I’d like to believe that at this point in my life, I’m above certain jealous ways of thinking and behavior. But when I consider the question honestly, I think it only seems that way because the boyfriend I have now loves me so indulgently. I am what people would probably refer to as a “jealous” person — though I don’t think that term should necessarily be pejorative. What is jealousy but love coupled with perception, and in the context of potentially unfaithful circumstances?
Recently I was reading The Extended Phenotype by Richard Dawkins, and considering the number of times I’ve ruminated on how useless an emotion jealousy is. Disgusting — I think. Ugly. What a waste of brain! I’m not hugely into evolutionary biology applied to sociological contexts, in the sense that often I’m annoyed with the oversimplified, clickbaitey articles that come across my news feed trying to use it to tell me why I am successful or not in my relationships (all to sell me some eHarmony ads). But I considered jealousy for a moment as an evolutionary adaptation.
…[A] biologist might wish to speculate on the Darwinian ‘function’ of behaviour patterns. This is not to say that all behaviour patterns necessarily have a Darwinian function. It may be that there is a large class of behaviour patterns which are selectively neutral or deleterious to their performers, and cannot be usefully regarded as the products of natural selection… But it is legitimate to say ‘I am interested in adaptation. I don’t necessarily think all behaviour patterns are adaptations, but I want to study those behavior patterns that are adaptations.'”
…Would there be any circumstance under which jealousy wouldn’t be deleterious? If your partner is casting a wider net, so to speak, it would almost make more sense to forgo jealousy entirely and be extremely positive and charming, so as to remind your partner why he/she chose you in the first place. Jealousy is entirely impotent at compelling love where none exists, or more love where it does (I feel like that’s obvious). What is the only way that jealousy, bringing to the table its inherent insecurity-coupled-with-accusation, wouldn’t cause your partner to run screaming in the other direction?
If that partner friggin’ loves you.
Love factors in — that weird, gooey matrix with the capacity to absorb finite amounts of negativity. If there has been established sufficient love and proportional empathy, there are different rules for jealousy. Rather than it being someone else’s gross, unflattering emotion cramping your style, it becomes actually a source of pain or discomfort to you personally, and thus it exerts its influence. Without love and empathy, jealousy can exert only a temporary influence, and only to the extent of that individual’s conscientious “niceness” — and this of course is not sustainable. Thus, jealousy is a tool exclusively for those who possess the love privilege.
So in order for any genes that exert phenotypic differences at the level of causing “jealous” behaviors to be adaptive, there has to be already in place a series of “loving,” “loyal,” and “empathetic” behaviors. If jealous behaviors are neutral, then they also must be rendered so by empathetic/loving behaviors (or else they would be deleterious). And lastly, if jealous behaviors are still deleterious despite the presence of empathetic behaviors, why are they still around?
I can foresee jealousy actually being adaptive in a couple of ways. Obviously it could prevent your partner from developing an attachment to someone else (in a limited sense of making them more self aware, even guilty, about their behavior). If jealousy exists for only a perceived reason and not an actual deviation from the relationship, it can be used to reaffirm loyalty. And finally, in its ugly, disgusting sense — it can repel away a potential partner who is insufficiently attached, freeing you up to make an attachment with a partner who could better care for you and your progeny. Go jealousy!
If you are a “jealous” person, perhaps you have a history of operating within the confines of the love privilege. What I find heartbreaking is situations that I’ve observed where the love privilege, as it concerns jealousy, is banned from the relationship by one partner to establish control. Jealousy, well-founded or not, is somehow not allowed, and expressing jealous feelings is shamed as an inherently “negative” behavior. Through gas-lighting or other forms of behavioral conditioning, a partner then slowly becomes immune to jealousy, and therefore has zero power to exert their own interests within the relationship w/ respect to faithfulness. They are entirely subjugated… Or, as the case may be, entirely apathetic. Partners who regularly express and respond to feelings of jealousy are exchanging the power to affect one another — I guess this is what I mean by the love privilege — and where no power exchange exists, I feel a relationship is fundamentally broken.
I’m sure someone in a really well-educated relationship would respond with some idealistic comments about how true love could never be so possessive. But this is why the word “privilege” works so well (as opposed to “right”): something earned, something revoked under shitty behavior… Not an entitlement.
The case for jealousy being maladapative is less obvious. Dawkins reminds us in The Extended Phenotype to not always expect organisms to act in a way that benefits their own inclusive fitness. Since organisms don’t interact with their environment alone, but with other organisms — perhaps some behavior they have could be working in the interest of another organism. (For example — is the compulsion to take heroin a behavior brought about by human genes, or poppy genes?) Jealousy could be a more complicated case of intraspecies manipulation. You feel jealous; it’s horrible, it’s uncomfortable… But’s in the interest of your partner’s genes for you to be in some manic-depressive state, so you may be available one day to reproduce (should their fall back, who is making you jealous, somehow prove unavailable).
Whether jealousy is a complicated reward for love privilege brought about by fitness, or an eccentric product of intraspecies manipulation because of lack fitness/fitness inequality… I have no idea (I sprained my foot while thinking about this the other day, so distracted that I failed at walking and then rolled my ankle walking off a curb near the library — so no, can’t brain). Maybe there are two kinds — rational and irrational; rational being the product of your lack of fitness and therefore your alertness to unfaithful behaviors, irrational being the result of your fitness and therefore the indulgence of your mate. Ugh! See, this never ends.
What a waste of brain.