Why jealousy is good for you

Jealousy is often given a bad press - but positive behaviour can stem from it, too.

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The “green-eyed monster”, “fierce tyrant of the realms of love”, “near death”: Shakespeare, Cervantes, Sappho – everybody gives jealousy bad press.

On the one hand that is quite understandable, since, as emotions go, it is generally not one of the agreeable ones. Jealousy can sweep through your life like a hurricane, destroying relationships and careers – just ask General Petraeus. But is jealously, while unpleasant, altogether bad? Not at all. Jealousy can be your friend: it will highlight what you value and allow you to experience yourself as a strong, rational and passionate human. Everybody should try it.

“Jealousy” is an umbrella term for a whole range of experiences – such as fear, sadness or anger – motivated by the belief that we might lose the attention, love or commitment of a person who we value. The threat of jealousy is present throughout our lives: Charles Darwin, who took careful notes about the behaviour of his young children, wrote of his eldest son that at the tender age of 14 months he was jealous of his parents holding his baby sister or even a big doll. Sibling rivalry, romantic jealousy, sexual jealousy and other variants of the same emotion seem to be part of the package deal that is human life.

Psychologists Robert Bringle and Robert Rydell have recently given us the useful distinction between reactive and suspicious jealousy. Reactive jealousy sets in if you have good reason to be jealous, such as Maria Shriver, whose undeniable reason exists in the form of an illegitimate child fathered by her husband Arnold Schwarzenegger with their housekeeper. It has been shown that reactive jealousy is strongest in relationships with a deeply forged interdependence between the partners, built on mutual trust. Suspicious jealousy occurs when there is no realistic indication of a betrayal of trust and says more about the psyche of the jealous party than about the quality of the relationship.

The beauty and the terror of human relationships lie precisely in their unpredictability. Other people are not objects in our power like hats or toothbrushes. Occasionally this might seem desirable; wouldn’t Barbie or Ken make the ideal romantic partners, never arguing, never jealous or giving reason for jealousy and at the end of the day unprotestingly allowing themselves to be put away in a shoebox? Despite these advantages, real-life relationships tend to be more fulfilling when based on reciprocal regard and trust. However, it is no great mystery that others will make choices that may work against our interests or hurt us. Philosophers from the Buddha to Epicurus have impressed on us that what we value in life is not likely to last but that this is no reason not to value it. Jealousy is the ideal indicator of that value. If you experience fear of loss it means that you value whatever you are worried about losing. Making someone jealous works just on that basis: It is the attempt to make someone realise that they value you.

Reactive jealousy is particularly useful because it tells you something about your relationship, whereas suspicious jealousy does not. However, even suspicious jealousy is not altogether useless as like reactive jealousy it can reveal our values. A case in point is Tosca. In love with the painter Cavaradossi, she is greatly prone to unfounded suspicious jealousy. Puccini’s opera makes it easy for us to understand that her feelings are far from pathetic: they are proof of her profound love for Cavaradossi and her uncompromising commitment.

Commitment is good, science is better: Chemically, the hormone oxytocin, which is released in the brain during cuddling and lovemaking as well as during breastfeeding, strengthens attachment. In a recent issue of Philosophy Now magazine, Oxford philosopher Brian Earp acknowledged the positive role of jealousy in keeping families intact and parents focused on the raising of their offspring but suggested that artificially increasing the level of oxytocin in the body could save marriages that are in trouble by boosting attachment. Just remember to pop those nice little oxytocin pills and unwarranted jealousy along with a whole host of other relationship glitches need never trouble you again. It’s a nice idea, though still a bit science-fictional and freighted with its own ethical problems. The core thought, however, is sound: jealousy can be a force for good.

Jealousy is a life-affirming wake-up call to reality, challenging us to passionately embrace it. By confronting you with how much you value your relationship and alerting you to threats to it, it motivates you to take practical steps to strengthen it. Those steps will probably be more responsive to the complexities of your particular relationship than simply boosting a hormone.

One of the reasons jealousy is so maligned lies in the fear of what results from it. We know it can lead to behaviour that is likely to damage a relationship such as spying on the other, searching their pockets and mobiles or monitoring their internet activities. Our tradition teaches us that jealousy may end in disaster: Anna Karenina’s suicide, Othello’s murder of Desdemona and Medea killing her own sons. But it doesn’t have to. As with any other emotion, the problem with jealousy doesn’t lie in feeling it but in what you do with it. Strong passions such as jealousy seem to overwhelm us as we’re helplessly swept away in their wake, unable to control them or ourselves. But we are not just mindless victims of our emotions and disaster can be averted by better coping techniques and, above all, better communication.

Jealousy is often falsely associated with insecurity and weakness, but I believe the opposite to be true. Only the insecure cannot allow themselves to be jealous. Jealousy requires fearlessness. It requires us to stand by what we value and own up to our choices. Embrace life – dare to be jealous!

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