written by: Kosjenka Muk
Jealousy and possessiveness
Jealousy is usually the most childish emotion of all. While experiences of fear, anger, sadness, shame and similar can be appropriate to external reality (although in most cases it’s a mixture of realistic and childish, exaggerated perception), jealousy is mostly based on an infantile feeling that we can’t receive enough love and attention, and that our sense of worth and self-esteem depends of others’ choices.
Although posessiveness towards one’s intimate partner has some roots in biology and evolution, the essence of jealousy is in fear that we are not good enough, that something is wrong with us, that somebody else (perhaps without merit, perhaps with more merit, we’re afraid) receives something we dearly want. We might also feel that love and attention is limited, that is, if one person is receiving it, another has to lose. As a defense from bad self-image, we create anger towards the person who “steals” love from us, and often even towards the person whose love we want.
Some people whose partner fell in love with another person, judge and blame that person ruthlessly, especially if he/she dared to accept this love. (By “falling in love” I don’t mean irresponsible sex and selfish behavior towards current partner.) Often we can hear pathetic claims such as: “he stole what was most important to me”, “she ruined my life”, victim talk and similar words more appropriate to teenage music than to adult people. In many societies in history (and in some still today) adultery was punished by death, often slow and painful. Imagine the strength and depth of childish fear and feeling of unworthiness, that it makes whole civilizations ready to kill another human being for loving somebody else!
Still, even in more sophisticated societies, individuals can still react to such an experience in a dramatic way. Some people are so afraid of it, they would do anything to prevent it, mostly through possessive behavior: controlling their partners and isolating them from other people, usually people of opposite sex, but sometimes of all the other social contacts. They might be jealous not only of people who might be potential love interests to their partners, but also partners’ families, same sex friends, even own children. Some such people want to get rid of jealousy, but don’t know how: no rational decision is enough. Others truly believe that their jealousy is normal and justified.
This creates extremely abusive behavior, like forbidding many social activities to a partner, suspicious questioning, arguments, criticism, humiliating the partner in public, blackmail, even physical violence and murder. A healthy intimate partnership is a relationship of two people who are aware that they chose each other because of specific qualities and shared values, and also aware that those qualities can change with time, and that their partner can feel friendly towards other people. Instead, exaggerated jealousy turns the relationship into imprisonment, ownership and abuse.
The importance of self-esteem
People who as children had a chance to build
self-esteem, a deep sense that they deserve love, will be aware that
their worthiness doesn’t depend of specific other people’s choices. Thus
they’ll be able to feel good about themselves and other people, even
when the person they love gives attention to other people. They won’t
feel the need to be “special” to that person (which is what a child wants from a parent).
They will accept the partner’s friendly interest in other people as a
normal behavior which is not necessarily threatening. They will be aware
that we can like different people in different ways.
On the other hand, the less self-esteem one has, the more emptiness,
shame and fear of loss, the more they will be inclined to jealousy and
I’m not trying to promote open marriages and irresponsible sex here – even if “free love” might be a rational ideal, we are not only rational creatures. We are shaped by the world we live in and our emotional and biological needs. It’s not wise to deny it. Most ideals can be abused and pushed into unhealthy extremes.
I’ve met people – usually women – whose partners
used such logical ideals to talk them into allowing them to sleep with
other people. Not only such a person will suppress and deny her own
feelings, but she will lose the feeling of stability and confidence in
her partner, which kills intimacy. This becomes a background for future
resentment and mistrust. From a biological point of view, a woman needs a
stable partner she can lean on while raising children. These urges are
still in us and there is no use denying them, although different social
and biological aspects can make some individuals have different urges
than the majority.
Besides, complex creatures as we are, it’s difficult enough to achieve true intimacy with one person; spreading intimate attention to several people is almost impossible without reducing the quality of relationships.
Still, biologically conditioned jealousy is usually far milder than childhood imprints, and leaves space for healthy decisions and healthy self-image. Jealousy is most of the time proportional and directly related to a negative self-image. Yet this is often not conscious. Most people suppress their negative feelings about themselves, maybe they hide them under a mask of arrogance and power. Confident behavior is not the same as self-esteem. A better indication of self-esteem is how much we respect other people as well as ourselves. Negative opinion of ourselves usually won’t allow us to truly appreciate others; usually we’ll try to avoid our feelings of inferiority by trying to belittle other people, whether within our minds or directly.
If we truly like and appreciate ourselves, if we feel deserving of love, we’ll expect it to be natural and easy to find people to love and who will love us back. We won’t experience the end of an important relationship as the “end of the world”, even if we’ll likely need to go through an initial period of sadness and emotional separation. We can also feel more respect, understanding and compassion for our partners and give them the same kind of freedom we want for ourselves.