In one of my relationships a few years back, I was really bugged by persistent jealousy. It was a monogamous relationship, for the most part, and I was jealous of my partner’s ex, who he’d been with for 6 years before we started dating. They’d gone on all these amazing vacations together, which he often told me about, but he was in a period of life where he couldn’t afford things like nice vacations so obviously him and I weren’t going to do that.
And, at the time, I kind of just felt like I was a jealous person. Some of my relationships have been relatively calm peaceful affairs, maybe with the occasional bout of jealousy in charged or tense situations, while others were marred with a persistent jealousy that I was unable to shake. This relationship was the latter, and I was kind of shocked at the depth of emotionality that came out of me in it, so I decided to look into jealousy a bit to see if I could figure it out.
This is a pretty good summary of the information I received at the time:
[J]ealousy refers to the fear of losing someone or something you value…People don’t normally experience jealousy unless they feel threatened by another person or entity. Sibling jealousy is usually caused by a child’s fear that the parents will replace him or her with a new sibling or love another sibling more. In romantic relationships, jealousy is typically triggered by a third party. The third party doesn’t have to actually pose a threat; the mere perception of a threat is enough to get the wheels of jealousy turning.
Seems to fit, right? I was jealous of my partner’s ex because on some level I was worried he wanted to go back to her, or something. So, I tried to reason with myself — they broke up over irreconcilable incompatibilities, their relationship seemed pretty dead, it was unlikely they were going to get back together, etc. etc. and nothing worked. There was no way to reason myself out of this jealousy by reassuring myself that I wasn’t goin to lose this guy.
Another thing that didn’t really seem to fit… I wasn’t really worried about getting dumped. I mean, sure, maybe I wasn’t fully cognizant of all my fears and anxieties, but somehow, this whole “fear of loss” thing didn’t really seem to fit.
Eventually we did break up, in part because I was in so much emotional pain for the entire relationship that I was unable to connect at all, and I felt really like wow, I totally fucked up that relationship by being crazy jealous. Then, with the next guy I dated, I had no jealousy, absolutely none. It was amazing; I had initially thought I was just a pathologically jealous person who was destined to ruin her relationships, and here I was with a new person, and my jealousy was just gone. Fascinating!
What makes it even weirder, is unlike the first boyfriend, the second boyfriend actually ended up cheating on me, and I wasn’t even jealous when he told me he cheated. My friends were like, “you are the most zen person ever” and I was just like “I cannot explain this at all, I just don’t feel jealous.”
And, the reason I think I wasn’t jealous of when my second boyfriend cheated on me is that he cheated on me with men. I don’t love to admit that, because on surface glance, it seems I put less value on queer relationships than straight ones, but bear with me because I actually think something else is going on.
Here’s the thing; when my second boyfriend cheated on me with dudes, fear of loss was still there. In fact, the potential for loss was possibly greater, because I there was a decent chance this guy was gay, whereas, there was basically a zero percent of my initial boyfriend dumping me for his ex given their relationship at the time (aka non contact and animosity.)
I think what I was actually feeling with my first boyfriend was shame. In current culture, we often compare women to each other, we say or imply one type of woman is “better” than another type of woman, and things like that. I felt like, because my boyfriend had been willing to go on fancy vacations with his ex when they were dating she was “better” than me in some way (she was also younger, thinner, and very pretty.) When my other boyfriend was cheating on me with men, he apparently had a preference for men with really big dicks — but I didn’t care, because I have never been shamed over the size of my dick. I’ll bet if I’d had a dick, or been expected to have a dick, my emotional response to that preference would have been very different.
Something I’ve noticed about “jealousy” that women feel in relationships, is they often end up being more “jealous” if they somehow end up being compared women who are conventionally attractive high femme or have a femme fatale kind of vibe. And, sure, we can play this into the “fear of loss” framework, but also… doesn’t it really seem to fit the shame framework? Most women are relentlessly tortured about not being thin enough, pretty enough, busty enough, thicc enough, etc. etc. Couldn’t being implicitly compared to women who embody the very things that we feel we’ve always failed to live up to in popular culture trigger deep shame?
Of course, this isn’t an either or situation — you can feel both! — but in a situation where jealousy and shame are both going on, doing work only on the jealousy isn’t going to yield good results. With the first boyfriend example in this story, I really don’t think I was living in fear of a breakup, I think I was acting out because I felt unworthy of connection with him. I though I wasn’t pretty enough or young enough to be worthy of a relationship, and this caused constant pain.
Yesterday I was doing some hippy meditations on this, focusing on the emotion of “jealousy”, and a funny memory came up for me. When I was a little girl, I’d drawn a picture and my baby sitter asked to look at it. I said “NO!” and ripped up the picture, then cried because I’d destroyed the picture I’d made.
I haven’t quite made sense of it yet, but… something felt similar to when I was “jealous” with my boyfriend. There was an overwhelming feeling of emotional pain that caused me to ultimately do something self sabotaging when someone was trying to connect with me. And, I had to guess at my motivation as a kid, I don’t think I wanted my picture to be evaluated. I was just at the age when were I was starting to get instruction in school, and the things I used to do for joy — like write stories, or make pictures — were beginning to get critiqued by my teachers. As nice as my teachers may have tried to be about that, I think I found that type of evaluation painful.
I think I destroyed my picture because I didn’t want to face my babysitter’s judgement of it.
In my experience, we are judged by our partners frequently and harshly, and being the recipient of this judgement brings up shame, often overwhelming, or toxic shame. And, as much as I wanted to be the type of person who was totally chill and self assured when talking to my boyfriend about his ex, when he told me things he liked about her or like doing with her, I generally felt like a failure for not being able to provide these things. And, sure, maybe fear of loss was there, but I don’t think it was the primary emotion.
I think it was as simpler, just “you are lacking.”
Culturally, I think we tend to really dismiss shame as a factor in our relationships, yet, I think it may actually be the most pertinent emotion that is our undoing. In the poly community, for instance, I find there is a lot of discussion about dealing with jealousy, but I haven’t really seen much discussion around shame that is potentially generated when your partner has another partner. In a monogamous-by-default culture, I think feelings of shame are really likely to come up, because you may end up (subconsciously) feeling like a failure if you have a partner that even wants to date someone else. After all, all the romance novels, fairy tails, etc end up with only two people going off into “happily ever after” — that’s the version of “success” we’re acculturated to.
Even in monogamy, being able to perceive small things like your partner being attracted to other people — even if they don’t act on it — is enough to trigger a strong reaction (likely, shame.) Because, we have a sort of narrative that, if two people really love each other enough, they won’t be attracted to anyone else.
So, if your partner is attracted to someone else, they must not love you enough. And, if you follow this toxic thought train far enough, you may eventually conclude that you are not lovable enough.
Of course, I do need to mention that, this is all bullshit. Our capitalist system saturates us with shame to make us BUY BUY BUY, and WORK WORK WORK to escape the constant feelings of inadequacy that plague us. We also have institutions like churches, schools, companies, etc. that seek to deepen their influence or control over us by shaming us into feeling “not enough” so we’ll do what they say.
And, I do really think that’s one of the reasons shame isn’t talked about as much as it needs to be; many institutions rely on it extensively to control segments of the population, so are not motivated to stop using it. Honestly, I’ve even found at times that therapy adds to my feelings of shame and inadequacy, because I am often analyzed and evaluated by some sort of superior doctor-esque person who is in a position of a kind of authority over me.
Anyway; what do we do with shame? Well, if you could check out Brené Brown, who is a famous shame researcher — here’s a book of hers that was written before she got famous, but I think is pretty good. Personally, I prefer to Vipassana it though; to each their own.