In defence of jealousy, the green-eyed monster

Classics professor Peter Toohey's new book sheds light on the constructive forces of a misunderstood emotion.

By  Heath McCoy
January 2015

Few human emotions get as bad a rap as jealousy. Ever viewed as a character flaw, a sign of pettiness and weakness, in the extreme it can be damaging, often the root of bullying or crimes of passion. Shakespeare himself called it the “green-eyed monster.”

University of Calgary classics professor Peter Toohey acknowledges the toxic side of the maligned emotion in his new book, Jealousy, but he also sets out to defend and vindicate it. “As with all emotions, if it’s not controlled, jealousy can be a destructive thing,” explains Toohey. “But it can be very constructive too.”

In the book Toohey examines the eternally overlooked ways in which jealousy has benefited humankind throughout history. “I’ve built up a sort of cultural museum of jealousy,” he says. Drawing on examples ranging from classical myths, Bible stories and literature to psychology, anthropology, politics, the workplace and the institution of marriage, Toohey argues that jealousy has helped shape modern civilization.

He points out that jealousy is often confused with its close relative envy, and to fully understand either emotion a distinction must be made between the two. “Envy is about gain,” Toohey says. “I would like to have that house, that car, I would like to be going out with that girl. Jealousy, on the other hand, is about loss. Somebody is threatening to take my spouse or the job I wanted.”

Three's no party

All cases of jealousy can be boiled down to a simple triangle scenario, says Toohey. “It’s always two people, or two groups of people, and their relationship is embroiled by the involvement of a third. There is a potential for loss and emotions are running high.”

This third party is not necessarily a person, as when a marriage is threatened by an affair. It can be anything desired as well, such as money, esteem, or power. From Cain and Abel clashing over prestige in the eyes of God, to the American Civil War with North and South rattling sabres over control of the country, this triangulation is always at the core in matters of jealousy.

Evolutionary psychologists maintain that jealousy is an emotion rooted in the instinctual drive for genetic replication. This neo-Darwinian model suggests that jealousy functions as a deterrent to threats of infidelity. If our position in a relationship is threatened by a third party, jealousy kicks in and makes us aggressive as a means of driving the competition away.

Toohey doesn’t discount that theory, but he argues that its inherent violence is balanced out by other factors that also spark jealousy. “Jealousy is a potent means for the assertion of individual rights and the demand for equitable treatment,” he says.

“It’s another means of survival, demanding that I get fed too. I get shelter." And as for the individual driven to a jealous rage by the Darwinian desire to replicate his genes? Jealousy paradoxically encourages co-operation in such cases, as the group works together to control the violent genetic replicator, so as to prevent societal chaos.

Jealousy can drive us to be at our best

The positives derived from jealousy abound in Toohey’s comprehensive and compelling study. The misunderstood emotion encourages competition, which can drive us to be at our best, whether in the workplace or the sports arena. The power of jealousy has been expressed time and time again in great works of art and literature.

And, when tempered, it can serve as a reinforcing factor in romantic relationships. “If it turns into nagging or beating, then it’s out of control,” says Toohey. “But if one partner harmlessly uses jealousy as a tool to bring back the attention of another partner who has stopped giving attention, where’s the downside in that? Jealousy can be a wake-up call.”

He adds: “No emotion is bad. They exist within us to give us an evolutionary leg up and warn us against certain circumstances. It’s what we do with our emotions that counts.”

 

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