Jealousy—what a slippery emotion in the realm of relationships.
It’s the one that sneaks in before I notice, creating an unexplained spark of fire, or twist of contraction in my belly or in larger expressions—a chaotic flurry of emotional confusion. It can feel primal, instinctual, protective, or just tender. And I’m super curious to untangle the web, to explore the shadow of this “normal” human emotion, which probably shows up a little differently in women and men based on our ancestral biology.
Evolutionary psychology tells us that jealousy emerged as a hypersensitive defense mechanism against the genetically “disastrous” possibility of having one’s partner stray from monogamy. This is still relevant in some ways. Women, especially those with children, often have that instinct of protecting against being abandoned. Men perhaps still have that instinct to be the alpha or feel assured in the superiority of his genes. This biology is less relevant for modern women who are more self-sufficient in being able to provide for themselves, and perhaps also less relevant for the man who is less pressured to assert the continuity of his lineage. Yet it still lives in us.
So beyond biology, is jealousy then more associated with insecure attachments or anxious personalities? Is it just a self-esteem thing? A normalised neuroticism? Or does jealousy point to an inevitable sense of self-centredness and a pattern of the ego’s clinging?
One way I make sense of the world is by looking to the yogic perspective on human psychology. Yoga and Tantric Buddhism speak of the kleshas. These are mental states that cloud the mind (disturb the mind) and manifest in unwholesome reactions/actions. Kleshas relate to states of mind such as anxiety, fear, anger, jealousy, and desire (coming from tendencies toward attachment and clinging). They render our body-mind restless, they create suffering, and they disturb our hearts and minds. The more we are grasping, the more it generates negative emotions. Sound familiar?
So how can yoga help us manage and deal with these “disturbances?” Yoga is a process of remembering the pure essential nature of the mind, and the teachings explain how we can work to master our emotions so we are not tossed around in the ocean of samsara (the cycle of existence).
Some of the points in this practice involve:
1. Creating the space to see these disturbances and create some distance to not be hooked—we recognise the impulse.
2. It is not rejecting the emotion, rather we allow ourselves to feel it, and then utilise tools to dissipate and transmute that energy.
3. We try to develop a cooling quality of calm in order to control the tendency to recycle the emotion.
In the case of a more common emotion, like anger, we see how we could apply this approach. As we are triggered, we recognise that we are feeling an inner heat, a building of energy. We catch the impulse to lash out, we breathe deeply, and we take some time out.
In Buddhism, an additional step—the antidote to the emotion of jealousy—involves cultivating a sympathetic joy for others (delight in their happiness, offer loving-kindness).
But if jealousy arises within intimate partnership, could we apply these steps?
This is certainly more tricky. I might notice the impulse, the heat, or the contraction. I might be able to witness it from a place of emotional distance, but could I really find a sympathetic joy if my partner finds a sensuous or emotional joy or connection with another person? The word compersion has evolved to refer to “the feeling of taking joy in the joy that others you love share among themselves,” thus it is quite opposite to jealousy.
Could I really let go of my self-centredness and break through the ultimately false duality between self and other? For most of us, the immediate reaction to our partner finding “joy” (attraction, arousal) with another is often a contracting fear, anger (even rage), and not one of expansive openness and love. But here is the place I find myself leaning in to explore.
The practice is then to not let myself be enveloped in the fear of being abandoned, the sense of not being enough, and the trap of comparison. I emphasise, it’s a practice.
In the last year, I have had the opportunity to witness my partner naturally opening himself to another in deep love and resonance. In the beginning, all my defensive instincts arose, all the “normal” tendencies of jealousy kicked in, and the fear of abandonment was high. But I was invited to participate in this experiment of authentic love and connection. And it has been an incredible process of growth and self-inquiry.
In this, I ask whether it is possible to free embodied love from possessiveness, fears of abandonment, unworthiness, and engulfment, and open to new possibilities for the expression of love.
Our culture still holds monogamy as the norm, as the most stable and workable form of relationship. Other options are seen as less desirable, even problematic.
I’d agree that more than two involves a more dynamic navigation. Yet, in this new era of relationship, many people are exploring ways to bring in a sense of safe, loving relationship that requires a commitment to clear communication, to exploring the layers of emotions that arise, and to essentially move beyond the suffering. This is a practice that acknowledges the importance of staying open to the dynamic unfolding of life that eludes any fixed or predetermined ideology.
It is not comfortable—in fact, it requires a deep willingness to stretch beyond our conditioning and our ordinary perspectives on what love is. It requires that we don’t use spiritual bypassing to avoid dealing with emotions that arise, it requires vulnerability and mutual support, and it requires a commitment to being responsible for looking within.