News and Tribune

February 14, 2014

STAWAR: Valentine jealousy

Local columnist

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — “My wife’s jealousy is getting ridiculous. The other day she looked at my calendar and wanted to know who May was.” — Rodney Dangerfield

Time Magazine columnist Joel Stein recently described how jealousy reared its ugly head after his wife, Cassandra, signed up for a meditation course to help her deal with stress.

Cassandra’s instructor, Théo, assigned her a mantra, which she refused to disclose to Stein. He refers to the mantra as “her secret with Théo” and says that “she now sits in a room alone with the door closed, chanting her secret with Théo twice a day” for 40 minutes. He claims the meditation class dangerously introduced jealousy into their marriage and while it may have given his wife some relief, it added to his level of stress.

Today is St. Valentine’s Day, a celebration of love when Americans engage in what psychologists have romantically called “mate-retention strategies,” such as giving flowers, Valentines and candy. Unfortunately, all too often jealousy accompanies romantic love. St. Augustine once wrote, “He who is not jealous is not in love.” Jealousy is usually defined as the threat of losing something highly valued to a rival.

There are basically three kinds of jealousy — sibling, romantic and professional. As a universal and powerful emotion, jealousy is a theme that shows up repeatedly in art and literature. Shakespeare’s play “Othello” is probably the most famous literary work that addresses the dangers of romantic jealousy. In it, Shakespeare called jealousy “the green-eyed monster,” probably because the color was associated with negative emotions such as envy.

Sibling jealousy, however, is also a recurrent motif from the biblical story of Cane and Able right up to the Smother Brother’s famous line: “Mom liked you best!” In Louisa May Alcott’s novel “Little Women,” Amy, one of the March sisters, burns up her sister Jo’s most valued possession, a manuscript, that she had been working on for years, just because she was jealous that she was not allowed to attend the theater.

Sitcoms are a veritable gold mine of sibling jealousy, such “Frasier,” in which the Crane brothers were constantly competing and bickering and “Everybody Loves Raymond” featuring the Barone brothers. That show’s title is a direct reference of Robert’s resentment of Raymond for being their parents’ favorite. In one episode, Raymond and Robert are arguing over a racing set they received together one Christmas when they were children. Robert says that he always wanted to set the track up like it was shown on the cover of the box, with that picture of that “happy brotherless boy.”

Freud considered jealousy to be an irrational, but normal emotion. He suggested that it has its origins in a sequence of painful childhood events that we all experience, namely the threat of losing parental attention and affection to a rival. The threat is followed by a lowering of self-esteem, the development of resentment toward the rival and self-blame. New York psychiatrist Herman Vollmer says that jealousy is “based on the child’s unlimited and irrational “possessive love for his mother.”

According to Israeli psychotherapist Ayla Pines, “Jealousy is responsible for a ‘wide range of hostile, bitter and hurtful events.’” FBI statistics show that jealousy has been linked to almost one third of all solved murders.

When it comes to violence, jealousy is an equal opportunity emotion. Violent behavior is almost always much higher among males, however when jealousy is involved, women more than hold their own. For example, many people might recall the bizarre case back in 2007, when astronaut Lisa Nowak, in a jealous rage, drove from Houston to Orlando wearing a diaper so she didn’t have to stop along the way, in order to kidnap the new girlfriend of her ex-lover and fellow astronaut. A survey of professional therapists revealed that jealousy was a problem for more than one-third of all couples that went for marriage counseling.

The most intense kind of jealousy is called “pathological jealousy” and is a form of paranoia. It is often associated with witnessing infidelity early in life, feelings of inferiority or the projection of unacceptable wishes onto the partner. Being in an asymmetrical relationship — such an elderly husband with a very young wife, or a plain woman married to a very handsome husband — also may instigate pathological jealousy.

Affairs are the most common cause of romantic jealousy. Traditionally, men with an unfaithful partner have lashed out in anger and sought to abandon the relationship. Women, on the other hand, have tended to feel depressed, blame themselves and make efforts to reinstate the relationship. When rationalizing such affairs, men often characterized them as “only physical” why women paint them as “only platonic.”

Evolutionary psychologist David Buss from the University of Texas believes that jealousy is an adaptive emotion that evolved to discourage “mate poaching.” People who lack jealousy would be at a disadvantage in terms of mate retention.

According to Buss, jealousy is strongly related to two major personality factors. It is positively correlated with neuroticism (emotional instability) and negatively correlated with agreeableness, the tendency to be accommodating and sympathetic. High levels of neuroticism are associated with painful feelings and interpersonal behavior such as suspiciousness and increased vigilance. Low levels of agreeableness are related to even more negative control tactics, such as bullying. While considered “abhorrent,” such behaviors may keep a mate in a relationship.

In a Norwegian study, men reported becoming more upset than women when a rival had a better job and financial prospects and more physical strength. Overall, women reported being more distressed when their rival was kinder, more understanding and physically attractive.

Jealousy can be extremely painful, involve a loss of control and occasionally even a fear of going mad. Even people with enough self-control not to physically act out often find themselves fantasizing about violent acts when jealous. Evidently, just these violent fantasies are usually sufficient for most people to calm down.

Psychologist Jeff Bryson from San Diego State University has described eight typical responses modes to jealousy-producing situations: 1. emotional devastation; 2. getting even; 3. aroused interest in partner; 4. increased interaction with supportive friends; 5. self-blame; 6. confrontation; 7. anger; and 8. an attempt to give the impression that you don’t really care.

Psychologist Craig Malkin, from Harvard, has described a comprehensive plan for managing jealousy which includes: Acknowledging the jealousy to yourself and partner; managing stress effectively through relaxation, exercise or other means; judiciously asking your partner for reassurance and finally knowing your limits in terms of what you can tolerate in a relationship.

Being somewhat high in the personality trait of neuroticism and relatively low in agreeableness, it should be no surprise that I tend to be a bit jealous myself. My wife Diane is friendly with a lot of male customers at the used bookstore that she manages. It’s not that I’m all that jealous, but I don’t understand why she cut doesn’t the chatter and just sell books.

I also don’t care to hear Diane’s stories about how the son of the local police chief flirted with her when she was sent to the office in high school or about “karate boy,” who evidently had a big crush on her back in college.

Diane, herself, never shows any jealousy, but, the last thing she always says to me when I’m going on a business trip is to “be careful and don’t speak to any strange women.”

Good advice for all men on Valentine’s Day.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Check out his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at