The Truth About Jealousy
MAX FIRST BECAME SUSPICIOUS when Kate started changing her wardrobe. She’d recently been retrenched from her director’s position at a major financial firm, so it was natural that she would ditch the pencil skirts in favour of more adventurous attire. “But this just wasn’t right,” recalls 38-year old Max. He liked the way his wife looked and told her so, but something felt amiss. The slinky, can’t-wear-a-bra-with-them dresses, the high heels, the extra jewellery, her toned biceps and calves always on display. “Of course it registered on my radar,” he says. “How could it not?
That’s because Kate wasn’t just wearing eye-popping outfits for special nights out with Max – it had become her daytime look. As much as he wanted to keep an open mind and be a trusting partner, he couldn’t stop asking himself an unsettling question: Who is my wife trying to look sexy for? Soon virtually everything caused Max’s suspicion meter to spike. There was the vaguely flirtatious comment on Kate’s Facebook wall, posted by her personal trainer, about measuring body fat. There was the guy who kept hanging around the boutique she’d recently opened with her six-figure severance package; he, too, was a Facebook friend. There were in-shop wine-and-cheese happy hours, late nights out with suppliers and designers and a slew of new friends who gobbled prescription drugs and washed them back with booze. Kate, a mother of four – two kids from a previous marriage, two with Max – was almost 40 at the time and had never in her life been so wild.
Max’s suspicions spread. They consumed him. “I couldn’t sleep or eat. I travel a lot for work and when I was away I’d run these awful scenarios through my head of some other guy on top of her. Or under her. Or behind her!”
Just as Kate’s behaviour had changed, so too was Max no longer his calm and collected self. “Once, at work, I put my fist through a window,” he says. “Another time I threw my phone against the wall. And this is only a few years ago, when I was 36. I didn’t even act that way at varsity. I wasn’t just jealous; my jealousy was destroying me.” Jealousy is as old, as confounding and often as powerful as love itself. Sometimes it’s harmless. Sometimes it leads us into trouble that we can laugh at in hindsight. But unstopped, it can become dangerous and even deadly: jealousy is a major force behind spousal violence, according to evolutionary psychologist Dr Martin Daly.
Yet despite this potential destructiveness, scientists believe that a reasonable amount of jealousy can be good for you. In fact, most agree that it’s as natural and necessary an emotion as happiness – albeit a more complex one. For the sake of clarity, jealousy is not the same thing as envy, which is the resentment or discontent brought on by wanting what you haven’t earned or what isn’t rightfully yours. Envy is wishing you had Kenny Kunene’s money or Elvis Blue’s hair. Jealousy is different. It’s what you feel when you’re afraid of losing someone’s love or a meaningful connection with him or her. Perhaps it’s best defined by cultural anthropologist Dr Jennifer James. Jealousy, she notes, is “the fear that you do not have value” and, more terrifying, “that others will be preferred and rewarded more than you will be”. So being jealous isn’t coveting the financial director’s salary; it’s how you feel when the new guy in the office threatens your relationship with the boss – or when your boss and your wife become a bit too friendly.
MAMA’S BABY, DADDY’S MAYBE
IN 1992, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGIST DR DAVID BUSS CONDUCTED A STUDY OF HUNDREDS OF PEOPLE IN THE UNITED STATES. IT WAS A SIMPLE TEST.
He asked them which scenario would distress them more: learning that their significant other was carrying on a white-hot sexual affair with a member of the opposite sex, or learning that their partner had formed a “deep emotional attachment” with this person. Most of the women said they’d be more upset about emotional infidelity, while most of the men – just like fist-through-the-window Max couldn’t stand the thought of their woman’s legs wrapped around some other guy’s head. To confirm these findings, Buss used electrodes to measure the people’s heart rates and several other physiological signs of stress. The results were the same. “Women’s heart rates spiked and they began to sweat and furrow their brows at the thought of emotional infidelity,” says Buss. “The same thing happened to men when they imagined their partner having sex with someone else.”
According to evolutionary scientists like Buss, there’s a simple explanation for this discrepancy between men’s and women’s jealousy triggers. Because humans reproduce by way of internal fertilisation, a mother always knows that her baby is indeed her own. It’s in her best interest to keep the baby’s father – or some other man – within emotional reach so that he will hunt, gather and otherwise provide for the family. A man, on the other hand, can never be totally sure if a baby is actually his. “Maternal certainty is a fact of human reproductive biology,” says Buss. “For a man, though, it’s extremely costly to take on a child who is not his actual descendant.”
To put it simply, jealousy is just one of the ways we as human animals stay in the race. If our male ancestors had shrugged off potential betrayal and not jockeyed for biological fatherhood, they would have died childless. And if our female ancestors had let their men become attached to other women, there would have been no one to bring home the bacon-wrapped figs. In effect, billions of people have been the beneficiaries of jealousy. It’s as important to human survival as avoiding poisonous berries or keeping our mitts off a
“There has always been this notion that, because jealousy is unpleasant and something we perceive as a weakness in ourselves, there must be pure people somewhere who don’t have it,” says Daly. “But that’s a zany idea.Every animal with any sort of pair formation experiences sexual jealousy.”
As an example, he notes that male lions refuse to raise another male lion’s cubs, killing them off before starting a litter with a lioness to prevent stepfatherhood or step-lions from getting in the way of his own impending cubs. “Sex is a competitive enterprise,” Daly says. “One guy’s fertilisation is another guy’s lost fertilisation opportunity. Of course there’s going to be jealousy [in humans]. It’s as predictable as lust.”
MAX AND KATE: ACT TWO
MAX ASKED KATE ABOUT HER PERSONAL TRAINER AND THE GUY WHO HAD BEEN HANGING AROUND HER SHOP. SHE TOLD BILLY HE WAS BEING UNREASONABLE AND INSECURE.
But Max wouldn’t let it drop and things turned messy. Kate had a controlling tyrant for a father and she blamed Max for being overbearingly paternal, like her old man. Max told her she was using that as a convenient excuse to avoid talking. Max lost weight. He lost sleep. His distrust grew as Kate left the house dressed provocatively day after day. He found himself taking the long way home after work or on weekend bike rides, detouring to stop in at her shop or cruise by for a look. More than once her new Facebook friend was inside, hanging around for no apparent reason. Max did some checking and discovered that the guy was known for being a philanderer. One day Kate came home without her wedding ring on and Max just about fell apart. She said she’d forgotten to put it back on after modelling a ring for a customer. But it happened again. And again. It was around this time that Max introduced his knuckles to Mr Window Pane.
After a few months Max installed keystroke tracking software onto his and Kate’s computer. “I was at the point where I needed answers that I was afraid to get,” he says. “But the other option was not knowing and obsessing over scenarios of my own imagination. And I’m very imaginative.”
THE TIES THAT BIND (OR DON’T)
LIKE MANY IN HIS FIELD, PSYCHOLOGIST DR KENNETH LEVY WAS FAMILIAR WITH DAVID BUSS’S STUDY. HOWEVER, HE WAS CURIOUS ABOUT THE MEN IN THE STUDY WHO HAD RESPONDED MORE STRONGLY TO THE IDEA OF EMOTIONAL INFIDELITY.
“I thought there were enough of them to throw a wrench into the standard evolution perspective espoused by Max,” says Levy. So a few years ago, Levy recruited roughly 500 men and women and repeated Max’s study, only this time he added a new component: attachment data, or how secure or insecure each participant felt in their relationship.
Psychologists have identified three main styles of “attachment bonding”. First, there’s a “secure” bond. A man who tends to make this kind of bond with others, particularly significant others, generally feels his partner will be faithful. He may feel a little jealous from time to time, but he can generally make his way in the world without living under a cloud of panic.
Next comes “dismissive” – or “avoidant” – bonding. A man who makes this kind of bond is generally the strong, silent type. He has little desire or need for intimacy, he values autonomy and depends on no one but himself. He’s insecure in a relationship because he sees it as a losing proposition. Dirty Harry and Mad Men’s Don Draper are classic dismissives. Finally there’s a second type of insecure bond – the anxious one. A man who makes this kind of bond is clingy, needy, hard to soothe and often on edge, whether he is married or a bachelor. Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine has anxious-insecure attachment bonds. Woody Allen probably did, too. “I hypothesised that securely attached men would care more about emotional infidelity,” says Levy. In other words, men who trusted their partners would be heartbroken if the emotional bonds were violated. Levy also postulated that dismissively attached men – the Don Drapers – would care more about sexual infidelity because they’re not emotionally invested enough to care about intimacy. The anxious-insecure types would, of course, be bulldozed by infidelity of any kind. Psychologists would probably say that Billy’s bond with Kate is an anxious-insecure one.
Levy was right on all three counts. He doesn’t deny that jealousy is an evolutionary imperative.
He just sees the emotion as more nuanced, and not as gender-specific, as Daly and Buss believe. “The idea that men are this way and women are that way isn’t really subtle enough to explain the fact that we have different types of scenarios that lead to jealousy,” he says. We are simply too socially different, too complex, too human to be classified into one group of post-troglodytes who beat our chests when our female companions show interest in another male.
MAX AND KATE: ACT THREE
AFTER MAX INSTALLED THE SPYWARE HE FELT MOMENTARY RELIEF – AND THEN MORE JEALOUSY. THERE WERE FLIRTATIOUS EMAILS SENT BY THE LOCAL LOTHARIO.
Kate didn’t exactly return the flirting, but she didn’t tell the guy to back off either. The emails weren’t proof of an affair, but still, they made Max suspect the possibility of one all the more. Something had to be done. “I decided the only way our marriage stood a chance would be for me to confront her as rationally as I could and show her how painful and potentially damaging I thought her behaviour was,” he says. That meant coming clean about his computer sleuthing, a betrayal that would enrage any partner, let alone one being accused of strutting her stuff for other men. “I had to be diplomatic,” says Max. “I tried to be Nelson Mandela.” As far as Kate was concerned, Billy was as level-headed as Julius Malema. “You’re being insecure,” she told him, yet again. “This is your problem, not mine.”
The more he talked to Kate about his jealousy, the worse things seemed to become. Despite Max’s vulnerability and continued anxiety, Kate persisted with her new lifestyle. “It got to the point where I felt as though even if she wasn’t having an affair, the energy I was bringing into the partnership was going to push her in that direction,” says Max. “It was a real catch-22. Say something and go insane and give her a reason to turn away from me, or keep quiet and still feel like hell.” They went for counselling, which raised old issues and made the relationship feel untenable. Kate was the first to utter the D-word. Max says he wanted to make things work, but by this point it was too late. Before moving out, Kate took a trip alone to create some distance. Max, meanwhile, started preparing – emotionally and logistically – for his new life as a divorcee and single father.
A USEFUL TOOL
GIVEN THAT JEALOUSY BRINGS US NO JOY AND CAUSES US TO BEHAVE IN SHAMEFUL, SOMETIMES RUINOUS WAYS, IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE HOW THE EMOTION MIGHT HAVE ANY REDEEMING VALUE IN A HEALTHY RELATIONSHIP.
And yet Buss, Levy and other experts are all convinced that jealousy can actually strengthen the bond between a couple. If you can sanely express your jealousy, they reason, you can accomplish two major missions. First, you make a strong statement about your feelings for your partner. “Jealousy is arguably an aspect of romantic love,” says Cape Town-based couples counselling psychologist Mark Connelly. He argues that there’s some truth to the old saying that if you don’t become jealous from time to time, you might not care about the other person as much as you think you do. “It is very difficult to feel jealous over someone you couldn’t care less about.” Jana Morgan, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Northcliff, Johannesburg, agrees. “Many people find jealousy intensely romantic,” she says. “It’s a way of letting the other person know she is important, irreplaceable and not to be shared with others.” Well-handled, jealousy may even be the glue that restores a floundering relationship. “When you confess that you feel jealous you are also confessing that you feel insecure. This makes you vulnerable, yes, but that vulnerability can be a tool, a way of opening up to the other person,” says Connelly.
The way in which your partner responds to a confession of jealousy can be a clue as to the health of your relationship, Morgan adds: “If she responds with compassion, reassurance or even a confession of her own it could deepen your emotional bond. If she brushes it off as your problem alone, it may be time to move on.”
MAX AND KATE: LAST ACT
MAX’S PHONE RANG ONE AFTERNOON WHILE THE KIDS WERE AT A FRIEND’S HOUSE. IT WAS KATE. THEY’D BEEN SEPARATED FOR A FEW WEEKS.
Standing on the mountaintop where Max had proposed to her, Kate said she’d rather throw herself off it than come back down to a world without him. She wanted to come home to try to iron out their problems. Max’s jealousy, she said, was not just his issue. It was their issue and she was willing to try to work through it with him. Kate eventually revealed several deeply held childhood secrets that helped explain her actions. A childhood rife with abuse had crushed her self-esteem and undermined her ability to assess other people’s motives. As an adult, she’d found herself desperate for men’s attention. For Kate, the smallest compliment was like a shot of dopamine. “She needed attention and ego stroking in order to feel good about herself,” says Max. “It wasn’t that she wanted to have sex with these other guys, but she was feeding off what they were giving her and didn’t really realise what they were after.”
For the moment, Max and Kate are still together. She still owns and runs the boutique but has backed away from those relationships that made Max feel threatened. They’re deep in couples therapy and trying to make their marriage work. “We’ve met somewhere in the middle,” says Max. “She doesn’t feel like I’m controlling her and I no longer feel that when she gets dressed up she’s doing it for other guys.” Max is the last person to say he is completely over his jealousy. But he has put the worst of it behind him and reached a point where he can admit its value. “I can’t say I want to experience that level of jealousy again,” he says. “It was painful and traumatic. But it took us where we are now. You could say it served its purpose.
By Mike Kessler