Mad About You: Simple and Complex Jealousy
If I weren't mad about you, I'd just be mad.
Posted Feb 26, 2010
Simple jealousy starts as a feeling of discomfort at the prospect of losing reward or affection to someone else. In complex jealousy, the prospect of loss feels like unjustifiable self-diminishment; you become smaller and less valuable, because someone is manipulating or betraying you.
Simple jealousy motivates reward/affection-seeking behavior - you try to be more cooperative, helpful, or loving, and that usually gets a positive response sufficient to alleviate the discomfort. Complex jealousy motivates attack, either overtly or in your head. It makes you devalue and try to control others, which invariably makes things worse.
Simple jealousy first emerges in toddlerhood, typically when the child witnesses parents showing affection to each other or to another child. The toddler at first squeezes between the embracing adults and tries to be as cute and lovable as possible. The arrival of a sibling often causes regression to things like bedwetting and less mature speech. Regression is, in part, an attempt to seem more lovable to the distracted parents: "Babies turn you on? I can do that, too."
Simple Jealousy Regulates Distance; Complex Jealousy Expands Distance
Simple jealousy functions in many adult relationships as a kind of distance-regulator. When the partners drift apart, the pang of jealousy motivates more attention and connecting behavior. It can occur frequently when the relationship is most insecure, particularly in the early stages of emotional bonding, when the parties feel the most vulnerable to rejection. It goes largely unnoticed at that time, because they follow the natural motivation to be more loving. They reconnect, and the jealousy immediately recedes.
When the parties cannot reconnect, simple jealousy fails to function. Once resentment takes over the relationship and systematically blocks connection, simple jealousy fades into more generalized negative feelings for each other. It's not a good sign when resentment replaces jealousy. Contempt will soon follow.
Simple jealousy can turn complex when children are punished for trying to be cute and lovable in response to the pain of exclusion. They may then interpret the discomfort of exclusion not as an internal motivation to connect but as external attack. Perceiving attack, they feel entitled to retaliate.
More commonly, complex jealousy coincides with the emerging sense of self - a loose construct that includes self-concept, identity, self-efficacy, and self-value. It surfaces full-blown in adolescence and by early adulthood becomes a major problem in close relationships for those afflicted with a rigid or poorly-integrated sense of self. It tends to peak in intensity in the mid-twenties, when advanced pre-frontal cortical development gives the person more power to regulate emotions. However, it tends to occur more frequently, though less intensely, over time, as it destabilizes even the best of relationships.
Simple Jealousy Expresses Value; Complex Jealousy Drives You Crazy
Simple jealousy raises the value of the loved one - you want more of him or her. Complex jealousy devalues the loved one - you want to control, punish, or avoid.
Simple jealousy is good for a relationship. Most people would not want a lover who could care less if they slept with everyone on the men's and women's hockey teams. But even simple jealousy must be limited to small doses. Think of it as a concentrated acid that needs lots of dilution to be effective without doing harm. Complex jealousy never comes in small doses and eventually eats through the heart of the relationship.
Rising and falling on the ebb and flow of intense feelings-states, complex jealousy has a palpable Jekyll & Hyde quality. When you feel close to your partner, you can't imagine ever feeling jealous - "How could I have thought those ugly things," or, "He is so wonderful, how could I ever imagine he'd betray me!" But once the feelings of closeness ebb, the obsessions return, and you feel and act like a completely different person.
Complex jealousy has an obessional quality to it - you can't stop thinking about incidents - real or imagined - that invoke it. Obsessions impair reality-testing. If they persist, you can become paranoid, delusional, or hallucinatory.
My next post will show how to regulate complex jealousy before it ruins your relationship and drives you crazy.