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Jealousy: A Voice of Possessiveness Past

Jealousy evolved as a shrill emotional alarm. Today, we can quiet the blaring siren, because we understand its purpose.

Before "the green-eyed monster" was a universal cliché, it was a dragon mocking Othello, the original and perhaps ultimate exemplar of jealousy, tormented by the villainous Iago's prediction that Othello's beautiful wife, Desdemona, would cuckold him.

The logic of Othello, and of millions of other jealous men and women, speaks to the dark logic of genes. You don't think in perfect iambic pentameter, but you likely have your own inner Iago: "What's my wife doing talking to that new guy from the neighborhood? Is she laughing at his jokes? I think she just touched his arm."

When you feel a surge of sexual jealousy, you're responding to the possibility of being abandoned by your partner. But on a deeper level, jealousy is sounding a genetic alarm. Of course, your genes are the last thing on your mind as you watch your beloved flirt with an attractive stranger, but it is our genetic booty that jealousy's urgent stab has evolved to defend.

Our bodies and minds spring from thousands of generations of successful survival and mating ploys, all of which now operate in us. The most basic strategy is mate-guarding, on display during any cocktail party or Sunday stroll through the park: the innocent urge to put your arm around your partner in casual conversation; the not-so-innocent mention of a partner's flaws, as if to say, "Trust me, this person is not the dazzling package she appears to be." These are time-honored techniques to fend off potential rivals.

Like many emotional adaptations (xenophobia, fear of the dark), jealousy is an imperfect and often overzealous call to arms. That's because the human life span was, until not long ago, perilously short. Evolutionary psychologists and anthropologists believe that our ancestors rarely got a second chance to woo a mate. And the pool of potential dates on was in the low two digits. It therefore behooved our ancestors to be hypervigilant about any real or imagined threats to their relationships.

Our ancestors succeeded in acquiring mates and guarding them long enough to spawn—those who couldn't are ancestors to no one. It makes sense that humans developed jealousy as a built-in infidelity-detection system in this competitive social cauldron.

The desire for certainty and genetic possession of a partner is an ancient commandment, based on maintaining one's status and honor. While status continues to occupy a central psychological role for us, in the past it was a universal and inviolable metric. Today, you can round the corner into a new neighborhood and invent a new life. Your emotions, unfortunately, have not caught on to this. That makes most of your experiences of jealousy historically urgent but mismatched to modernity—a perfect setup for Neanderthink.

The main way to defend one's honor in the ancient environment was through sheer force and threat of violence. Even now, men in certain cultures feel they have to defend their name by acting violently against women who have "dishonored" them.

Evolutionary psychologists argue that violence resulted in enhanced status and power more often in prehistoric times than it does in today's culture of laws. The deterrent effect of penalizing violent men forces some—but not all—to keep their jealous natures in check.

There are two ways jealousy manifests itself: as an appropriate concern and as a destructive disturbance. Jealousy is either a fine featherduster or a blunt mallet, depending on how we perceive our own value on the mate market. Someone who thinks he'll never find another partner as good as the current one will obviously go to great lengths to keep the one he's got.

When jealousy simply alerts us, it is likely to result from a concern for the relationship. But when it is destructive, it is usually triggered by insecurity about our prospects. People with a poor sense of self (that is, those who are desperate to preserve their mating prospects) are more prone to the deep hurt and fury that precede angry outbursts.

Disturbed jealousy demands a guarantee of absolute fidelity. When your odds of living to 40 are bleak and your options for mating bleaker, homicidal rage effectively wards off would-be interlopers and intimidates a potentially unfaithful mate.

Today your odds of longevity and fecundity are much better, but if you feel that you're worthless, then you might as well be living in the Pleistocene, so tenaciously will you try to retain your mate. The trouble is, it won't work.

Because the easily tripped alarm of excessive jealousy stimulates Neanderthink, the consequences of abandonment (the worst-case scenario) are exaggerated. Getting dumped requires an adjustment, and although that adjustment is rarely life or (genetic) death, as it might have been eons ago, we still fear the loss of our partner and crave constant reassurance.

Paradoxically, however, a person who needs reassurance of devotion and fidelity will drive a partner away and into the arms of a rival. Othello instructed us: Harmful jealousy springs from a weak sense of self; Othello is nothing without Desdemona's pure love.

The key to dealing with jealousy properly is to see that guaranteed fidelity is unattainable—no absolute certainty of eternal commitment can be granted. Rational jealousy, which is a passionate concern and respect for the relationship ("Although I prefer your love, I never need a guarantee of it"), can help us attend to our partner's feelings without the rage, self-criticism and despair that characterize Neanderthink jealousy.

Neanderthink jealousy functions largely below the level of conscious awareness. But you can tune in; it operates most often as a demand for constant reassurance that you will always be the first and only being in your partner's life and that you'd be diminished if your partner rejected you.

By accepting that perfect reassurance cannot really exist and that you do not absolutely need it, you can redirect your efforts to improving your relationship. The energy spent seeking an ironclad guarantee of fidelity could be better spent, say, being the fun-loving person with whom your partner would want to have an affair.

Resisting Jealousy

Jealousy implies a shaky sense of self. Demanding
chronic reassurance from your mate is a bottomless pit. Instead, remind yourself that:

  • You are a whole person with or without your mate, but because you prefer a good relationship, you will maintain open and honest communication.
  • Your sense of self is best kept independent of your mate. You can function as an autonomous human being in a relationship.
  • Harmful jealousy is a measure not of love but of insecurity. Appropriate jealousy prompts you to address any problems in the relationship.
  • Rage, vengeance and self-hatred are clues that your jealousy has morphed into Neanderthink.
  • Irrational jealousy may once have served rational ends, but no one has the power to make you feel bad about yourself—unless you grant it.