Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock The meat it feeds on.
- Iago to Othello
A few years ago, before I had much of a clue what I was doing in the dating world, I got into a long, hot and naughty texting relationship with a man online. The cybersex was terrific. We made a plan to meet and I was looking forward to the real deal. Then, he asked me about ‘the competition’.
“What do you mean?” I wrote.
“Who else is in the running?” he replied.
I actually felt I needed to be honest with him, because I’m always touting myself as the straight-talking American.
“I’m talking to two other guys. What does it matter?”
But matter it did to him. And even though we had nothing even approaching a proper relationship, he was already questioning my motives. It soon became clear to me that his jealousy, rather than making me feel wanted and desired, repelled me. It was his attempt at territorial control.
Jealousy is a fraught emotion. It used to run spitfire through my veins, and there were times I could be worked up to near vomiting because of the possibility that my partner might be having feelings for another. So when I noticed a distinctive lack of jealousy when I started dating again at midlife I had to wonder if it had something to do with age. Now, with my uterus locked into cold storage and economically secure (not because I took my husband to the cleaners but because I had my own career), I can’t see the point of jealousy.
The evolutionary biology of jealousy is often explained as nature’s way of making sure the kids get taken care of. A man’s jealousy is more naturally concerned with sexual infidelity because they want to be certain of their parentage. Women guard their emotional relationships more jealously because of the possibility that their provider will leave them for another woman’s cave. But what about after we’ve had our kids and our basic needs for food and shelter don’t depend upon another? At that point, I suspect, jealousy is a product of some of the biggest driving forces inside us: fear and the desire for power.
Jealousy is a fear of loss; loss of our lover, our home, our status in society. And if we lose something we feel is ours, we can’t help but feel a sense of powerlessness. Because jealousy is such a visceral emotion, we can’t exactly control having the feeling. What we do control is our reaction to it, what we do with it. And, like any fear, the more experience we have in the world, the better able we are to overcome its stranglehold.
We need to take our jealousy to the pub and buy it a beer. That’s right. Give your jealousy the benefit of the doubt and ask its story.
“So, dear Jealousy, why are you tormenting me?”
“Well, it’s obvious, is it not? I’m afraid she has the hots for her work colleague and when they go to the conference together next week they will end up fucking. Then she will fall in love, and leave me, the kids will suffer and we’ll have to sell the house and get two hovels…”
“Whoa, slow down! First of all, none of these things have even remotely happened. So why should you push me to go there? But if I were to give you the benefit of the doubt, what is it you’re most invested in? The house?”
“Of course not. Though I would be thoroughly annoyed if we had to sell. I mean, have you seen the prices in London lately?”
“No, I love her. I really love her. I’m attached to her and it would kill me if that broke. Besides, I want to call the shots.”
“There you go. That’s the good and the bad of you, my green eyed friend. You’re clarifying what’s important to you. And if you didn’t care about her, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.”
“Plus, when it comes to dealing with fear, what’s more powerful? Trying to wield power over something you can’t control or showing compassion?”
“But I’m rage and drama! I am Sturm und Drang! That’s who I am! How can you ask me to be anything less?”
“I’m not asking you to be less. I’m asking you to be more. Look, everything you see appears green. It’s entirely possible everything she sees looks rosy. Except she might not know that all your passive-aggressive banging around the house this week had anything to do with how much you love her. Do you suppose she knows how you feel?”
“Then for fuck’s sake, tell her! You think she’s going to get mad at you for telling her you care? Might it even help reduce the likelihood that she’s going to go for that other dude if you started picking up your socks? ”
“Can’t hurt, I s’pose.”
You see, even if you haven’t mellowed with age and let go of wanting or needing to control what you cannot, like other people’s feelings, it’s worth looking at jealousy in the best possible light: as a reminder of what you value. If you are tending to what you value on a regular basis – whether that’s friends, partners, children or the rose bushes – you can be fairly sure that those things will thrive and that you won’t have to suffer doomsday scenarios when you encounter a perceived threat.
So heed Shakespeare and don’t be an idiot when it comes to ‘the competition’. And remember how it turned out for Othello.