Jealousy: Neither a Right nor a Wrong

From the Bible declaring “I am a jealous God” to Nick Jonas crooning “It’s my right to be hellish. I still get jealous,” our society has this romanticized concept of jealousy as being a necessary part of true love.

Once, I even declined to date someone because I couldn’t imagine feeling jealous if they hung out with another girl; if I couldn’t feel jealous, I didn’t think it was love.

A decade later, I’m little by little unlearning that ridiculous message. I don’t think jealousy is necessary for love or that it indicates a healthy relationship. (It certainly doesn’t work very well in my type of relationship).

It’s rather tempting to recategorize jealousy as a genuinely negative emotion and try to eradicate it from my life, feeling shame in the process for every time that I feel jealous. Indeed, it would be all too easy to adopt such a mindset between the evidence of jealousy’s destructive role in domestic violence and the “you should never be jealous” attitude that permeates the poly world.

But that’s not how I operate. I’m committed to the idea that nothing we feel, in and of itself, is ever bad. Thus, I want to get an idea of what jealousy might look like as a neutral emotion.

In The Ethical Slut, jealousy is portrayed as a conglomerate emotion rather than a pure emotion. Jealousy it the name we give to feeling a mixture of anger and fear or fear and betrayal or insecurity and anger…the combinations can vary, but you get the idea.

For some, that means that jealousy isn’t an emotion at all. However, I’m not one to dismiss “secondary” or composite emotions since they are, after all, composed of primary emotions.

However, I do appreciate that perspective because it reminds me to take a look at what might be underlying the initial name. Is there jealousy because of betrayal? Or perhaps it’s related to a fear of abandonment…a fear of not having enough love in the end.

A single word actually encompasses a wide range of possible motivations and meanings. There’s a really awesome PDF called “Making Peace with Jealousy” on that outlines at least four different types of jealousy, from possessive jealousy (Nick Jonas) to fear of being left out. I highly recommend it as reading material for nuances on the emotional and story content of jealousy. Note: the link above will download the pdf rather than take you to the site.

But I digress.

To a degree I have found it helpful to consider jealousy from the perspective of it being composite and able to be be analyzed as separate components. However, I feel there is more to explore beyond just “what am I feeling?”

Recently, in reading Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch for an upcoming class, I came across this quote: “Jealousy is a form of emotional fusion.”

I adore this concept as an additional layer of knowing and analyzing jealousy. It frames jealousy as a developmental task.

Since none of us start out differentiated, we are all struggling with fusion to some extent. Viewing jealousy as evidence of areas where further growth towards differentiation is needed in the relationship reframes jealousy as a potentially useful, not to mention normal, part of relationships.

However, on some levels, it still feels shaming, with this sense that if you’re well-differentiated, you should never feel jealous.

Certainly I don’t want to walk through life like Nick Jonas thinking I have a right to be an asshole because of my jealousy, but neither do I want to walk through life seeing every twinge I ever experience as an indication of a flaw within myself.

However, if I take that thought and expand upon it, framing jealousy as an emotional response stemming from the tension of connection and separation, then add a dash of existentialism by also assuming that such tension can never be fully escaped/resolved and must, instead, be tolerated—then I get a concept of jealousy that feels more rounded to me.

In fact, jealousy then becomes not just a symptom of a need for personal growth but the catalyst itself for personal growth. It is a relational existential crisis in much the same way that anxiety about mortality is a personal existential crisis.

With crisis comes possibility for transformation—transcendence really. Existential crises are the things that catapult us into the next phase of growth…if we can embrace them constructively rather than merely reacting to them (or conversely resisting them, which is also a form of reaction).

Perhaps the solution to the jealousy issue is not to either adopt it as a means of controlling another’s actions or to shun it as something that “healthy,” “mature,” or “differentiated” people won’t feel, but rather to embrace it as a valuable opportunity to appreciate the tension of interdependence. After all, duality is a dance, not a wrestling match.