Writer, producer and coach Kathrin Seitz and Marc Felix, a Camden psychotherapist and student of shamanism, are exploring this winter the phenomenon of relationships — what they are and what they mean for the human experience. In May, they plan to hold a daylong workshop to invite relationship into lives and enhance the relationships one has. As part of this winter project, they also will venture forth with the broader Midcoast community with this periodic column, to investigate the idea of relationship, that heavily nuanced word in the English language that implies much but is so hard to define.

 

An anonymous Midcoast resident asked: What do you two think about jealousy?

Marc’s answer

Back in college I remember learning that jealousy and envy were two different qualities. Jealousy was about being suspicious of our partner being unfaithful to us and envy was a feeling we had about somebody who had something that we wanted. Having spoken to a few people recently, it seems the distinction between the words has been lost. “Jealous” can carry both meanings these days. I’m sad to hear this, since I rather like fine distinctions in language. In this article “jealous” is used in the sense of suspicion about infidelity.

Anthropologists look at jealousy as hard-wired into our nervous systems. Evolution has us wanting to pass on our genetic material. You have a strong reaction to another man flirting with your woman because if another man impregnates your woman, then your DNA will not be passed on. Furthermore, if a man were mistaken about a child being his, then he would be wasting a lot of resources taking care of a child who had someone else’s DNA. This seems a plausible explanation, but research shows that women are as jealous as men are. That’s puzzling at first since a woman wouldn’t have any doubt about being the actual parent. Perhaps jealousy for a woman, from this evolutionary perspective, is her attempt to keep her man from using his resources to support another woman and family. This would be even more critical in a primitive environment.

I’m going to say a few positive things about jealousy, but first I want to be clear that jealousy has its serious dangers. More than half of all homicides are the result of jealousy, and this is true all over the world. There’s such a universal understanding of how powerful these jealous emotions are, that there are many places where it’s considered “reasonable” and at certain times and places “legal” for a man to be violent when he catches his wife having sex with another man. No, not in Maine, as far as I know.

What positive things can we say about jealousy? For one thing, a little jealousy adds some spice to a relationship. Haven’t you felt more attracted to your partner when you’ve seen them talking to someone else at a party? But like any strong spice, think of cayenne pepper, too much will totally spoil the dish. Maya Angelou put it well when she 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.”

Jealousy is also part of feeling both protective and territorial about our partners. In a healthy intimacy we have the knowing that our partners are ours and we want to take care of them. There’s a sense of “I’m yours” and “you’re mine” that happens in the best of romances. It’s not about possessiveness; it’s about a deep mutual commitment.

As St. Augustine said, “He who is not jealous, is not in love.”

Kathrin’s answer

If malice or envy were tangible and had a shape, it would be the shape of a boomerang. — Charley Reese

I would like to talk about jealousy and envy. Jealousy, or the feeling of being threatened by someone who flirts with or covets your mate, has a romantic or sexual connotation. Envy has a broader definition. It is possible to be envious of another’s success, bank account, looks, life style — you name it — whereas jealousy is confined to romantic connections.

Othello was jealous, not envious. And, speaking of Othello, we all know that jealousy can have disastrous consequences. Who hasn’t witnessed a couple, too many sheets to the wind, arguing because one of them has flirted with a friend of the other’s? You can feel the electric tension in the room when these fights break out. And, as Marc said, these fights can ignite a room and lead to violence. Think of OJ Simpson and his wife. I lived near them when I lived in Los Angeles — we were all aware of the scary violent jealousy between them and not surprised when one of them ended up dead.

So, what can a couple do to prevent the escalation to violence? First of all, establish guidelines. It is important to know what your mate will or won’t tolerate in terms of your social behavior. I, for example, don’t appreciate outright flirtation by my mate in front of me (or behind my back either). I find it disrespectful. I wouldn’t do it and I expect him not to. We have talked about this and established rules around our behavior.

Some couples appreciate a bit of flirtation, or as Marc or Maya Angelou said, a bit of salt or spice, in their relationships. Establish rules around this as well. Remember that what seems like an innocent flirtation to you can appear to be something different to your mate. And that this misunderstanding can lead to hours of misery, and more. As a Russian proverb says, love and jealousy are sisters. And, A.R. Pearse says, “Jealousy is the dragon in paradise; the hell of heaven; and the most bitter of the emotions because associated with the sweetest.” Beware, be careful, respect yourself, respect others, and take responsibility for all your actions.

Envy. Haven’t we all felt a sudden twinge of envy when we meet someone who seems to have more than we have, be it money or looks or happiness? Raised in a culture that encourages competition and rewards material gains, it is hard for us not to react that way from time to time. Struggling with this emotion when I was younger, I came across an article that compared envy to admiration. Here was a way, I realized, that I could use to take the fangs out of my all consuming envy (negativity) and transform it to a positive emotion. Instead of feeling envy, I taught myself to feel admiration. Admiration opens my heart. Envy shuts it down. If I stand in front of a Matisse painting and admire it, I am filled with life and joy. If I feel envy, I am angry and shut down. If I meet someone who has something I admire, anything from a haircut to a terrific relationship, I will ask about it. Where did they get the haircut or what are the components of this successful relationship.

In the case of the relationship or perhaps a successful creative endeavor, I will pay close attention and learn the steps to achieving something similar. One last thought: switch focus. In talking with my friend Marilyn about envy, I discovered that we both practice the same technique when we feel envy. We quickly shift focus back to ourselves and count our blessings.

They are always more numerous than we remembered. As Harold Coffin says, “Envy is the art of counting the other fellow’s blessings instead of your own.” Start counting!

Marc Felix holds a doctorate in counseling psychology and has been a psychotherapist in private practice for more than 30 years. His work radically shifted after completing a two-decade shamanic apprenticeship with an Apache medicine chief. His current work is body, mind and spirit healing of individuals and couples.

Kathrin Seitz has more than 30 years experience in the publishing, television and film businesses in both New York City and Los Angeles. She has been teaching Method Writing for more than six years in New York City, Newport, R.I., Maine and Florida. While working in the entertainment business, Seitz trained and worked as a lay analyst. She took several years of courses, reading all the important psychoanalytic literature, and worked with patients in a supervised setting for four years. Visit kathrinseitz.com.