All mine
By Bill Beattie
Copyright December 10, 2006

JEALOUSY can be a very destructive emotion. When it arrives, havoc is usually close behind.

According to Shakespeare's Iago (who was very well up on the matter) jealousy is "the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on". Even allowing for poetic licence, that can't be good.

Nevertheless, for a pretty lethal emotion, jealousy has managed to retain a strange respectability. "Movies constantly justify jealousy," says Peter Haydon, a writer from south-west Victoria and a man who has grappled with jealousy.

"Psychologists look the other way unless it gets practically psychotic, and some countries even have milder laws for jealousy-inspired 'crimes of passion' than for normal assaults and murders."

Both Elvis and the Beatles cheerily sang: "I'd rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man" and an even higher authority reportedly admitted to being "a jealous God" (Exodus 20:5). This can all obscure the fact that you can't spell "jealousy" without the word "lousy".

Even Texan psychologist David Buss, whose book The Dangerous Passion (Free Press) is partly a justification for the emotion, warns that while jealousy "can keep a couple committed ... (it can also) drive a man to savagely beat his wife".

Regardless of whether a flare-up is caused by sexual jealousy, sibling rivalry or professional malice, verbal and physical abuse frequently slouch along in the monster's wake. And like many regrettable habits, this can be unintentionally cultivated at school.

The American Psychological Association's website reports findings by Professor Jeffrey G Parker, of Pennsylvania State University, that schoolyard debates over who is whose best friend are prone to be anything but amiable: "Jealous adolescents were both physically aggressive, such as by hitting or pushing, and passively aggressive, such as by ignoring a peer with whom they were angry."

Jealousy is never a welcome houseguest and can be a particularly tricky one to evict. It gets its claws into the deepest levels of our insecurity, reopening old injuries, thriving on fears of loneliness and abandonment and eating self-esteem for breakfast.

It also specialises in blurring the real and the perceived, causing the undoing of many relationships that were otherwise going along swimmingly.

"It's the classic game of projection, where the players project their inner feelings onto external situations," says transformational coach and head of The Coaching Room network, Jay Hedley. "It's important to realise that our beliefs and values are not real, but are only internal maps of reality.

"Mistaking the map for the territory shows we're not engaging our emotional intelligence, and confusing a toxic relationship based on bad faith with a perfectly good one tainted by our projected fears and mistrust.

"When we encounter jealousy, rather than challenging our partners, we need to challenge our own beliefs, values and internal maps. We might, for instance, counter anger at our partner's flirtations with memories of having done the same thing ourselves, perfectly innocently and harmlessly."

Can jealousy be eliminated altogether? One section of society in which we might expect it to be an endangered species is the polyamorous community (which is based on the principle that, when it comes to long-lasting, loving relationships, monogamy doesn't necessarily have the monopoly).

However, as Chris Ford, coordinator of Sydney's Polyamory Social Group, explains: "It's not that polyamorous people are jealousy free. Rather, they don't relate to jealousy as something to be avoided. When it's experienced in a relationship, it needs to be dealt with, just like anger, fear or any other emotion.

"Many people abstain from close emotional ties with anyone except their lover, primarily to avoid jealousy.

"This deprives them of the rich tapestry of intimacy and social support that would otherwise be available, and leaves them with the pressure of trying to satisfy 100 per cent of their partner's emotional needs, a pressure that can itself destroy relationships.

"Dealing with jealousy requires the sort of communication which leads to deep, trusting relationships. Avoiding these emotional issues creates barriers and undermines intimacy."

Some psychologists claim that jealousy functions like an emotional fire alarm, beeping furiously when our partner's attentions are drifting. However, as Shakespeare also observed, jealousy poses as "affection's sentinel" but tends to cause dissension more often than it prevents it.

It "gives false alarms, suggesteth mutiny, and in a peaceful hour doth cry 'Kill, kill!'" (Obviously the Bard and I bought the same brand of smoke detector.) The alarm most typically misfires when we doubt our worthiness of a partner's devotion, rather than its existence.

"Surely," the green-eyed gremlin insinuates, "your sweetie could do a lot better than you." As with most monsters, though, jealousy is most frightening when only half-glimpsed.

Dragging it into the sunlight and examining its underlying causes - the doubts to be allayed and the injuries to be healed - is the first step in overcoming it. The beastie's power is broken once our trust in our partner exceeds our mistrust of ourselves.

Different perspectives

Male and female jealousies often have disparate causes and find different outlets. Jeffrey G Parker's research into jealousy among schoolchildren, for instance, found that "girls had greater reputations than boys for jealousy among both friends and non-friends".

These differences continue in later life. "Men are more likely to divorce over sexual infidelity than women," says Dr Ari Badaines, a Sydney clinical psychologist.

"Due to evolutionary and cultural determinants, men find sexual infidelity very threatening, while women are more likely to fear abandonment." In both sexes, however, the triggers for jealousy can vary with partners' changing moods.

"At a party, for example," Dr Badaines continues, "a little flirting can actually help strengthen a couple's relationship, each partner finding it flattering and reaffirming that other people like their choice of a mate.

"If there is insecurity, though, one partner's flirtations may leave the other feeling hurt, anxious or angry, and inclined to react coldly when they return home." Sadly, one such misjudged soiree can sometimes launch a downward spiral.

"The couple may move further out of sync with each other's needs, both becoming more distant, fearful, resentful and self-protective. At this stage, the couple may need external help to rescue the relationship."

Slaying the monster

There are no guaranteed cures for jealousy, but Peter Haydon found one technique effective. "I've always known I could trust my partner's honesty and commitment to me," he says, "but still felt jealous whenever she was out with male friends.

"Since she'd never experienced jealousy, she had trouble understanding the intensity of my feelings, and we eventually reached the point where she had to choose between me and my jealousy and her own freedom.

"Fortunately I discovered an article online by Kathy Labriola, a counsellor, in which she observed similarities between jealousy and phobias, suggesting that they could be desensitised by similar methods.

"She recommended imagining your partner on a date with another man, and assigning a number from one to 10 to the discomfort you experience while imagining each stage of their evening. Next, select the event with the lowest rating (say, a level three for her preparing for the date) and continue to visualise that stage until the discomfort eases.

"Then, move on to the next lowest ranking event and repeat the process. Although this can be a lengthy procedure, I found it eventually reduced my jealousy - which not only saved my relationship but vastly improved it."