“The Beginning of Wisdom is to call things by their right names.”
– Chinese Proverb
I awoke from a nightmare at 4 am. C was dating again. Dancing with another man. Laughing at me. Mocking me. Flashing the smile I love towards another man. Ignoring me but still watching me.
I woke up jealous. Tearful. Heartbroken.
I was never insecure about my relationship with C.
I knew where I belonged and who I belonged to emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually. I would often sit outside the art show tent and watch while men – and the occasional woman – would flirt with her and she’d pretend not to notice them, or me. But she knew I was watching her. Then she would flash a sly smile towards me, tilt her head, hide behind her hair grinning and look away.
She knew I was confident enough not to be dismayed. She knew I would be a bit jealous, and aroused. Eventually, I’d get up, walk over, kiss her on the forehead and tell her how beautiful she looked and tease her a bit.
I don’t mind a bit of jealousy with C. It didn’t scare me. “Jealousy is the shadow of love,” writes psychologist Ayala Malach Pines in her book, Romantic Jealousy: Causes, Symptoms, Cures Jealousy. Jealousy “affirms to us we value our partner and our relationship.” I knew where I belonged even when I didn’t know how to get there.
Naturally, not everyone is comfortable with jealousy.
“Jealousy is denied in order to protect the victim’s moral superiority,” write Esther Perel in her book, The State of Affairs. “We take pride in being above petty sentiment that reeks of dependency and weakness.” In a culture that teaches men and women to feel jealous is to be weak many people rebel against the green-eyed monster. As such, we treat jealousy with a moral and psychological disdain and the people arousing – intentional or accidentally – such base feelings as abusive, sinister, or dangerous. We make them responsible for our feelings.
That is probably why I don’t fear my jealousy. I know it is ultimately my feelings of love and longing for someone else. It is a sign of vulnerability.
According to Roland Barthes the jealous one suffers four times over:
- because I am jealous
- because I blame myself for being jealous
- because I fear my jealousy will wound the other
- because I allow myself to be subject to a banality I suffer from being aggressive, from being crazy, from being common
“The green-eyed monster taunts us at our most defenseless and puts us in touch with our insecurities, our fear of loss, our lack of self-worth,” adds Perel. “It is intrinsic to love and therefore to infidelity.” For this reason, we disguise and rationalize jealousy and its complex layers of emotion creating anxieties.
Much of the most popular books on infidelity don’t even mention jealousy according to Perel. When confronted by jealousy we deny its existence. Instead, we label the jumble of emotions and actions typically associated with jealousy in a more socially acceptable vocabulary: trauma, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, triggers, obsessiveness, vigilance, attachment injury, and PTSD.
I wonder how different we would counsel couples if we talked about jealousy with emotional honesty instead of ambushing it with intellectual rigor. “The jealous person knows she is not a sympathetic character,” writes Perel, “and her torment is likely to invite more criticism than compassion.” We tell individuals in a smart, confident, and modern society there is no room for a base feeling such as jealousy…but like infidelity, jealousy persists despite our best efforts to criminalize both.
By denying the betrayed partner’s feelings of jealousy we continue to use a vocabulary that criminalizes the betrayer and further victimizes the betrayed. We never get to the root of the pain. By adding jealousy to the list of criminalized feelings, we have also criminalized vulnerability. “Acknowledging jealousy is to admit love, competition, and comparisons,” adds Perel, “all of which exposes vulnerability.”
I agree with Perel when she writes the problem with jealousy is, “everybody speaks ill of jealousy. We are not only forbidden to admit we are jealous, we are not allowed to feel jealous.” As such, although we feel jealous we deny it and add a layer of secret-keeping in a conversation framed around honesty. We demand honesty and transparency over the why, what, where and how but rebel out of fear when we start to dig into the meanings and feelings behind the issue. “Jealousy is politically incorrect.”
Client: In our culture, jealousy is the gut issue. We want to know, does he still love me? What does she have I don’t?
Perel: What about lying?
Client: (laughing): We’ve been lying since the Spanish arrived.
Perel argues issues of jealousy are all too often absent from the tables of contents and indices in the popular books about infidelity. In such a rush to address the inflicted trauma, it seems we never treat the wound opened by the fundamentally human emotion of jealousy. Too often the literature on infidelity overlooks jealousy’s role in the pain in a rush to deal “with the impact of betrayals and affairs in terms of the trauma of revelation and discovery, confession, and decisions about the third party, forgiveness, and repair – all matters related the concrete situation of betrayal in the here and now.”
Jealousy is a soup of intense feelings and reactions, running from “mourning, self-doubt, humiliation to possessiveness and rivalry, arousal and excitement, vindictiveness and vengeance,” and taken to the extreme, violence.
Jealousy is a set of complex emotions. Hurt people hurt people and often we don’t know why we hurt. We just want someone to blame and we want the pain to stop. Anthropologist Helen Fisher describes jealousy as the “sickening combination of possessiveness, suspicion, rage, and humiliation that can overtake your mind and threaten your very core as you contemplate your rival.” I think this is why we are so hard on the third person in the dynamic of the infidelity: we stop seeing them as human; we see them as competition.
I don’t think C was ever jealous.
At least I didn’t think she was. In one of the few emails she has written she refers to me always flirting with attractive artists as a sign of my patterns. I didn’t know she was jealous. I thought, long before the discovery, she saw me and knew where I belonged too.
I look back and I think how much more honest and vulnerable my relationship with C would have been if she felt safe to say to me she was jealous. Instead, she harbors resentments towards me for flirting with the artists in the booth next to us. For making her feel weak, and less than. I humiliated her. It’s my fault she feels jealous.
She never said that to me until it was too late to do anything about it. What I felt was harmless she sees as an attack on the foundation of our relationship. A layer of betrayal. An attack on her identity. A sign of something sinister.
The evidence of my betrayal, regardless of my motives for writing them, only reinforces that narrative and created additional layers of jealousy. It ramped the jealousy from a simmering 5 to an over-the-top 11.
I look back and I think how much more honest and vulnerable my relationship with C would have been if I had been able to tell her the truth instead of hiding my feelings, needs, wants, fears, and anxieties. My desire not to feel weak or vulnerable because of jealousy caused me to justify bad, hurtful, and reckless choices that devastated C, K, our families and our lives together.
This is why my jealous nightmare is important. It matters for a number of reasons including:
- It gives me perspective on some of the feelings C and K may be dealing with
- It allows me to reflect on how my behavior negatively impacted C and our relationship
- It provides a foundation for a more empathetic understanding of how my behavior harms and hurts the people I love
- It gives me an awareness on a pattern that I need to address
- It allows me to be more sensitive when I talk to other people about their relationship pains
Most importantly it is important because it reminds me that I still love her, that I care, and that what she does matters to me. “He that is not jealous is not in love,” goes the Latin proverb.
“The breach of contract script – ‘you’re my spouse & u owe me loyalty’ – no longer cuts it,” writes Perel. “The ‘I love you and I want you back’ script is risky, but it carries emotional and erotic energy and dignifies the hurt.”
I love her and I want her back.
I know what I did. I know what I lost. All I can do is keep dancing.