I'm livid with jealousy

She's attractive, her first novel made a mint, and she's having dinner with my boyfriend.

Published September 13, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My boyfriend of two years has a female friend he has known for more than 10 years. I am fine face to face with her, but when he talks about her, I get livid with jealousy. This is my first real, long-term relationship, and this is the first time I have ever felt this kind of animosity toward another woman.

I know a lot of this has to do with my own insecurities: She is attractive (in a WASPy kind of way) and has recently made an obscene amount of money off her first novel; I've never been happy with my looks and am an unpublished writer. But I can't help feeling uncomfortable knowing that my boyfriend goes out to dinner alone with her and talks to her about the problems in our relationship.

By my boyfriend's own admission, this woman always has to be the center of attention and is very demanding. She has gotten my boyfriend to accompany her to events because she couldn't find a date. I might add that this woman has just gotten back together with her ex-husband, whom she divorced because he went crazy and started chasing after models. Her ex-husband is jealous of all her male friendships -- particularly with my boyfriend. I understand that she might be insecure herself and feels better surrounding herself with male friends, but her method for dealing with her insecurity just seems to be fueling my insecurity.

What can I do to stop being so jealous?

Beset by the Green-Eyed Monster

Dear Beset,

That green-eyed monster you speak of comes from Act III, Scene iii of "Othello," in which the treacherous Iago tells his lord:

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on; ...

Iago suggests to Othello that it's not any particular act of infidelity that drives us to insane jealousy, but the conflict between our love and our suspicion, our passion and our doubt:

... that cuckold lives in bliss
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger;
But, O, what damned minutes tells he o'er
Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!

You might better see "Othello," but here is what I think, in plain, practical terms. (Shakespeare and I at least agree on this: It's a good idea to be sure of the facts before acting on your suspicions!)

I think jealousy is usually a combination of envy and fear. Envy seems to arise out of repressed or scorned desire; we want what someone has but refuse to admit that we want it, which leads to the festering, impotent want that is envy. The fear part of jealousy arises because the person we envy also threatens us in some way. We believe the person has some kind of power to harm us. It may be financial power or attractive power or intellectual power; it may be talent, or just sheer luck. It may be the power to take something or someone away from us, or to make us feel small or defeat us in some way, to edge us out of line or shine more brightly than we shine. In any case, we secretly want what this person has but also fear this person.

Though he was tragically mistaken, Othello thought that Cassio had something he wanted -- Desdemona's love. Believing Cassio had the power to take Desdemona from him, Othello also feared Cassio.

If jealousy can be broken down into its components, and those components in turn can be broken down, if we can finally be honest and specific about what we want and what we fear, often jealousy will vanish. However, breaking it into its components is not easy, because often we don't want to admit what we want or what we fear. We mistakenly believe that what we want determines who we are, so we go around trying to want only what we think a person like us should want; we believe that if we want to go on television and get big royalty checks we must be shallow poseurs, so we pretend we don't want to go on television and get big royalty checks. Thus we envy people who go on television and get big royalty checks. They're getting what we want even though we shouldn't want it! And it doesn't even seem to degrade them as it should! Likewise, we hide our fears, because they represent weakness. It is OK to hide our fears from others, but we must come to know them ourselves, lest they operate on us without our knowledge, driving us to tragic mistakes.

Who ever, when beset by the annoying success of another, stops to ask, Was that a good television appearance in its own right? Did we enjoy that television appearance? Or did it bore us to tears? Who ever stops to ask: Was that a good book that made all those obscene royalties? Did I enjoy reading that book? Or did it bore me to tears? You have to ask these things. You have to get at your own truth.

So tell me honestly: Do you like this woman's work, this novel you say was so successful? What do you like about her work? Is it funny? Does it portray aspects of life in a way that you find surprising and delightful? Does it reveal things you had sensed but had never been able to formulate in words? If you like her work, admit it. It is a good thing for the world to contain things we admire.

Perhaps, on the other hand, you think her work is crap. If so, consider how and in what ways her work is crap. Is it dishonest? Is it inaccurate? Does it fail to speak of things that matter? Do not concern yourself with the success of such a work; merely come to a conclusion about your own feelings.

Perform the same operation on the other things she has -- the money, the WASPish attractiveness, the ability to capture a room. Be honest and specific in each case. Once you have done so, you will have, rather than a big ball of envy and spite, a set of specific and concrete attitudes toward various aspects of her person -- her success, her looks, her accomplishments, her talent. If you can concentrate on those things and see them independently, I think the crushing ball of envy and spite may break into pieces.

Now, having dealt with the envy portion of your jealousy, let us turn to fear. What are your fears? Do you fear that she will run off with your boyfriend? Do you fear that because this woman has achieved fame and you haven't, you can't and never will? What other fears arise when you think of her? List them. Then consider how you might allay those fears. Some, like your fear that her success means you can't have success, are simply illogical on their face. Others, like the fear that she may take your boyfriend away, may have some grounding in truth. Consider the fear that she may take your boyfriend away. Why focus on her? Can you influence her in any way? I think not. She probably values her friendship with your boyfriend and sees nothing wrong with it.

It is your boyfriend who has the power to allay these fears. And this is where you need to ask some hard questions of your boyfriend. Are they having an affair? If not, perhaps your boyfriend needs to change some of his behavior. What actions on your boyfriend's part bother you? Is it that he talks too much about her, or with too much awe? Is it that he changes a little bit when she's around? Do you feel that he inches away from you when she's in his presence, leaving you feeling a little cold or abandoned? Does he say things in her presence that you know he doesn't really believe? Or does he simply ignore you -- do they all ignore you, all these shining insecure people? Do you see something small in your boyfriend when he talks about her, something a little too awed, too cowed? Those are the things to look for. Let him know that he does these things, that you notice them, and that they hurt you.

Identify these things and then talk to him about them. Make some requests. Perhaps you could ask him not to talk about her so much. Would that be so terrible? Perhaps if he spoke of her with a little more skepticism and a little less admiration, no? Perhaps if he rolled his eyes a little when he told how she goes on and on about her success and her ambition and her newly reacquired husband. Perhaps if he had just a bit of ironic distance on her lovely WASPish loveliness. Perhaps he could have a little more respect for your feelings.

This brings us to the second part of today's rant. I think that today we talk too much about fixing ourselves and too little about how we ought to behave toward each other. We assume that whenever we are vexed by someone's behavior, it's our problem. We climb over each other to get what we want, and we chastise ourselves for complaining about the footprints on our backs. I think there is something perverse about this reluctance to complain about how we are being treated. I believe we have lost our sense of communal purpose. We do not behave as a family of humans.

We're all insecure. Is that a problem? Are we supposed to be like fortresses, secure against all doubt? Are we all really so self-contained that if we only worked at it we could become impervious to the boorish and insensitive behavior of those around us? Is it all up to us? Isn't there some social obligation on the part of others to tone it down a little, to mute the brilliant acquisitive hunger, to play down the loveliness quotient in public, to look around and see that maybe not everybody needs to feel the impressive wattage, to behold with amazement the ruffles and the rouge, to gasp with astonishment at the dollar amount of the advance and the Amazon sales ranking?

Isn't it OK to be a little sensitive to these brassy trumpet blasts of overachievement? Isn't it our job as a society of equals to try to put people at their ease rather than throwing our brilliant successes in their faces? Couldn't we spend a little time trying to build the other guy up some? If she or your boyfriend knows you at all, might they not realize on their own that you could use a little targeted sensitivity in the area of world conquering, that the maybe-I'm-a-female-F.Scott Fitzgerald routine could be soft-pedaled 10 decibels for just one evening? Just to dial back the impressiveness a little? Wouldn't that get the rest of us some temporary relief from chronic consciousness of underachievement? Why must it always be the quiet and polite ones who have to suffer the blowhards? Why can't the blowhards suffer a little of our quiet underachievement for once?

Well, anyway, that's the rant portion of today's eulogy for civilization. So work on yourself a little, figure out what your true feelings are, but then don't put all the onus on yourself: Your boyfriend is being a little insensitive if he doesn't notice how you feel, and you could use a little more attention from him.

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