Jealousy, in most cases, is both a delusion and a distraction. It is a delusion because it’s founded on two premises: that the longed-for object is a zero-sum commodity, and that you are more entitled to it than another person. One or both of these premises is usually untrue.
It is a distraction because the real issue is rarely scarcity or entitlement. The real issue is unrecognized longing, insecurity, and fear. If you have ever been really hungry and not sure where your next meal is coming from, you know that a certain desperation and irrationality creeps into your thinking about food. Whatever generosity of spirit you normally possess begins to fade, and the problem of how to get food for yourself now becomes all-consuming. I have never been hungry enough to steal food from someone else, but I have been hungry enough to become uncharacteristically selfish and greedy. The brain responds powerfully to the fear that its needs will not be provided for; in the area of love, jealousy is this response.
We all have wounds from our family of origin, and if yours is a feeling that your parents gave love only sparingly, you are more likely to experience intense or chronic jealousy. It’s not something you can wish away or talk yourself out of, but it is something you can work through; I know people who have done it. Not being a therapist and not having personal experience with working out intense jealousy, I don’t feel qualified to say much more than this: it can be done, and it is worth doing.
Smaller-scale jealousy is something we all experience from time to time. My strategy for dealing with jealousy is to separate out the layers of feeling. If I feel jealous, I know that I’m looking at 1) something I want, 2) which someone else has, 3) that I feel entitled to, and 4) that their having prevents me from having. The first piece I question is #4: does their having this thing really prevent me from having it? Sometimes the answer is yes: if I’m crushing on M, who’s monogamous, and he’s starting to date E, then her getting to be with him means that I can’t. Which sucks. Then comes the next question: am I more entitled to date him than E is?
I believe that most of Nice Guy Syndrome comes from this. The feeling of jealousy insists that the desired object should be yours, even if there’s no rational basis for claiming that. People often rationalize that feeling by finding some virtue, real or imagined, that they have and the other person doesn’t. I’m not just throwing stones at the Nice Guys here… I used to do the same thing, characterizing all the girls that boys I liked were dating as vapid and weak. In truth I barely knew these girls… all I knew was that they had something I wanted. I took any superficial clues I could find that might justify my feeling that I was more entitled to it than they were.
Once again the heart of the question is longing. I wanted love, the love of a particular person, but to simply admit that, and admit that at this moment it was out of my reach, was too difficult. Jealousy was a coping mechanism that worked by diverting my attention from the raw longing and turning it to questions of merit. Injured self-righteousness is gratifying in a way that raw longing isn’t… no wonder most of us choose to indulge it, even though it’s based on false premises and damages our ability to build good relationships.
Which, by the way, it absolutely does. If M is dating E, and I choose to resent his choice and her “unfair” gain, I am missing out on the opportunity for two friendships. Even if I am socially friendly with one or both of them, my resentment will prevent any real friendship from thriving. Further, if I make this a pattern I am likely to start resenting men in general for their bad taste in women… which needless to say does not help me form positive relationships with men. If, on the other hand, I can accept that M and E’s relationship is something that makes two people who aren’t me happy, and deal with my own longing as a separate matter, I have opened the possibility of good relationships with both of them, with other friends who support them, and with men and women in general.
This is a hard, hard thing to do. My own brain hasn’t quite managed to separate my own longing for love a particular person’s love from their love for someone else. What it has done — and I have no idea how, so I’m not recommending someone try to imitate me — is create a transitive property to romantic love. Much of the time, if I’m crushing on someone, and he or she is into someone else, I become attracted to that other person too. (Obviously this is very handy for polyamory.) It’s a little weird, but I read it as my brain desperately working to transmute the intense feelings of jealousy into something more positive. I’ll take it.
Next and last: Envy, jealousy, longing, and polyamory!