Jealousy is usually the most childish emotion of all. While experiences of fear, anger, sadness, shame and similar can be appropriate to external reality (although in most cases it's a mixture of realistic and childish, exaggerated perception), jealousy is mostly based on an infantile feeling that we can't receive enough love and attention, and that our sense of worth and self-esteem depends of others' choices.
Although posessiveness towards one's intimate partner has some roots in biology and evolution, the essence of jealousy is in fear that we are not good enough, that something is wrong with us, that somebody else (perhaps without merit, perhaps with more merit, we're afraid) receives something we dearly want. We might also feel that love and attention is limited, that is, if one person is receiving it, another has to lose. As a defense from bad self-image, we create anger towards the person who "steals" love from us, and often even towards the person whose love we want.
Some people whose partner fell in love with another person, judge and blame that person ruthlessly, especially if he/she dared to accept this love. (By "falling in love" I don't mean irresponsible sex and selfish behavior towards current partner.) Often we can hear pathetic claims such as: "he stole what was most important to me", "she ruined my life", victim talk and similar words more appropriate to teenage music than to adult people. In many societies in history (and in some still today) adultery was punished by death, often slow and painful. Imagine the strength and depth of childish fear and feeling of unworthiness, that it makes whole civilizations ready to kill another human being for loving somebody else!
Still, even in more sophisticated societies, individuals can still react to such an experience in a dramatic way. Some people are so afraid of it, they would do anything to prevent it, mostly through possessive behavior: controlling their partners and isolating them from other people, usually people of opposite sex, but sometimes of all the other social contacts. They might be jealous not only of people who might be potential love interests to their partners, but also partners' families, same sex friends, even own children. Some such people want to get rid of jealousy, but don't know how: no rational decision is enough. Others truly believe that their jealousy is normal and justified.
This creates extremely abusive behavior, like forbidding many social activities to a partner, suspicious questioning, arguments, criticism, humiliating the partner in public, blackmail, even physical violence and murder. A healthy intimate partnership is a relationship of two people who are aware that they chose each other because of specific qualities and shared values, and also aware that those qualities can change with time, and that their partner can feel friendly towards other people. Instead, exaggerated jealousy turns the relationship into imprisonment, ownership and abuse.
People who as children had a chance to build self-esteem, a deep sense that they deserve love, will be aware that their worthiness doesn't depend of specific other people's choices. Thus they'll be able to feel good about themselves and other people, even when the person they love gives attention to other people. They won't feel the need to be "special" to that person (which is what a child wants from a parent). They will accept the partner's friendly interest in other people as a normal behavior which is not necessarily threatening. They will be aware that we can like different people in different ways. On the other hand, the less self-esteem one has, the more emptiness, shame and fear of loss, the more they will be inclined to jealousy and possessiveness.
I'm not trying to promote open marriages and irresponsible sex here - even if "free love" might be a rational ideal, we are not only rational creatures. We are shaped by the world we live in and our emotional and biological needs. It's not wise to deny it. Most ideals can be abused and pushed into unhealthy extremes.
I've met people - usually women - whose partners used such logical ideals to talk them into allowing them to sleep with other people. Not only such a person will suppress and deny her own feelings, but she will lose the feeling of stability and confidence in her partner, which kills intimacy. This becomes a background for future resentment and mistrust. From a biological point of view, a woman needs a stable partner she can lean on while raising children. These urges are still in us and there is no use denying them, although different social and biological aspects can make some individuals have different urges than the majority.
Besides, complex creatures as we are, it's difficult enough to achieve true intimacy with one person; spreading intimate attention to several people is almost impossible without reducing the quality of relationships.
Still, biologically conditioned jealousy is usually far milder than childhood imprints, and leaves space for healthy decisions and healthy self-image. Jealousy is most of the time proportional and directly related to a negative self-image. Yet this is often not conscious. Most people suppress their negative feelings about themselves, maybe they hide them under a mask of arrogance and power. Confident behavior is not the same as self-esteem. A better indication of self-esteem is how much we respect other people as well as ourselves. Negative opinion of ourselves usually won't allow us to truly appreciate others; usually we'll try to avoid our feelings of inferiority by trying to belittle other people, whether within our minds or directly.
If we truly like and appreciate ourselves, if we feel deserving of love, we'll expect it to be natural and easy to find people to love and who will love us back. We won't experience the end of an important relationship as the "end of the world", even if we'll likely need to go through an initial period of sadness and emotional separation. We can also feel more respect, understanding and compassion for our partners and give them the same kind of freedom we want for ourselves.
The most common trigger of jealousy is the birth of a new child in a family. Children who feel the lack of love and attention will find it easiest to blame the other child. For the first child, the birth of the second is usually a shock; not only most of mother's and other people's attention is suddenly transferred to the new child, but the older child is in the same time usually given new responsibilities and expectations which might further increase the feelings of insecurity ("you need to help with the baby..."). The younger child, on the other hand, might perceive the older as the one who is given more respect, trust and privileges, and thus develop a sense of inferiority.
Jealousy appears to be particularly strong amongst children of the same sex. Perhaps this is because children of different sex need different kinds of attention, so they don't feel so threatened by the type of attention given to the sibling. The other reason might be that, in the period of developing sexual roles, which is characterized by feeling attracted to the opposite sex parent, each child bonds to a different parent, so the feeling of competition is not so strong.
Jealousy amogst children is stronger if the age difference is small. Sometimes parents truly favor one child over the other. In the past, this was usually the son over the daughter, which is still common in some cultures, but an increasing number of parents nowadays prefer the daughter over the son. Ideally, of course, parents love both children equally, but as there are no perfect people, exceptions rule.
Every family is different and no common pattern is applicable to everybody. A lot depends of age difference between children, as well as of the ability of parents to give healthy love and warmth. The older a child is and the more love parents can give, the less likely it is that feelings of inadequacy and consequential jealousy will develop.
Some children feel jealous of one of the parents, often the same sex parent. This kind of jealousy is normally not so intense, children are often more ashamed of it and inhibited in expressing it. A child will feel much more confused and guilty about such jealousy, then when it's about a sibling. Children are aware that in some way they are "intruders" in an adult relationship, so they'll usually hide such feelings, even from themselves.
Such feelings usually appear from the age of three to six, when children develops awareness of their own sexuality. The parent of the opposite sex becomes more and more attractive, because through such attraction children explore their own sexual feelings. The same sex parent can be experienced as competition. Then children might fantasize of this parent somehow disappearing, or allowing children to take their place. Children sometimes say things like "When I grow up, I'll marry Dad!" or "Mom, you're my wife!" If the parents react calmly and lovingly, but without encouraging such ideas, the child will be able to go through this phase without creating permanent patterns of inadequacy and jealousy.
If a family is chaotic and unhealthy, a child might develop an unhealthy bond to a parent. Such children might obsessively search for love and attention, and might hope that they'd be able to "save" a parent and make him happy. If one of the parents is perceived like a victim, children might hope to prove that they can make them happier than the other parent. If the parent encourages it through the pattern of emotional incest, jealousy might become a long-term and truly toxic issue. As adults, such child might feel strongly attracted to "love triangles" and situations of competing with others for the love of their partners. They might want to get rid of jealousy... but as long as those subconscious images of parents are still in them, the jealousy will persist.
If you want to overcome jealousy, the key is in developing sense of worthiness and a feeling that you deserve love. Of course, that will create positive consequences in many other areas of life. We offer help with consequences of family entanglements and unconscious patterns.
"Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate." - C.G. Jung
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