Love & Sex

On Jealousy

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS
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I'm not the jealous type. I'm an authentic fatalist, the rare woman who accepts that sex happens, under a variety of predictable and unpredictable circumstances, in defiance of existing attachments, loyalties, vows or other claims to virtue. After all, we who are sexually alive gravitate toward others who are in the game. What's to be gained by succumbing to, or worse, acting on sexual jealousy? Evolved, confident women like me can only hope the uniqueness of our connection to our partners dulls their appetite for others.

Right?

Who is that green-hued wretch in the mirror? I don't recognize her. She is a tired cliché. She is not my friend. Widowed almost two years ago at fifty-two, I'm not looking for men who've been frozen in pods since puberty or recently defected from the priesthood.

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I want to commune with available, presumably sexually active men who are likely to have lingering entanglements, men who, as one online profile put it, are "young enough to still want to do it and old enough to know how to do it right." But I'm discovering I am not as cool a customer as I think I am. It takes a tough hide indeed to venture online. Check out the competi — I mean our sister-women's — online personals on this website. When I did so I was reminded of how as children, my brother and I used to amuse ourselves by blacking out teeth and erasing the eyeballs of every person in every photograph in the Sunday Times. Shamefully, I feel a similar urge to inflict a hairy cyber-wart on the angelic visages of "Willow23" and "Jazzbabe." And these women are not idiots. (They are, invariably and disproportionately, filmmakers.)

Not long ago I met someone I actually respect, laugh with, and crave. What are the odds? If after only a few conjugal trysts this man were to declare his exclusive, undying devotion to me I'd be terrified. Half of our — my — closet is still filled with my late husband's sport jackets. At the same time I have lately acquired a carefree bounce to my step knowing that for the first time in my adult life I have to answer to no one. The new guy is not a monk.

I feel the urge to inflict hairy cyber-warts on the angelic visage of "Jazzbabe."

I know the answer to "if," but I know better than to ask "who." We live hours apart. What's the difference? There may be dating sites populated by people who really do want largely to "cuttle" (I saw this on Match), or to treat a woman like a "princes." But we are dealing here with grownups who, while looking ultimately for love (who isn't?), are momentarily wanting companionship. This is to say, sex. I love to cuddle, too. Conveniently, I have two dogs.

When jealousy encroaches on my otherwise-rational self, I remind that self that I've been doing some misbehavin' of my own. I also hold back plenty, mostly to protect myself, but also to give this new relationship room to breathe, like a freshly uncorked bottle of wine. But if the new guy is less than forthcoming about the baggage he carries, the green-eyed monster rears its unclassy, uncool head. I know this is one of those times I should cover my mouth with invisible duct tape.

Or I can resort to the humor that sustained my long marriage. My husband loved women and they loved him back. In the beginning I assured myself that this was a good thing, far preferable to the opposite. Deeper into the marriage, when he'd mention making a lunch date with a new friend — say, a woman he'd met at the gym, I'd reply, "Oh, that's nice. If it works out, bring her home and I'll teach her how to make your turkey meatloaf." Admittedly, I was only unflappable in this department because these women weren't threats (if they were, he would've lied, right, guys?) and because my possessiveness was tempered by my increasing difficulty imagining that anyone would want to steal a man who occasionally threw temper tantrums and spent two hours a day on the toilet. "You DO NOT want a new husband," a woman friend tells me emphatically and often.

           

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS

              
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I recognize that outside the mucked-up sexual sphere, my (blessedly rare) envy toward other women is a resounding warning bell that it's time to do some work on myself. Professional jealousy can ultimately be constructive, too. It can light a fire under you. Or it can spur you to a level of soul searching that reminds you success is relative. Hey, I could've written Eat, Pray, Love. I just chose not to.

Sexual jealousy, on the other hand is unproductive, frequently infantile and sometimes lethal. I've heard there are men who are flattered by it, but outside of I Love Lucy episodes I can't imagine it as anything but irritating as hell. When it's been directed at me I've wanted less to patiently explain myself, and more to hit the jealous party in the head with a mallet. Being accused of infidelity is like being accused of trying to shoplift — however you respond you sound guilty. I acknowledge that without sexual jealousy there would be far fewer novels, no soap operas — no opera operas. But I hear myself saying it yet again and want so badly to believe it: I'm not the jealous type. Is it possible?

I don't want to compete with other women. I don't want to compete with anyone except myself. I managed not to express toxic jealousy even in my brief first marriage, during which my husband was sleeping around. Okay, the marriage was doomed from the start and my biggest concern was that he'd get the car back home in time for me to leave for work in the morning.

Hey, I could've written Eat, Pray, Love. I just chose not to.

But in relationships with a deeper connection I managed to refrain from asking "where have you been?" not out of virtue, but because I don't want anyone asking me the same question. The few times my late husband asked, "Where were you?" under normal circumstances (it wasn't as if I'd disappeared for two days) it sent a shudder down my spine. In marriage or comparable relationships, what we like to call trust can be less Golden Rule and more Mutually Assured Destruction — two potentially deadly missiles, armed and pointed at each other. I am aware of many marriages that sustain themselves more on the India-Pakistan model than that of Ozzie and Harriet. Marriage is not easy. Still, through the difficult times, most of us opt for tense diplomacy to avoid blowing the whole arrangement to hell in a mushroom cloud of legal fees and custody battles.

These days, for the uneasily curious as well as the pathologically possessive, it has never been easier to turn jealousy into action. The Web is a tangled one; it is to sexual jealousy what the ineptly secreted liquor-cabinet key is to the alcoholic. I recall my friends' cloak-and-dagger antics pre-Internet, when a disgruntled woman would access her partner's answering-machine messages or peek at his car odometer. How quaint it all seems. With a modem and two functioning fingers, we're all stalkers now. Why does the man I'm falling for continue to troll the personals? My best friend, a gay man, says it's because he's a guy, period. This is good! Should I mention it? "No," says my friend. "Do NOT say a word." This, he insists, could spell death to a budding relationship. Forget Dr. Phil; better to heed the wisdom of Dorothy Parker: Hogamus higamous, men are polygamous.

              

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS

           
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What happens when we get jealous? Nothing endearing, nothing good. I've read that jealousy in and of itself is not technically considered a separate emotion but an amalgam of insecurity and fear. These make us act in defiance of all reason, sabotaging ourselves in the process. In spite of what many women I know seem to believe, grownups cannot curtail each other's movements about town. And even if you chain your guy to the radiator he is less likely to repent than to start dialing up women on his iPhone. I can't say I'd blame him.

I can see how anyone would stray. In the case of my late husband, a successful cartoonist, I envisioned him being somewhere away from home and meeting an attractive woman who laughed uproariously at whatever he said, specifically the stories I'd heard a zillion times, the ones that made me repair to the kitchen during our dinner parties. Considering the inescapable realities of human nature, why do we continue to feign shock when someone succumbs? Give John Edwards a break already.

And yet, we don't want to be played for fools; it hurts. Why do I do emotional contortions to convince myself what I'm feeling is something more commendable than jealousy? Who isn't jealous? Simone de Beauvoir, feminist heroine of my high school years, was insanely jealous, and the object of her obsession was a man who on a good day resembled a bullfrog. When I Googled "sexual jealousy," I found a parade of agony columnists asserting that the way around jealousy is to make oneself irresistible. He's venturing beyond the property line for sex? Indulge him until he can barely walk, much less cheat. But at least one website went deeper, offering some highly practical advice:

Visualize your partner having a sensual experience with their other lover as if you were watching porn. . . Focus on how beautiful it is to see your partner having pleasure. . . If you can get aroused by this all the better. Feel HAPPY and EXCITED that your partner has extra pleasure. . . Even if at first you have to fake it a little. . . keep at it. . . Practice helps. . . Take a moment to visualize sweet honey love juice dripping from your heart to your yoni. . . love yourself. . . be whole without anyone.

Wow, I feel better already, or at least my yoni does. But that last bit resonates. Be whole without anyone. Sexual jealousy may be normal and at times unavoidable, but it undermines our serenity, sense of humor, and the simple pleasures that sustain us. Trust, but verify? We might all fare better with Don't Ask, Don't Tell.  

           

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I wanted to be a photographer. He wanted to be seen.
The Celibate Glam Rocker's Lament by Izzy Cihak
Why I won't sleep with you.
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Me and the fetish wrestlers next door.
A Life in Lips by Elizabeth Manus
Twelve men, twelve kisses.
©2009 Susan Seligson and Nerve.com
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Susan Seligson's reporting and essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Salon.com, The Atlantic Monthly, Redbook, Outside, Allure, and many other publications. Her weekly advice column, "Ask Susie," appears in the Provincetown Banner. Seligson's travelogue, Going with the Grain: A Wandering Bread-lover Takes a Bite Out of Life, was published in the fall of 2002 by Simon & Schuster. A memoir, Stacked: A 32DDD Reports from the Front, released in 2007 by Bloomsbury USA, was named one of the 100 best books of the year by Publishers Weekly.