Along with anger, jealousy is probably the most misunderstood human emotion. We’re simply not “supposed” to be jealous. Ever. If we are, we’re considered crazy, and bad dating material. But, of course, it’s never that simple, and jealousy exists as an emotion because it’s trying to tell us something. As someone who has always struggled with jealousy, I know firsthand how damaging it can be, so I’m not advocating just letting our jealous streaks run roughshod over our relationships, but I think jealousy deserves a better, deeper understanding.
At its core, jealousy is fear of loss. The common wisdom is that it’s about insecurity, which may be true in some cases, but deeper than that, jealousy is about the fear of losing something you value. If you think about it, jealousy is never even that unfounded, because, given the rate of divorce, and the fact that in non-marriage relationships, breakups are even more common than in marriages; at some point, we will most likely lose our partner. So jealousy is about fear of something that is almost inevitable. Whether we will lose our partner to that person he’s talking to at the party or not, eventually, we know, we will lose him, even if only to death.
In a letter I once wrote to an ex-lover, I explained how my feelings of jealousy, deep, deep down, were rooted in a fear of death, a fear if being obliterated, of winking out like a quenched candle flame, to be replaced by someone else. The fear of literally not existing anymore, at least in the mind and imagination of my beloved. This might seem overwrought and dramatic, but if you’re someone who’s felt intense jealousy, remember how it feels in your mind and your body. It feels like terror, like looking down into an abyss.
Humans are meant to connect; we, quite literally cannot live without one another. When we’re adults, we can survive without others, but we can’t live. People in solitary confinement, if they’re not careful to engage their minds, go crazy. Even if they do manage to come out of it with their sanity intact, it was never a pleasant experience. We need each other. Period. In jealousy, our deep fear of being obliterated in the mind of someone we love is about the fear of losing our connections to others, about being unimportant, rejected, banished by our tribe to wander the desolate wastelands, alone. Jealousy taps directly into the well of the most intense, uncomfortable, difficult-to-sit-with emotions that humans can experience. It’s no wonder it’s so hard to deal with and makes us so crazy.
In a jealous moment, can we feel what’s under our reaction to that one person, that one situation, and come in contact with this seething mixture of terror, fear of abandonment and rejection, fear of loss? Can we open our hearts to it a little bit more each time, and feel compassion for it, knowing that we share these deep fears with every other human being? Once, in the midst of a terrible, anxiety- and jealousy-ridden night when I knew someone I loved deeply was with another, I had a sudden, split-second opening where I felt love for this person, a love and care for his well-being that knew no possession or boundaries. It was like I was hovering over the bed with them and my heart was open, blessing them. I knew that who he was with wasn’t important, because the love that was there would not be changed or lessened by any other bond he might form. I wanted, in that moment, nothing but good for him, and hoped he was happy. It didn’t last long, but it gave me some hope that somehow, with attention and openness, I might make room in my heart for all the textures of love, including welcoming the messages that jealousy sends me without doing damage to the relationships I form.