On Jealousy

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I’ve often said that jealousy is like pain in that it’s not bad in and of itself. Any leper will tell you that if you break your ankle, you want pain; otherwise, you ruin your leg walking as though everything’s all right.
Jealousy is the sign of something that needs to be corrected. In sane relationships, that correction usually takes the form of “I need to feel more valued, so what can we do to get us the kind of one-on-one time that we need?” In insane relationships trying to better themselves, that correction takes the form of “I need to be less neurotic about demanding my partner shows me love, so what can I do to self-soothe in more efficient ways?”
But Rain Degrey retweeted something I disagreed with:
Jealousy is what you get when you mix low self esteem with the delusion of thinking you should be able to control another person’s feelings.
Usually, I haven’t seen jealous people trying to control feelings. They’re controlling actions. “Don’t spend time with her.” “Don’t sleep overnight at his place.” “You have to see that movie with me.”
That’s actually not always bad.
The problem with jealousy is that it often stems from someone doing a thing that makes you feel totally unwanted. You were specifically not going to see The Hobbit despite all the offers from friends, because for you The Hobbit was something special that you did with your lover – and then you find, quite stingingly, that s/he doesn’t share this ritual. You think of them when The Hobbit comes around, but they do not think of you.
That’s a legitimate pain. That’s a broken ankle for sure, mang.
You feel stupid for not going earlier, and you feel robbed of a romantic experience that you’d set up, and you feel deeply envious because someone elsegot that time that you wanted.
That’s not necessarily low esteem. That’s often high esteem, saying, “Hey, I reserved that space in my heart for you, and I value my coronary real estate enough to not reserve it willy-nilly. Either this is A Thing We Do, in which case you owe me the respect of not forgetting that, or it’s something that’s completely irrelevant and I see Lord of the Rings movies whenever I damn well feel like.”
That’s good jealousy. Bad jealousy is where you say, “Well, you can’t see her any more!” – a hot-patch that may solve the issue now, but is guaranteed to cause resentment and will certainly come up next December when wander off to see The Hobbit 3 with someone else.
Too many people treat jealousy like it’s some sort of foot fungus, a thing that enlightened people don’t have. I’m of the opinion that most people who’ve never experienced jealousy do so because they’ve had no real attachments to their partner.
It’s not wrong to want a unique space in your partner’s heart. It’s not wrong to be hurt when that space gets violated – even if you may not necessarily have communicated the uniqueness of that space properly. (In poly, you run into surprise pockets of assumed “I thought that was for us alone” behavior, which you only discover once someone’s off to Rivendell.)
What’s wrong is when you use that pain as an excuse to wall yourself off from competition instead of using it to build a stronger relationship.
Funneling jealousy in a healthy way isn’t about controlling other people’s emotions. It’s about controlling expectations so that people act in consistent ways that you can structure a relationship around. If someone tells you that of course The Hobbit is Your Thing, and then wanders off to the premiere with someone else, that makes it hard to know what to believe. Which, in turn, makes it hard to know whether you’re valued in the ways you need to be valued in a relationship.
Which is why you should be honest, and consistent. Even if your response is “I am not restricting myself in any movie that I see with anyone, because I don’t buy into movie monogamy,” then that lets someone know where they stand.
But not all jealousy is poor self-esteem, nor is it about controlling emotions. Jealousy is like pain – sometimes it’s just a silly ache, sometimes it’s cancer. You can’t tell what it really means until you diagnose it.
(Cross-posted, after consideration, from a FetLife essay.)

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