I was discussing the ins and outs of sexual jealousy with a friend last week and have been pondering it since. An interesting article interviewing one of the authors of Sex at Dawn in Salon made me think about it even more, and I’ve realized that there’s a strange paradox that seems to circle around the subject of sexual jealousy in American culture. Jealousy over our lovers’ sex is possibly the only purely negative emotion we experience that we are virtually never told to “suck up,” “get over,” or “deal with.” Whereas with other forms of jealousy (over material things or family love), most types of anger (aside, perhaps, from Denzel Washington style righteous anger), depression, anxiety, and so on, there are multitudes of ways in which we are encouraged to move forward, battle through, and learn to make the best of the situations that cause these feelings, we are never told to “get over” our jealousy. We tut-tut and headshake over rage-filled testosterone junkies, bend over backwards trying to rally the spirits of depressed people, and teach our children from a very young age that to be a grown-up they have to share their toys and time and space. But significant others? Share them? Absolutely not. Far from it–our entertainment and upbringing teach the exact opposite. We’re not just allowing sexual jealousy to control us, we actually promote paranoia and misery by endorsing the idea that sexual exclusivity is tantamount to happiness, while any transgression equals a perfectly acceptable excuse to go completely apeshit.
Think about it. How many romantic comedies are there in this world that pivot around the central idea of jealousy? How many girlfriends and boyfriends in film and TV are so insanely jealous of their significant others that they spy on them, invade their privacy, and drive themselves literally insane with fear over what might be happening, meanwhile turning themselves into anxiety-ridden lunatics and sometimes criminals? There are lots. And how many characters in film and TV really go whole hog and turn into criminals with violent pasts over sexual jealousy? Plenty. And how many people in REAL LIFE do these same things? Way too many.
Why is it that this one emotion, based on centuries of repressive thinking, which is based largely on misogynistic ideas about sexual and reproductive ownership, still rules us so firmly? Is it because, given that as adults we’re expected to rein in our other explosive negative emotions to a certain degree, we covet and protect this one outlet we still have for our irrational, childish selfishness? I kind of think it is. I mean, hell, I’m not one to argue on behalf of emotional temperance. I’ve got one gob-smacking doozie of a bad temper on me. I’m incredibly impatient and throw tantrums in my head every time the subway is late or I sit in traffic for more than ten minutes. I’m prone to crying when I’m frustrated. I’m no model citizen when it comes to acting like a grown-up. But you know what? I try my damndest to keep control of my negative, destructive feelings, because I’m an adult and I recognize that these feelings are destructive. And make no mistake about it: sexual jealousy might be one of the most destructive forces on the planet. But because it comes riding in under the banners of much-prized ideals like love, fidelity, propriety, and monogamy, it gets to tromp around all over our hearts and gives us an excuse to behave like big, sexually-active children instead of the emotionally mature people we’re supposed to be in every other area of our lives. Because the transgressor in most sexual jealousy situations is always seen to be in the wrong by the greater society, the one making a huge deal out of an outside dalliance gets a free pass to throw a hissy fit and wallow in his or her own misery in a completely childish way. It’s kind of gross.
I’m not saying everyone acts like a baby about sexual jealousy, but I am saying that the overwhelming majority of our cultural indicators point toward sexual jealousy being the last holdout of violent, all-consuming negative emotion in adults, and that’s silly. But I want to make it clear that I’m not saying that we should all “move past” our jealousy, either. I think it’s pretty natural for most of us to feel it–we might be grown-ups and know that it’s polite to share our cake at our birthday parties now, but that doesn’t mean we don’t WANT to keep all the cake for ourselves. Just like our evolution made us likely to hoard food and money and other resources, there’s a certain, probably inborn, tendency in us to hoard our sex partners, too. We want to keep them all to ourselves sometimes, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s just that, like every other negative emotion, jealousy can be dealt with instead of wallowed in. When I find out that one of my partners dallied with someone else, I get jealous every single time. And it hurts, man. It really does. It’s tough. I get all morose and thinky and grumpy and internally criticize everything the partner does for a day or two. But you know what? It goes away after a while. It doesn’t magically disappear, but when I work on remembering that my partner being with another person in a responsible way is far from the worst thing that could ever happen, and is in fact way better than MOST things that could happen, it hurts less. And after a while, it becomes almost a matter of pride for me to be able to work through my dark days and be happy for my partners because they did something they enjoyed. Isn’t that what being a grown-up is supposed to be about?