Chapter 22 Jealousy

Chapter 22 Learning Objectives

Upon reading this chapter, the student should be able to:

  • Summarize the differences between rational jealousy and irrational jealousy.


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I think there are two types of jealousy or at least two different kinds of conditions under which it occurs. One sort is rational and justified; the other, not, though it is at least as powerful, probably even more so, and is certainly very devastating when it occurs.

The first type of jealousy, jealousy for a good reason, is that jealousy over someone’s unfairly depriving you of the joys and benefits you should have with your partner. If a man, for example, talks his wife into accompanying him on a business trip she would rather not go on, and then spends his free time with other people, ignoring her and letting her be miserable, she has a right to be disappointed and angry, as well as jealous of whoever monopolizes her husband’s time.

Similarly, if a parent spends an unwarranted amount of time with one child at the expense of another (roughly equating quality and quantity of time here just for the sake of discussion), it seems justified that the neglected child should feel hurt and jealous.

This is not to imply that a man is always responsible for his wife’s entertainment or well-being, nor that a parent is always responsible for his child’s entertainment. However, there are some times and some situations where one does have an obligation to spend time with one’s spouse or one’s children. And when such an obligation is inexcusably not met, the partner or child being neglected has a right to be disappointed, hurt, or jealous of whoever is taking up the parent’s or partner’s time.

Alienation of affection or alienation of the amount of good or satisfaction or energy spent with a partner also can arouse justifiable jealousy. If a woman, for example, will not go with her husband to a movie she already knew he wanted to see with her because she saw it instead with a friend, then the husband has a right to be jealous of the friend — even though the wife and friend went at a time that the husband could not have gone anyway. The wife and friend were not thereby taking the wife’s time away from her husband, but they were taking away from him an enjoyment — one in this case that arguably should have been his. Likewise, even if a new relationship were to take no time away from an old relationship, but were to ruin it because the person involved in both relationships only had the energy or the character to treat one (the new) partner nicely, the old partner would have a right to be jealous. (This is if he or she were not a contributing factor to this alienation or a deserving beneficiary of it by, say, having treated the alienated partner unfairly, causing most of the alienation him or her self.)

The kind of jealousy that is often so miserably debilitating though, and irrational, is the sort by a partner that would deny a loved one happiness or benefit from another which in no way would impinge upon their relationship with that partner. The only remotely rational element to this kind of jealousy is the concern that such a relationship might later become one that so impinges; but insofar as it is not likely to later and does not now, jealousy of it is irrational. To call this kind of jealousy insane jealousy is in some cases simultaneously to describe the cause and the behavior it prompts.

There are perhaps two reasons or causes, both unjustified, for a person’s being jealous over the happiness another brings his or her partner — happiness that in no way (besides the irrational jealousy it provokes) detrimentally affects the first relationship: (1) the false belief that there is one and only one person “perfect” for each of us so that if anyone else is good for our love, we must not be, and (2) the virtually unfulfillable desire to be all things to a loved one, their one and only source of happiness and benefit. We see this latter sometimes in a husband who is jealous of wealthier parents-in-law who provide things for their daughter that he cannot afford to give her, or of a wife who is jealous of someone (such as her mother-in-law) whose cooking her husband raves about.  We hear it implied in the lament of a person whose partner cheated on them that they must have done something wrong to the cheating partner, for if they had made the cheater happy in the first place, the cheater would not have had to look and go elsewhere for satisfaction. (This is not necessarily true. The cheater may have been happy at home — as well as happy where he or she was cheating.)

Concerning (1) above, it simply seems false to me that there is only one right person for each of us.  We find love too often when we are looking for it (after breaking up, after divorce, while we are in college, etc., etc.) for it to be so rare. If there were just one person who would be one’s ideal mate, it seems to me that it would be highly unlikely anyone would ever find their love or ideal mate. Yet many people are happily married or happily living together or happily going together. And each of them could probably be just as happy with many, many others, had they met them instead, or had they met them first. That your partner finds someone else who can make her or him happy in some way or other should not be terribly surprising; if it in no way harms or even affects your relationship (apart from your jealousy), it should not be particularly annoying.

Concerning (2), it is practically impossible for any one person to be the sole joy or entertainment for someone else, satisfying all their wants or desires, unless the partner has only the simple desires of a puppy or a pet rock. The interests of most alert, educated, active people are simply too diverse and numerous to expect them all to be satisfiable by any one other person — a person whose areas of interest and competence mesh in just the right way so that both parties benefit and satisfy each other with no need or desire remaining for the joys others can provide.

Further, I doubt most people even want to have daily 24 hour companionship with their loved ones; people often want to be alone for time to themselves, and sometimes they want to be with other people for variety, change of pace, learning new things, getting new perspectives, or even to talk (or complain) about their partner. In general, we simply depend on a number of different relationships and different sorts of relationships as we go through life. It is rare and highly unlikely that any two people can provide each other with all the joy and benefit either of them would ever need or want.

In an interesting and apocryphal movie, Le Bon Heur in the late 1960’s, the main character is fairly happily married, but he also falls in love with a second woman with whom he maintains a clandestine and happy affair for a long period of time, most of it during the day when the man is supposedly at work.  He is not taking time away from his wife (though I cannot recall how he was able to get quite as much work done to make a living as he needed to). He is supremely happy both with his wife and with his new lover. Because of this happiness, he seems to have unleashed new resources of energy in all aspects of his life, including his marriage. He goes home happier, is far more attentive to his wife and children, somehow becomes even a better lover to his wife, and just, in general, is a better husband, father, and person. One day on a family picnic his wife tells him how happy he has made her (during what is this span of time since he has also been in love with the other woman), how he seems to have been transformed into so much better a husband than he ever was before and that she could have ever hoped to have married. Unable to contain his joy and enthusiasm any longer, he tells her the secret, believing, of course, that since she has recognized and just told him how good this makes things for everyone concerned, she will understand, accept, and even appreciate the situation. Of course, instead, she is devastated, becomes practically catatonic as she sees her whole life and happiness being taken from her in one brief announcement. She walks off in a grief-stricken trance and drowns (herself).

The reaction he expected her to have was unrealistic; her actual reaction was quite realistic and natural. Yet somehow, in the context of the film, his expectation seems the rational one, and her reaction, the irrational one. Jealousy in a case like this, if there could be such a case, is quite puzzling in that it seems at once unreasonable and unavoidable. Had he had (and been through with) his affair before he met his wife and become the kind of husband she adored because of it, she probably would not have minded the affair at all. We generally seem not to mind (though some people do) that one has been in love before they loved us.  But we don’t want them to fall or be in love with someone else, once or while they love us.  In the movie Bus Stop the female protagonist feels she should tell the man who loves her about her sordid past.

He loves her and has unabashedly courted her and she has begun to fall in love with him. She feels she should be honest with him though she is very ashamed of her past and embarrassed about it. It is very difficult for her to talk about the subject, but she feels he has a right to know. She wants to confess about her past to him and it is obvious to him that this is very difficult and painful for her. In one of the more poignant and memorable moments in the history of film, he stops her from confessing anything to him about her past that she is ashamed of, and simply says to her that he is just grateful for how she is, so he does not need to know, and cannot complain about, how she got that way. Regardless of how fictitious the story, the audience’s reaction at this point is warmly sympathetic and natural — one is not inclined to feel this guy is a fool and that she is a worthless tramp that he should abandon and forget.

In real life, most people do not tend to be particularly jealous of their partner’s past loves, only ones that appear during or after their own.  This is, of course, only when old ghosts are laid to rest and old flames are not rekindled (some people need reassurance that, as the song goes, old flames can’t hold a candle to them). People tend not to take kindly to being compared to their partner’s ex-loves, and often people get very jealous when old (and known to be dear) flames reappear.

Now, I have not mentioned sex in particular in regard to jealousy, since sex is not the only consideration for jealousy, and in some cases is not a factor in jealousy at all, even when one’s love is known to be engaging in sex with someone else. Jealousy can be over a loved one’s work that takes time away from a partner; it can be over a partner’s taking someone to lunch while his mate has to work; it can be over a partner’s having too animated a conversation with someone else at a party, particularly when he or she was not having so animated a conversation with the jealous partner earlier. It can arise because a loved one helped someone a little too willingly (particularly if the jealous partner thinks the beneficiary was attractive) or because the loved one accepted help a little too readily from the other person. Ex-wives and ex-husbands, even those who were the ones who wanted and initiated the divorce, often find themselves terribly jealous when their ex-spouse remarries, even though they do not want the spouse themselves. And in one such case, the ex-wife was particularly jealous and upset, not because of the sexual aspect of the relationship of the former husband with his new wife, but because he now did the kinds of things graciously with his new wife that he would only do grudgingly, if at all, with his former wife. He bought and wore the kinds of clothes now that she had always futilely wanted him to; he happily went to parties where he was a sociable guest and helped entertain people at home, etc. He seemed to willingly do for (and with) his new wife all the kinds of things he had avoided or had done unwillingly for his ex-wife. It is often nice to have a relationship with someone who has been “broken in” the right way by someone else, but it is rather hurtfully disappointing to have been the one doing the “breaking in” only to have someone else reap the benefits of your work and aggravation at making your (ex-)spouse receptive to your way of doing things.

My contention that continued and acknowledged sex outside of a relationship is in some cases not cause for jealousy is supported by the fact that in the case of extra-marital romances (or extra-relationship romances) the new lover is hardly ever bothered by the fact that his or her partner still has sex with their spouse (or old partner). At least not while the (old) relationship is still in force; a new lover might become jealous if his or her mate continues to have sex with her or his former partner after divorcing the former partner.

Rape also is not sex that would make the rape victim’s spouse jealous; though seduction would. It seems that as long as the spouse or love is not totally happy or willing about the sexual act, there is no jealousy. Jealousy tends to arise, whether in a sexual context or not, when the spouse or lover enters willingly or joyfully or voluntarily into the action.

The reported cases where even this is not a cause for jealousy, even with sex, are occurrences of mate- swapping, threesomes, and orgies where both members of the relationship knowingly and willingly, and perhaps simultaneously, allow and experience sexual relations with others. Jealousy though sometimes occurs in such situations, particularly where one of the partners seems to enjoy the experience much more than the other does. But since seemingly relatively few people participate in orgies or mate-swapping and since it is not really clear how much this enhances or does not harm their relationships, I do not really want to put too much store in this particular behavior as evidence about extra-relationship sex not necessarily being a cause of jealousy.

Now jealousy, in general, is very often difficult to distinguish, as a feeling, from feeling hurt or disappointed or left out and/or angry over your partner’s having been cheating on you, particularly when you feel such cheating has also caused them to treat you badly in ways other than just deceiving you.  Some may want to call what I have labeled as justified or rational jealousy instead justified disappointment and/or anger at another’s cheating on you and robbing you of the time, energy, enjoyment, or benefit you deserve. Whatever kind of analytic, verbal, or ethical distinctions may be made between such feelings, or the cases that prompt them, it will be difficult or impossible to feel these distinctions psychologically in order to tell whether one is feeling hurt, disappointed, jealous, or all of the above. It is often difficult to tell whether you feel irrationally jealous or whether you feel the way you do because you are sure your love is now treating you in some undeserved second- class way because of his relationship with the object of your jealousy. You may also feel your partner is making a mistake and has made a terrible choice of new partner, or that may just be sour grapes; it will be hard to tell. It would be fair to be upset and disappointed if you were being treated second-class — if you were being taken advantage of and being treated rudely or unlovingly (in the sense of inconsiderately) just because your partner now put his or her affections, time, and energy elsewhere while “dangling” you.  But sometimes one might believe they are feeling such justified disappointment and anger when actually they have not been mistreated at all and are only feeling some sort of anger and disappointment over hurt pride and having been deceived (though the affair itself did not hurt them).

Irrational jealousy and justifiably feeling wronged are not the only kinds of feelings people can have that are difficult to distinguish internally from their “feel”. I have already mentioned the case of being unable to distinguish between feeling fear of getting caught and feeling guilty about doing something. And as with irrational jealousy and rational jealousy, these two feelings have vast difference in their logic — in what they refer to or mean. To feel guilty is to feel you have intentionally done something wrong with no excuse and to regret having done it, whereas feeling fear of being caught may have nothing to do with your feeling you are doing anything wrong nor with remorse, but may have to do simply with fear that others who might discover you would disapprove and invoke a penalty or humiliation for your action. These two feelings, if they can be distinguished in how they feel, can sometimes only be so distinguished after being caught or after a period of time of not being caught. If you still have the feeling either (1) after you have been caught and treated the way you feared, or not treated badly at all, or (2) when, after a period in which you have not been caught, you finally feel secure that you will not be discovered, then probably guilt is what you felt and feel. If, however, you do not feel badly after being caught or after feeling safe, then probably your bad feeling was just fear of being caught rather than guilt.

[Sometimes we speak of guilt concerning acts we did that we believe were right but that we believe others would disapprove of or believe wrong. And though the feeling might be the same as the feeling of guilt, it is not the feeling of guilt; you cannot feel guilty if you are doing what you feel is not wrong, you can only feel just like you feel when you feel guilty. Of course, it is easier to just say you feel guilty for having (ignored your mother’s erroneous preaching, or whatever) than to say you feel like you feel guilty.  But it is not really a feeling of guilt since you do not feel you have done anything wrong.]

There are a number of feelings, difficult to distinguish internally from just their feel, that arise from logically different causes and that rationally involve logically different responses. Rational and irrational jealousy are just two of them, and it is better in their case generally to try to figure out just what you feel and why before you angrily denounce an innocent spouse for a disappointment which you strongly feel as a wrong but that is not really justified by his or her behavior. I would think it would be more productive to begin a conversation talking about how you feel jealous, hurt, left out, or unappreciated rather than how your partner has hurt you, unless you have conclusive reason to believe you have been wronged. Starting off a discussion by angrily accusing someone of wrongdoing on the basis of a feeling, particularly one that may not be what you think it is, could do much more damage to the relationship than good.  And if you find out for certain that you have a right to be angry and rationally jealous, you can always then make that point, even vehemently if that would be better.

Key Takeaways

  • Rational jealousy is justified resentment, disappointment, and hurt of someone else’s depriving one of the joys and benefits one should have with one’s partner, by the other person’s having or giving the partner those joys or benefits instead. Irrational jealousy is resentment of anyone’s benefiting your loved one in a way or under circumstances which you could not benefit them anyway and which does not take anything away from you.

Key Terms

  • To feel guilty in a relationship is to feel you have intentionally done something wrong with no excuse and to regret having done it.
  • Feeling fear of being caught may have nothing to do with your feeling you are doing anything wrong nor with remorse, but may have to do simply with fear that others who might discover you would disapprove and invoke a penalty or humiliation for your action.

Chapter Review Questions

  • Question: What are the conditions in which jealousy occurs?
  • Question: When is jealousy justified?

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Chapter 22 Jealousy Copyright © 2017 by Richard Garlikov. All Rights Reserved.

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