[Clinical Notes] On jealousy and ‘defending one’s territory’

Dr Margarita Holmes takes a closer look at the issues raised by one Two Pronged reader struggling with feelings of inadequacy in her relationship

 In this edition of Clinical Notes, clinical psychologist Margarita Holmes delves deeper into the issues raised by a Two-Pronged reader who is struggling with a difficult relationship and feelings of inadequacy. 



This particular Clinical Notes (CN) column was inspired by our July 20 column “To Stay or To Leave.”

That is because the above column brought out two “prejudices” that many of us have: first, about bar girls; second, about jealousy.

A common belief about Filipina bar girls (FBG) is that they are not very bright and thus selling their bodies is all they can do.

Not true. [There, that’s one prejudice we’ve slain in one sentence. ☺]

Jealousy has been given such a bad rep it’s a wonder anyone is strong and confident enough to admit to it. 

One of the reasons for its bad reputation is that so many men use “love” as an excuse for their jealousy and jealousy as their excuse for their violent behavior. 

“I love you so much that I go crazy when you talk to another man!”  or “I’m sorry I hit you, love. I just get so jealous sometimes.” 

Thus, it is almost standard procedure to have a module on how jealousy is not love in any seminar on violence against women.

But oftentimes jealousy can be a manifestation of love. In fact, I would go so far as to say if love doesn’t include (a certain kind of) jealousy, then it definitely isn’t erotic love. 

I told Sarah “you have (1) the nous which one either has or doesn’t, (2) can acquire the know-how, provided you have the time, perseverance, and alas, a wee bit of money, and finally (3) the tiis (the ability to sacrifice) to work for what you want…(including becoming a) fine teacher or, indeed, a good psychotherapist given the training. Hindi ito suntok sa buwan. Hindi kita binobola. (I’m not merely flattering you. I’m not dangling a carrot you could never reach.)

I said the above because she was jealous when John was “touching girls’ boobs, pussies, kissing the girls in front of me once he gets drunk.” And explains her jealousy with: “But I can’t help it… (I’m just Filipina who is in love with him and I don’t want any girls to touch him even an inch!)”  

She even described herself as“paranoid at first.” In my clinical experience, unfaithful men, if they think they can get away with it, accuse their partners of being “paranoid” once they start to twig that their men are not as faithful as they pretend to be (not that I’m suggesting John is unfaithful).

Generally, once jealousy rears its (ugly albeit occasionally realistic) head, people behave in ways that can generally be classified as mate guarding or mate retention.

In their 2006 article “Sociosexuality and Mate Retention in Romantic Couples” published in the journal Psychological Topics 15 (2006), 2, 277-296  Drs Kardum, Hudek-Knežević & Asmir Gračanin stated that women are more likely to engage in mate retention when their partners are of high social status or have high incomes, which is probably the case of John and Sarah.

So we have Sarah writing, “I got used to it and accepted it because I truly loved him. [Besides,] I can’t stop it or else we will have a huge fight.”

However, Sarah’s instinctive understanding of the human condition is more clearly shown when she is upset because John is “cool with me if I go back to a bar to work (which I truthfully hate). I don’t get it, why would he be okay with it in the first place?! I think he’s insane.”

In all probability, Sarah is incensed at his seeming lack of jealousy because he is not “mate guarding” her enough.

Mate guarding is a term that refers to an organism’s tendency to defend its territory, including its sexual partner. 

Mate guarding happens with many organisms.  An example is the bank swallow bird that spies on its mate as often as 100 times a day. (Buunk, A. P., & Solano, A. C. (2012). Mate guarding and parental influence on mate choice. Personal Relationships, 19(1), 103-112. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.01342.x)

I am fairly sure Sarah does not expect and definitely doesn’t want John to spy on her 100 times every time she works in a bar – but neither does she want him to be perfectly relaxed about her meeting men in a situation where the more they want (or actually do) sleep with her, the better she is at her job.

In this sense, mate-guarding could be said to reassure a woman that a man is serious about her. A man who does not mate guard his girlfriend even if she works as a bar girl might be considered a man who doesn’t really love her.

Dr Springer, whose area of research includes marital and relationship issues, says: “Part of the emotion of jealousy originates from a fear of losing something that is of value to us…milder experiences of jealousy reflect a sign that you care about your relationship, and that your feelings for your partner are alive (albeit painfully)…We are probably wired by nature to struggle with jealousy at least some of the time.” 

Evolutionary psychologists would say that jealousy exists because it is a good mate retention strategy (it helps us keep our partners because we become more attuned to potential threats to our relationship). 

A partner’s jealousy can be seen as a sign of love or affirmation of commitment.

The poet Maya Angelou once said: “Jealousy in romance is like salt in food. A little can enhance the savor, but too much can spoil the pleasure and, under certain circumstances, can be life-threatening.”

Ms Angelou is right:  jealousy can be likesalt in food but like salt, we must initiate/use it and/or respond to it just a little bit, because too much can kill or cause you to kill,…especially if it festers and builds up plaque in a relationship.

However, even if Ms Angelou’s quote (used allegorically, of course) is correct, it still does not encompass everything that jealousy means to us.

Acclaimed author and psychology professor Dr. David Buss, goes further and defines jealousy as “an adaptive signal of an impending threat to a primary love relationship” concluding with the fine observation that “knowledge…of our dangerous passions…will, in some small measure, give us the emotional wisdom to deal with them.”

In his book The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy Is as Necessary as Love and Sex (2000), D Buss says that both men and women are actually designed for jealousy. It is an adaptive mechanism to protect the individual against a straying partner, either through heightened awareness, threats or actual punishment. 

In other words, Sarah instinctively knew what many evolutionary psychologists try to teach us: jealousy not only can be good, it is also necessary.  A healthy balance of jealousy, trust, devotion, healthy game playing and commitment is what leads to and sustains true love. 

Allow me to end Clinical Notes on a happy note, by sharing Dr. Buss’s joke from p. 185 of his book: 

“At a therapist’s gathering with a straying husband, his wife and the other woman, the wife informs the affairee that she is still sleeping with her husband, and that he has lied to both of them. The affairee felt betrayed and stalked out, saying…that all men betray their wives, but only a real asshole would betray his girlfriend.” Buss adds, ‘Therapy was unsuccessful in this case.’” – Rappler.com

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