The Science of Jealousy

Your girlfriend says she’s busy. She’s always dropping her handsome colleague into the conversation. And he’s always dropping by. Laughing together at some inside jokes. Oh god, before you know it, you’re jealous. The emotion haunts and creeps through your mind, makes you suspicious, angry, possessive. It hijacks your personality and threatens your identity as well as the very relationships you so keenly want to keep safe. “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy,” says Iago, one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains. The most common manifestations are, of course, in sexual and romantic relationships, but jealousy takes shape in our careers and friendships as well. What exactly is going on in our minds when we’re corrupted by this niggling bugbear of an emotion?

There are many conflicting studies into the causes and understanding of jealousy. But the first most common mistake is to confuse it with envy. Envy is the emotion we feel when we lack, and want something that someone else has. Jealousy, however, is the fear of losing something we already possess to somebody else (a third person, real or imagined). Therefore, jealousy is an anticipatory emotion. Many believe that jealousy strikes early on in a relationship, but studies have shown that it can appear at any point: from the honeymoon phase to the it’s-okay-to-fart-around-each-other phase. It’s unsettling in its ability to appear when you least expect it.

Jealousy, however, is not an emotion confined just to humans, it is experienced by other mammals as well. Renowned primatologist, Jane Goodall observed one female chimpanzee seductively shaking her booty in front of a male chimp, who—being the Casanova of the tribe—thought he could get some action elsewhere and ignored her. The booty-shaking chimpanzee wouldn’t stand for it (who would!) and slapped Casanova chimp across the face (you go girl!). Bluebirds have also been known to be jealous. Evolutionary biologist David Barash performed an experiment where he put a fake plush male bluebird beside a female who had recently been mating. When the male bluebird saw this, he launched a vicious attack upon the plush and then the female bluebird.

Aside the romantic, jealous is prevalent in friendships too. We might be less vocal about it, but just you try and tell me you’re not put out when two friends you introduced start spending time together without you. It’s a bummer. You start to wonder what’s wrong with you. You’re secretly annoyed at them. You make jibing little remarks, or maybe you go off in a sulk and withdraw from their company. Without even meaning to, you’ve brought your fears to life. What you’re scared of – losing your friends – is now more likely to happen because you’re being a douche. So remember, jealously can rob you!

Next; hands up who got told off daily for lashing out at their brother? Go on, admit it. Here’s your excuse; jealousy is really common in children with siblings. This manifests as competition for the love and attention of a parent. Such rivalry can become a very wearisome force for both children and parents alike, even if it is perfectly normal and healthy. The best thing a parent can do is spend one-on-one time with each child… and not interfere in their squabbles, choosing instead to walk away, lock themselves in the study and drink a tumbler of scotch whilst blocking out the screams from the playroom.

In the above examples, jealousy (either due to sibling rivalry, friendship or romantic anxiety) leads to violent and destructive behaviour. Jealousy can destroy relationships and one’s own personal well-being. Worryingly, the green-eyed monster is considered to be the leading cause of spousal homicide throughout the world. Which goes some length to show our pettiness, and is especially scary when you think that this is an emotion we’ve all felt. So: what can be done to overcome feelings of jealousy?

The first and most important advice that doctors and scientists offer is: communication. Talk with your partner. If you repress negative feelings and let them fester too long, they will eventually manifest in uglier ways than having a slightly awkward conversation.

Second thing is to be objective. Don’t believe your own paranoia over a rational explanation of your life and relationships. And thirdly—and this might be the hardest for all of us control freak megalomaniacs—accept some ambiguity. Life is full of uncertainty and you can’t control another person’s feelings or live within their brain. Just go with the flow.

For the most part jealousy is demonized, deemed a poisonous emotion. But hold your horses; for many greats and theorists have actually argued that jealousy in moderation can be a good thing. From an evolutionary perspective, jealousy has existed as a means of protecting the family unit and guaranteeing the survival of the young. It is a quasi-tribal mentality that held together the hairy nomads we once were. Now if you wanted to take this stance to it’s possible end conclusion: it’s that civilization essentially owes a debt to jealousy. Meaning, surely, that jealousy might be a really, really good thing.

So do you mind handing me over your email password, social media deats and wearing this GPS tracking device so I can know where you are at all times? Sound good, bae?

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