A number of years ago, I was in a relationship with a man who maintained ties with a glamorous ex-girlfriend who lived on the West Coast, more than 2,000 miles away from the two Midwestern cities where he and I lived. This was frustrating, but I suspected the only reason she stayed in touch with Dan was because she didn’t want him to be with someone new.
So, I tried to ignore my misgivings.
Something else was undermining my impulse to break it off with him: I didn’t think I should have felt jealous. Shouldn’t I have had enough confidence to be the proverbial winner—the smartest, cutest, funniest woman of any Dan knew? All things considered, I was pretty lucky. I had a fulfilling teaching job, good health, loving parents. I also had a circle of generous friends. Why was I letting this ex from Dan’s past get so deeply under my skin? It was mortifying that I couldn’t let it go.
I remember one cold March afternoon when I spent more than an hour disconsolately questioning Dan about why he continued to talk regularly with his gorgeous ex-girlfriend, despite his repeated insistence that he was with me now and that we had a better relationship than the one he’d had with her. Apparently, I was more emotionally stable than she was, though sometimes I didn’t see how this could be possible because there I was, riven by envy.
Not surprisingly, Dan and I eventually broke up, and the ex, just as I had thought would happen, soon lost interest in staying in touch with him. My instincts were correct, but what was the deal with all that agonized hand-wringing?
As a woman who came of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I grew up watching television shows like Fantasy Island and The Love Boat and studying Cosmopolitan and Glamour, all of which made it clear that the benchmarks used to measure a woman’s worth had less to do with her brains than with her breast size and bone structure. To make things even more confusing, my friends and I were also taught to view one another as rivals—only one of us could be valedictorian or prom queen each year, and very few of us were going to get into Harvard or some other extremely competitive college.
I don’t think much has changed in the last few decades, and if anything, with the omnipresence of social media and the personalities we’ve constructed online, we’ve probably become even more competitive with each other. If it’s not the nine dozen photos posted by your friend from her latest extravagant trip to the French Riviera while you’re stuck at work in frozen Minneapolis, it’s the announcement about the latest slew of soccer ribbons and trophies festooned on your neighbor’s adorable children. Sometimes I can feel my stomach clenching with envy as I stare at these posts, even if I know they represent only part of the story on any given day.
There are very few people—two or three girlfriends—with whom I feel comfortable talking about this subject. They are confidantes who have opened up to me about their own struggles with jealousy. One reason for my reticence is that reactions to my admissions, even from people who love me and know me well, are often mixed, ranging from sympathy to exhortations amounting to “Get over it! No one’s forcing you to feel that way!” Or, “You just need to learn to be more confident.”
Shame and a sense of failure are jealousy’s most frequent bedfellows. Is it any wonder we try to keep these feelings out of view?
In an attempt to understand more clearly what’s at the root of jealousy, I exchanged emails recently with Nikki Lively, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in women’s mental health at the Family Institute at Northwestern University. “In our culture, jealousy is viewed as a character flaw,” she wrote. “We judge jealousy as a bad thing versus understanding it as a transient, universal emotional experience. In fact, jealousy is an emotional signal: It’s information that we could use to better understand what we’re afraid of and where our insecurities lie.”
What are my insecurities? When I see the female ultramarathon runners at the races Adam, my partner, periodically participates in, I worry that he wishes I were as athletic and fit as these women are. Strangers or not, they share something with him that I don’t. I wonder whether he would rather be with a woman who can run these races with him because they are so important to him. One moment later, I find myself thinking that I should take up distance running too.
Thinking that I too could be an ultramarathoner is one internal compass point shy of ridiculousness—after 4 or 5 miles, I desperately want to stop moving my body.
Why do I get so insecure? To some extent, I equate an absence of jealousy with invisibility. I felt jealous of the female distance runners and the ex-girlfriend on the West Coast because, as irrational as it sounds, it’s as if my partner’s acknowledgment of them somehow diminishes or negates my own value.
Not feeling jealous means, on one level, that you’ve accepted the condition of not being seen. To put it another way, other women are giving off more light and drawing toward themselves more of the available energy and interest in the places that you and they are concurrently inhabiting. Maybe they don’t mean to draw attention to themselves. Even so, the fact is they’re receiving it. And you’re not.
Maybe what I’m afraid of—and I don’t think it’s such an insane feeling—is the fear of being unnoticed, unseen.
Now comes the worst part. Foolish as this might sound, it remains true: Over the years, I haven’t doubted my ability to think and perform academically and professionally as much as I’ve worried about my ability to sustain male interest. When I’m jealous, it’s usually because I feel physically inferior to another woman. It’s a deeply unpleasant sensation, and although I’m aware it will pass, it never passes fast enough. Knowing that most everyone, on occasion, suffers like this helps me put these feelings into perspective, but the rational mind can rarely pre-empt an instinctive response.
A second therapist I queried, Kirsten Elling, PhD, an associate director at the University of Michigan’s Center for the Education of Women, wrote that jealousy can be a tool “to help people identify what it is they really want out of life and what might be missing, turning jealous thoughts into a plan of action for how one might live life differently or with better-articulated goals.”
This works with my fitness envy. In recent months, ugly old jealousy spurred me to include running in some of my workouts. I might never run a 50-mile race, but to my surprise, I’m enjoying running more than I previously did, and it’s helped me to better understand Adam’s devotion to this sport. It’s making us closer instead of farther apart.
On the other hand, coveting the youth or beauty of random strangers isn’t something I can use to improve myself. My face is my face; my age, my age. My one saving grace is that I’ve never been skilled at pretending that I don’t feel jealous when I do. The feeling comes out. It feels horrible and embarrassing. And then, the feeling oozes away. Allegedly, there are women out there who don’t suffer from jealousy, but I don’t know how they’ve managed to achieve this state of grace. I’m not jealous of them; I respect them. And only by coming clean about my struggles will I become one of them.