Sexual jealousy and what I learned about sex from a 1946 children’s book

I’m not telling you what book it is yet. Your choice: read on or skim.

An old cliché calls jealousy “the green-eyed monster” and never is that monster more emerald-eyed and sharp-fanged than when it’s sexual jealousy.

a green eye

Photo by Keith Dunn

A friend of mine once told me about his experience of feeling sexual jealousy. It had been somewhat surprising to him because he wasn’t in what he considered a committed relationship.

“We knew that our relationship was temporary, since I was only in that country on a work contract for a few months. We agreed that we would give each other complete freedom to see other people, but would be honest about any sexual encounters we had.

“One day my girlfriend told me she had just been seduced by another man. She had met him at a club one night and had impulsively gone home with him—for just one night of sex.

“When she told me about that guy—”

He drew his finger sharply across his throat, and grimaced.

Most of us have felt that pain. Is it something to be ashamed of? Jealousy is thought of as a vice, a sign of weakness, insecurity, small-mindedness.

When I was married, my husband used to tell me with pride that he had never felt jealousy. I think he was lying both to me and to himself, although I’ll never be sure. What I do know is that he was using this claim as a weapon to deny me the right to be jealous about him.

It may be true that jealousy is not an admirable feeling; it’s certainly not a nice one.

But my husband was denying the validity of my gut feelings.

Jealousy is real. The visceral reactions of jealousy are as real as anything the body can experience.

My story above illustrated a man’s jealousy. What about women’s jealousy? What does a woman feel when she suspects her man is being unfaithful? When she overhears a phone conversation and, whatever the words being said, her intuition picks up the unmistakeable scent of intimacy?

What is it like to lie in the dark at night waiting for a man who should be home?

It’s a knock in the stomach, taking the wind away. Nauseating pain.

It’s a huge, sinking despair.

It’s outrage, hatred, it’s reversion to a primitive state. I feel my claws growing out, ready to rip the enemy apart.

***

I’ll now go back over forty years, to a time when I was a 12-year-old bookworm. One of my favourite books was Mary O’Hara’s My Friend Flicka, a story about a dreamy, underachieving 11-year-old boy named Ken. Ken loves horses passionately, and longs, more than anything, to have a horse of his own. His parents finally give him one, hoping Ken’s training and care of the horse he names Flicka (Swedish for Little Girl) will turn him into a more responsible person.

My parents gave me My Friend Flicka for my tenth birthday. I won’t spoil the story by saying anything more about it (for those who haven’t read the book or seen the movie). However, after reading it I was eager to read the sequel, Thunderhead, and then the final book in the trilogy, Green Grass of Wyoming. I found the latter at the library when I was twelve or so. Published in 1946, Green Grass of Wyoming was classified as a children’s or YA book, but for its psychological insights about relationships it is really a book for adults.

Green Grass of Wyoming book cover

My Friend Flicka is a love story about a boy and his horse, and Flicka brings Ken both joy and heartbreak. But O’Hara’s trilogy as a whole is much wider in scope. At the centre of this panoramic narrative, which is infused with O’Hara’s love of horses and the wild Wyoming landscape, is the love story of Ken’s parents, Rob and Nell.

Rob and Nell have completely different personalities, and this, coupled with the strain of the severe financial and physical hardships they experience as owners of a horse ranch, makes for a relationship that is sometimes stormy despite their deep love for each other.

But in Green Grass of Wyoming, the horse ranch has been converted to a successful sheep ranch; Rob and Nell have been blessed with a much longed-for baby girl; and the couple’s marriage has endured, their happiness together greater than ever.

But another love story forms one of the main sub-plots of Green Grass of Wyoming. Ken, now a seventeen-year-old, has fallen madly in love with a young girl who has visited the family’s ranch with her great-uncle, a racetrack owner. Ken’s feelings are obvious to his family, and his parents and older brother Howard are discussing Ken’s possessiveness about Carey; in Howard’s words, Ken is “all the way loco.”

When Rob and Howard leave the room, Nell muses to herself about Ken and the nature of romantic love.

For all that they say about possession and possessiveness, who is there that isn’t? Who that loves, really loves, would be willing to share? If they were willing, it would mean that they were lukewarm and indifferent. The possessive ones are the ardent ones, the all-out ones; the ones who can give themselves wholly, utterly. Possessiveness is the sweetest part of love, and it’s all of sex! All the same—her face became grave as she remembered how deeply Ken, the ardent, the possessive, had suffered, and would suffer again. (p. 129)

I never forgot those words. I could not have understood much about romantic love or sex at the age of twelve, but those words probably influenced my conception of what a romantic relationship could be.

***

Now, of course, I’m more experienced—and more cynical about love, though not entirely cynical.

I still believe that passionate, lifelong love and marriage are possible, though uncommon. I mean the kind of love depicted between Nell and Rob in Green Grass of Wyoming. After more than twenty years of marriage, Rob still thinks to himself:

As always, when anything reminded him of Nell or he saw her unexpectedly, he felt happiness so intense it was like pain. (p. 28)

But for many people, staying in a long-term monogamous relationship can be challenging or boring. The way I see it, most people have strong needs for security—and for novelty and excitement. How can one long-term relationship offer both? Isn’t there always going to be a tension between these two conflicting needs?

There used to be good reasons and enormous societal pressure encouraging people to stay married. Women weren’t financially independent. Christian wedding vows include the couple’s promises to be faithful to each other and to stay together until “death do us part.” Also, in the days before dating websites, texting, and other forms of online connectivity existed, it was more difficult for divorced people to escape loneliness and find a new partner.

A recently-published book called Modern Romance explores how technology has affected sex, dating, love, and marriage. It is co-written by comedian Aziz Ansari and NYU socialogic Eric Klinenberg. They did a huge study involving focus groups and thousands of respondents to find out more about what is happening with modern relationships. As I browsed through this book recently, I realized that many people share my questions about how technology affects modern relationships—how do people balance their desire for love, commitment, and stable families with the constant opportunities to have casual/illicit sex or short-term relationships?

Modern Romance Book Cover

A section of the book where Ansari summarizes the work of psychologist Jonathan Haidt was of particular interest to me because Haidt addresses the conflict between monogamy and the thrills of new relationships.

Haidt has studied two kinds of love, which he calls passionate love and companionate love. Passionate love is what we feel in the initial stage of a relationship when the excitement is intense. Inevitably, though, couples begin coming down from this peak of passion after a couple of years of being together. At the same time, if they stay in love, what Haidt calls companionate love continues to rise slowly but steadily and can, indeed, last until death.

Haidt evaluates two different strategies for achieving happiness in love, based on his findings about passionate and companionate love. If your goal is to maximize passion, intensity, and excitement, then it would seem to make the most sense to practice serial monogamy. You would stay with one person in that initial “high” phase, that intoxicating phase of falling in love. Then, when those feelings started to fade, you would start again with the next person you were attracted to.

The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t allow you to build up a life story with anyone. Haidt makes the case that a person’s life can be looked at as a narrative. Being part of a couple throughout one’s whole life means being able to share a narrative that may include children, grandchildren, a home, vacation and holiday traditions, a career and support for your partner’s career. Staying with one person, says Haidt, is probably the best strategy for happiness if you look at your life as a narrative. Even though passionate love probably changes largely to companionate love, the rewards and security earned are great.

In addition, Haidt notes that being generative, having some kind of life’s work that one can be proud of, leaving a legacy so to speak (and this could simply be raising children) is an important human goal; it is part of a life’s story. Someone who is in the constant throes of new love might find it hard to accomplish his or her life’s work.

According to Modern Romance, many people are struggling to resolve their conflicting desires for security and novelty, companionate love and passionate love. Everyone knows that technology makes it easy to have hookup relationships or extramarital relationships, and these relationships are common (read the book to get the statistics!). Yet our ability to cope emotionally with a partner’s cheating has not kept pace with the incidence of extramarital relationships. Jealousy still exists, whether it is instinctual, a “natural” part of human love (as Mary O’Hara’s Green Grass of Wyoming suggests), or simply the result of cultural conditioning telling us that monogamy is the “right” moral choice.

I think it’s too easy to think that sex can be casual, too easy to underestimate the pain and messiness that the tug-of-war between different relationships can entail. Is it possible to have multiple intense physical bonds? Are men different than women? How can you continue to nurture your long-term partner and relationship if you are in the midst of an erotic affair that consumes all your time and imagination?

Was Mary O’Hara wrong? Is it possible to love your partner deeply and not feel jealous if you think the bond with your partner is threatened? Is it possible to love in such a way that there is no bond? Doesn’t that imply no attachment? Detachment is the Buddhist ideal, because according to Buddhism, attachment is the cause of all pain.

I don’t expect to ever become a Buddhist. I’ve been cheated on; I’ve cheated on others; I’ll continue to be attached and to feel pain.

Quotes

The quotes in this post are from:

O’Hara, Mary. (1946). Green Grass of Wyoming. New York: J. B. Lippincott Company.

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About nancytinarirunswrites

I used to be known as a competitive runner, but now I have a new life as a professional writer and editor. I'm even more obsessive about reading, writing, and editing than I was about running. Running has had a huge influence on my life, though, and runner's high does fuel creativity. Maybe that's why this blog evolved into being 95% about running, but through blogging I'm also learning about writing and online communication. I'm fascinated by how the Internet has changed work, learning, and relationships. I love to connect in new and random ways!
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