Envy, jealousy, and shame are inextricably intertwined. Envy and jealousy are primal emotions that frequently overlap. They’re commonly first felt in the form of sibling rivalry and Oedipal longings. A child innately wants mommy and daddy all to him — or herself and feels “excluded” from the marital bond, especially if there have been parenting deficits that have led to shame and emotional abandonment.
Typically, young children of heterosexual parents see their same-sex parent as a rival for their opposite parent’s love. They feel both envious and jealous of their same-sex parent. Similarly, an interloper in a marriage may feel both jealous and envious toward the spouse he or she wishes to replace, possibly re-enacting childhood feelings toward his or her parents.
Children are frequently envious and jealous of the attention showered on a newborn sibling. Belief that a sibling is favored can create lifelong feelings of shame and inadequacy.
Envy is a feeling of discontent or covetousness with regard to someone ‘s advantages, possessions, or traits such as beauty, success, or talent. It’s also a common defense to shame, when we feel less than another in some respect. When the defense is working, we’re not aware of feeling inadequate. We may even feel superior and disparage the person we envy. A malignant narcissist might go so far as to sabotage, misappropriate, or defame the envied person, all the while unconscious of feeling inferior. Arrogance and aggression serve as defenses along with envy. Generally, the degree of our devaluation or aggression is commensurate with the extent of underlying shame.
Bill was chronically resentful and envious of his brother’s financial success, but because of unconscious shame, he spent or gave away his money. He was on the road to homelessness to fulfill his father’s shaming curse that he was a failure and would end up on the street.
I may envy my friend Barbara’s new Mercedes, knowing I can’t afford it, and feel inferior to her. I might have the funds, but feel conflicted about buying it, because I feel undeserving of owning it. Or, I might emulate Barbara and take steps to acquire a Mercedes. However, if envy motivated me to copy her, and I ignored my values or true desires, I won’t derive any pleasure from my efforts. In contrast, I can think about my needs, desires, and how to fulfill them. I may be happy for Barbara, or my envy may be fleeting. I might realize that I have competing values or desires and that what suits her isn’t right for me. These are all healthy responses.
Jealousy also stems from feelings of inadequacy, though they are usually more conscious than with envy. However, whereas envy is the desire to possess what someone else has, jealousy is the fear of losing what we have. We feel vulnerable to losing the attention or feelings of someone close to us. It is defined as mental uneasiness due to suspicion or fear of rivalry or unfaithfulness and may include envy when our rival has aspects that we desire. By discouraging infidelity, jealousy historically has served to maintain the species, certainty of paternity, and the integrity of the family. But it can be a destructive force in relationships — even lethal. Jealousy is the leading cause of spousal homicides.
Margot’s deep-seated belief that she was inadequate and undeserving of love motivated her to seek male attention and at times intentionally act in ways to make her boyfriend jealous and more eager. Her insecurity also made her jealous. She imagined that he desired other women more than her, when that wasn’t the case. Her beliefs reflect toxic or internalized shame common among codependents. It’s caused by the emotional abandonment in childhood and leads to problems in intimate relationships. (See What is Emotional Abandonment.) Studies show that insecure individuals are more prone to jealousy.
Jill had healthy self-esteem. When her boyfriend lunches with his female friend and work colleagues, she isn’t jealous because she’s secure in their relationship and her own lovability. If he had an affair, she would have feelings about his betrayal of trust, but not necessarily jealously, because she doesn’t hold the belief that his behavior reflects a deficiency in her.
Whether we’re in the position of have or have-not, essentially, both envy and jealousy involve comparisons that reflect a feeling of insufficiency — “I’m inferior to X who has what I want,” or “I’m inferior to X who may diminish (or is diminishing) my importance to someone.” Feeling “not enough” is the common thread. Comparisons are a red flag for underlying shame. The greater is the intensity or chronicity of these feelings, the greater shame.
Thus, codependents take rejection hard, because of low self-esteem, toxic shame, and history of emotional abandonment. (See my post about breakups.) Typically, shame leads to attacking oneself or another. While some people blame themselves when rejected, others think, “He or she wasn’t really worthy of my love anyway.”
We may also behave in ways that drive our partner to leave, because it validates a belief that we’re unworthy of love. It may be a variation of “I’ll give you a reason to leave” or, “I’ll leave before I’m left.” Either way, it’s a defensive move to prevent getting too attached. It gives us a sense of control over the anticipated inevitable abandonment that would hurt even more. (See breaking the cycle of abandonment.)
Safety in Numbers
Envy and jealousy should be examined in the broader context of a relationship among the three actors — even if one is imaginary, such as in Margot’s case. Each person plays a role that serves a function. It’s more stable and less emotionally intense than a dyad.
A third person in a close relationship can mediate unresolved intimacy issues by siphoning off some of the couple’s intensity and help maintain the primary relationship. To do this, parents often “triangulate” a child into the role of identified problem child or surrogate spouse, which mediates problems in the marriage. The latter case foments Oedipal desires in the child that can cause dysfunction in later adult relationships.
A paramour can provide an ambivalent spouse a sense of independence that allows him or her to stay in the marital relationship. The spouse may feel torn between two loves, but at least he doesn’t feel trapped or that he or she is losing him or herself in the marriage. Intimacy lacking in the marriage can be made up for in the affair, but the marital problems don’t get addressed.
Once an affair is exposed, the homeostasis in the marriage is disrupted. Remorse doesn’t necessarily solve the underlying intimacy and autonomy problems. Sometimes, when jealousy subsides, new conflicts arise to recreate distance between the partners. When individual autonomy and intimacy are established within the couple, the relationship is stronger, and interest in the third person generally evaporates. If infidelity leads to divorce, frequently the removal of the rival spouse, who mediated the affair, gives rise to new conflicts in the once-illicit relationship that result in its eventual demise.
The unfaithful spouse’s continued contact with his or her ex may simultaneously dilute yet allow the relationship with the new partner to survive. The drama of it all also adds an element of excitement, that while stressful, alleviates depression typical of codependency.
Do’s and Don’ts
The best insurance against jealousy and envy are to increase your self-esteem. For jealousy, improve the intimacy in your relationship. If you’re suspicious of your mate, journal about any times in prior relationships (including same-sex and family relationships) when you were betrayed or rejected. If you’re still concerned, tell your partner the behavior that bothers you with an open mind in a non-accusatory manner. Share your feelings of insecurity, rather than judging him or her. Respect your partner’s privacy and freedom. Don’t try to control or cross-examine your partner, or sneak into his or her email or phone, which creates new problems and can make your partner distrust you.
This post was inspired by an insightful article:
Stenner, P. (2013). Foundation by Exclusion: Jealousy and Envy. In Bernhard Malkmus and Ian Cooper (Eds.), Dialectic and Paradox: configurations of the third in modernity. Oxford: Lang 53-79.
See also Buss, D.M. (2000). The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy Is as Necessary as Love and Sex. Free Press.
©Darlene Lancer 2015
Angry son photo available from Shutterstock