The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy Is as Necessary as Love and Sex (2 page)

BOOK: The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy Is as Necessary as Love and Sex
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The explanation for sex differences in jealousy lies deep in the
evolutionary past of the human species. Consider first a fundamental sex
difference in our reproductive biology: fertilization takes place inside
women’s bodies, not men’s. Now, internal female fertilization is not universal
in the biological world. In some species, such as the Mormon crickets,
fertilization occurs internally within the male. The female takes her egg and
literally implants it within the male, who then incubates it until birth. In other
species, fertilization occurs externally to both sexes. The female salmon, for
example, drops her collection of eggs after swimming upstream. The male follows
and deposits his sperm on top, and then they die, having fulfilled the only
mission in life that evolution gave them. But humans are not like salmon. Nor
are we like Mormon crickets. In all 4,000 species of mammals, of which we are
one, and in all 257 species of primates, of which we are also one,
fertilization occurs internally within the female, not the male. This posed a
grave problem for ancestral men—the problem of uncertainty in paternity.

From an ancestral man’s perspective, the single most damaging
form of infidelity his partner could commit, in the currency of reproduction,
would have been a sexual infidelity. A woman’s sexual infidelity jeopardizes a
man’s confidence that he is the genetic father of her children. A cuckolded man
risks investing years, or even decades, in another man’s children. Lost would
be all the effort he expended in selecting and attracting his partner.
Moreover, he would lose his partner’s labors, now channeled to a rival’s
children rather than his own.

Women, on the other hand, have always been 100 percent sure that
they are the mothers of their children (internal fertilization guarantees that
their children are genetically their own). No woman ever gave birth and,
watching the child emerge from her womb, wondered whether the child was really
hers. One African culture captures this sex difference with a phrase more telling
than any technical summary: “Mama’s baby, papa’s maybe.” Biology has granted
women a confidence in genetic parenthood that no man can share with absolute

Our ancestral mothers confronted a different problem, the loss
of a partner’s commitment to a rival woman and her children. Because emotional
involvement is the most reliable signal of this disastrous loss, women key in
on cues to a partner’s feelings for other women. A husband’s one-night sexual
stand is agonizing, of course, but most women want to know: “Do you love her?”
Most women find a singular lapse in fidelity without emotional involvement
easier to forgive than the nightmare of another woman capturing her partner’s
tenderness, time, and affection. We evolved from ancestral mothers whose
jealousy erupted at signals of the loss of love, mothers who acted to ensure
the man’s commitment.

But who cares who fathers a child or where a man’s commitments
get channeled? Shouldn’t we love all children equally? Perhaps in some utopian
future, we might, but that is not how the human mind is designed. Husbands in
our evolutionary past who failed to care whether a wife succumbed to sex with
other men and wives who remained stoic when confronted with their husband’s
emotional infidelity may be admirable in a certain light. Perhaps these
self-possessed men and women were more mature. Some theories, in fact, propose
that jealousy is an immature emotion, a sign of insecurity, neurosis, or flawed
character. Nonjealous men and women, however, are not our ancestors, having
been left in the evolutionary dust by rivals with different passionate
sensibilities. We all come from a long lineage of ancestors who possessed the
dangerous passion.

Jealousy, according to this theory, is an adaptation. An
adaptation, in the parlance of evolutionary psychology, is an evolved solution
to a recurrent problem of survival or reproduction. Humans, for example, have
evolved food preferences for sugar, fat, and protein that are adaptive
solutions to the survival problem of food selection. We have evolved
specialized fears of snakes, spiders, and strangers that are adaptive solutions
to ancestral problems inflicted by dangerous species, including ourselves. We
have evolved specialized preferences for certain qualities in potential mates,
which helped to solve the problems posed by reproduction. Adaptations, in
short, exist in modern humans today because they helped our ancestors to combat
all of the many “hostile forces of nature,” enabling them to successfully
survive and reproduce. Adaptations are coping devices passed down over
millennia because they worked—not perfectly, of course, but they helped
ancestral humans to struggle through the evolutionary bottlenecks of survival
and reproduction.

Jealousy, according to this perspective, is not a sign of
immaturity, but rather a supremely important passion that helped our ancestors,
and most likely continues to help us today, to cope with a host of real
reproductive threats. Jealousy, for example, motivates us to ward off rivals
with verbal threats and cold primate stares. It drives us to keep partners from
straying with tactics such as escalating vigilance or showering a partner with
affection. And it communicates commitment to a partner who may be wavering,
serving an important purpose in the maintenance of love. Sexual jealousy is
often a successful, although sometimes explosive, solution to persistent
predicaments that each one of our ancestors was forced to confront.

We are typically not conscious of these reproductive quandaries.
Nor are we usually aware of the evolutionary logic that led to this dangerous
passion. A man does not think, “Oh, if my wife has sex with someone else, then
my certainty that I’m the genetic father will be jeopardized, and this will
endanger the replication of my genes; I’m really mad.” Or if his partner takes
birth-control pills, “Well, because Joan is taking the pill, it doesn’t really
matter whether she has sex with other men; after all, my certainty in paternity
is secure.” Nor does a woman think, “It’s really upsetting that Dennis is in
love with that other woman; this jeopardizes my hold on his emotional
commitments to me and my children, and hence hurts my reproductive success.”
Instead, jealousy is a blind passion, just as our hunger for sweets and craving
for companionship are blind. Jealousy is emotional wisdom, not consciously
articulated, passed down to us over millions of years by our successful
forebears. One goal of
The Dangerous Passion
is to bring to the
surface the deep roots of the inherited emotional wisdom we possess.

The Othello Syndrome

Despite its value for people past and present, jealousy is an
emotion that exposes partners to extreme danger. The dark side of jealousy
causes men to explode violently to reduce the odds that their partners will
stray. Women seeking refuge at shelters for battered women almost invariably
report that their husbands seethe with jealousy. In one study of battered
women, many of whom required medical attention, the typical woman reported that
her husband “tries to limit my contact with friends and family” (the tactic of
concealment), “insists on knowing where I am at all times” (the tactic of
vigilance), and “calls me names to put me down and make me feel bad about
myself ” (the tactic of undermining self-esteem).Jealousy is the leading cause
of spousal battering, but it’s even worse than that. Men’s jealousy puts women
at risk of being killed.

Consider the following remarks made to police by a 31-year-old
man who stabbed his 20-year-old wife to death, after they had been reunited
following a six-month separation.


Then she said that since she came back in April she had fucked
this other man about ten times. I told her how can you talk about love and
marriage and you been fucking this other man. I was really mad. I went to the
kitchen and got the knife. I went back to our room and asked: Were you serious
when you told me that? She said yes. We fought on the bed, I was stabbing her.
Her grandfather came up and tried to take the knife out of my hand. I told him
to go and call the cops for me. I don’t know why I killed the woman, I loved


Jealousy can be emotional acid that corrodes marriages,
undermines self-esteem, triggers battering, and leads to the ultimate crime of
murder. Despite its dangerous manifestations, jealousy helped to solve a
critical reproductive quandary for ancestral men. Jealous men were more likely
to preserve their valuable commitments for their own children rather than
squandering them on the children of their rivals. As descendants of a long line
of men who acted to ensure their paternity, modern men carry with them the
dangerous passion that led to their forebears’ reproductive success.

A professional couple therapist I know related to me the
following story. A young couple, Joan and Richard, came to her with a complaint
of irrational jealousy. Without provocation, Richard would burst into jealous
tirades and accuse Joan of sleeping with another man. His uncontrollable
jealousy was destroying their marriage. Richard and Joan both agreed on this
point. Could the therapist help cure Richard of irrational jealousy? A common
practice in couple therapy is to have at least one session with each member of
the couple individually. The first question the therapist posed to Joan during
this individual interview was: Are you having an affair? She burst into tears
and confessed that, indeed, she had been carrying on an affair for the past six
months. Richard’s jealousy, it turned out, had not been irrational after all.
He had been picking up on subtle cues of his wife’s infidelity that triggered
his jealousy. Since he trusted Joan and she had assured him of her fidelity,
however, he believed that his jealousy had been irrational. In a sense, Richard
had failed to listen to his internal emotional whisperings. He came to the
wrong conclusion because he overrode his feelings with “rationality.”

This episode gave me the first hint that jealousy represented a
form of ancestral wisdom that can have useful as well as destructive
consequences. Despite the possible hazards of conducting research on jealousy,
its potency convinced me that it could not be ignored by science. In surveys we
discovered that nearly all men and women have experienced at least one episode
of intense jealousy. Thirty-one percent say that their personal jealousy has
sometimes been difficult to control. And among those who admit to being
jealous, 38 percent say that their jealousy has led them to want to hurt

Extreme jealousy has been given many names—the Othello syndrome,
morbid jealousy, psychotic jealousy, pathological jealousy, conjugal paranoia,
and erotic jealousy syndrome. Jealousy, of course, can be pathological. It can
destroy previously harmonious relationships, rendering them hellish nightmares
of daily existence. Trust slowly built from years of mutual reliance can be
torn asunder in a crashing moment. As we will explore in a later chapter,
jealousy leads more women to flee in terror to shelters than any other cause. A
full 13 percent of all homicides are spousal murders, and jealousy is
overwhelmingly the leading cause.

But destruction does not necessarily equal pathology. The
pathological aspect of extreme jealousy, according to the mainstream wisdom, is
not the jealousy itself. It is the delusion that a loved one has committed an
infidelity when none has occurred. The rage itself upon the actual discovery of
an infidelity is something people everywhere intuitively understand. In Texas
until 1974, a husband who killed a wife and her lover when he caught them
flagrante delicto
was not judged a criminal. In fact, the law held that a
“reasonable man” would respond to such extreme provocation with acts of
violence. Similar laws have been on the books worldwide. Extreme rage upon
discovering a wife naked in the arms of another man is something that people
everywhere find intuitively comprehensible. Criminal acts that would normally
receive harsh prison sentences routinely get reduced when the victim’s
infidelity is the extenuating circumstance.

The view of jealousy as pathological ignores a profound fact
about an important defense designed to combat a real threat. Jealousy is not
always a reaction to an infidelity that has already been discovered. It can be
an anticipatory response, a preemptive strike to prevent an infidelity that
might occur. Labeling jealousy as pathological simply because a spouse has not
yet strayed ignores the fact that jealousy can head off an infidelity that
might be lurking on the horizon of a relationship.

Excessive jealousy can be extraordinarily destructive. But
moderate jealousy, not an excess or an absence, signals commitment. This book
explores both sides of this double-edged defense mechanism.

To understand the power of this extraordinary emotion, we must
trace it to its origin, long before capitalism, long before agriculture and
cash economies, long before writing and recorded history, and long before
humans fanned out and colonized every habitable continent. We must trace its
roots to the evolution of one of the most unusual adaptations in primate history,
yet one that we take so much for granted that its existence is hardly
questioned: the emergence of long-term love.

The Evolution of Love

Our closest primate cousins, the chimpanzees, lack exclusive
sexual bonds. Most mating takes place within the narrow window of female
estrus. When a female chimpanzee is in heat, a variety of physiological changes
take place. Her genitals become swollen and pink for four to six days. The
swellings peak just before ovulation when she is most likely to conceive. She emits
pheromonal signals, hormone-saturated substances that males find especially
attractive, sometimes driving them into a sexual frenzy. Sarah Hrdy of the
University of California at Davis notes that males sometimes touch the vagina
of the estrous female, gathering her secretions on their fingers to smell or
taste. Males use these signals to monitor the female’s reproductive state.

BOOK: The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy Is as Necessary as Love and Sex
11.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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