn’t actually belong to us (or me), and that he or she can leave at any given moment.
The threat of infidelity, imagined or not, can ignite the fiery passion within. It reminds us that our lover is a distinct, independent being, with his or her own carnal desires that extend beyond the make-believe walls of our relationship, and that can be an arousing thought. So, while complacency and security might drain our libidos, in jealousy we might just find an unexpected aphrodisiac.
This may seem counterintuitive, but as Perel writes:
“The eros does not conform to our rationalizations. In The Erotic Mind, sexologist Jack Morin identifies the ‘Four Cornerstones of Eroticism.’ Longing — the desire for what is not present — is number one…”
In the opening story of this post, the protagonist finds in her sexual fantasy an opportunity to challenge her secure and domesticated perception of her partner by transforming him into a desirous, ardent and inexorable adulterer through the erotification of another woman.
“In a world where so many long-term relationships suffer much more from monotony and habituation than from unsettling feelings like jealousy, this erotic wrath may serve a purpose, if we are willing to bear the attendant vulnerability.”
— Esther Perel, The State of Affairs
On Jealousy & Culture
Different cultures have different connotations of the word jealousy. In the US, the word is loaded with negative associations such as weakness, dependency and shame, and often overlooked in therapy sessions, but in many Latin cultures, jealousy is accepted as a central feature (or perhaps, a bug, but central nevertheless) of passion and love.
Perel makes an interesting observation about how free choice and the egalitarian movement may have banished jealousy into the fringes of the American language. Instead, it comes disguised as anger, disappointment or even sadness. “Me, jealous? Never! I’m just angry!” We are more willing to admit that we are angry than we are to admit that we are jealous. Jealousy is an unwelcome emotion, something to be ashamed of.
Furthermore, there is an underlying power play to be found within jealousy. To be on the receiving end of it — to feel jealous, equates to a loss of control, a loss of power. On the other hand, to manipulate a lover into feeling jealous, equates to having control or power over him or her. Often, we deny feeling jealous to protect our own moral superiority.
“We take pride in being above such a petty sentiment that reeks of dependency and weakness,” Perel observes.
In a country that prides itself on having escaped a patriarchal norm and developing into an equitable society where one freely chooses whom to love and marry, there’s a hypocrisy in feeling jealous or possessive. This sentiment may be even more common and pronounced in the more liberal areas of the US, where polyamory, open relationships and other such forms of polygamy are explored (though it is also within these polygamous explorations that an open line of candid communication between a couple becomes paramount.)
Jealousy can tell us a lot about ourselves — it presents us with the opportunity to ask “Why am I feeling this way?” again and again until it reveals some greater truth about ourselves. It shines a light on which parts of ourselves need healing, which areas in our lives need reexamining, improving or changing. It’s a double-edged sword depending on how we wield it. Do we let it divide and diminish us, our relationships, our humanity, or do we include it in the greater conversation of life, with ourselves, our partners and within our culture?
Perhaps the polyamorous and other such polygamous communities in the US will reroute and reopen conversations around jealousy as a common, all-too-human trait. Perhaps rather than viewing jealousy negatively as the motivator for crimes of passion, as a weakness or dependency, we might begin to view it as a a barometer for our own self-exploration, a motivator of passion and a reminder of our humanity. For as long as jealousy is a part of our human condition — (and most of us are not at the point where we’ve evolved beyond jealousy) — we might as well use it for good.
Renee is a 30-something millennial, still in the midst of her odyssey years. For six years, she lived as an expat in Asia but now lives in San Francisco with a Thor look-alike and a teenage mutant ninja cat named Eleven. She cares a whole lot about freedom, growth, connection, creativity and wellness. To her, time and money spent on travel, food, art, nature, animals and learning are resources well spent, even more so if it’s with people you like. Want to stay in touch? Sign up for her stuff below.