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I’ve been in an extremely loving and intimate relationship with my boyfriend for the last seven months, out of which we’ve spent the last three living together. He’s an ardent feminist, great at heart, intelligent, passionate about politics, great in bed, excellent at cooking, responsible, mature, madly in love with me and pretty much everything I’ve ever expected to have. We were a bit hesitant about moving in after knowing each other for just four months, but we took the plunge and it’s been better than my dreams. I’m 25 and he’s 24.
It happens to be my first serious romantic relationship and I’m not entirely sure if this is a rite of passage or something. I’ve been jealous of the people around my crushes before, but this goes to a whole new level. I’m viscerally, blindingly jealous of the two women he’s dated before, even though now he isn’t even friends with them and doesn’t look like he’ll ever speak to them. I’ve obsessively stalked them on Facebook and just hated their general existence even though I’ve never met them. It drives me crazy that he was physical with them, even though that’s to be expected when you’re seeing someone.
I spoke to him about it and he assured me that what he feels for me, what he has shared with me, goes far deeper than it ever did with both of them put together. And I believe him. I know he’s not going to go back to them or some such shit. But this jealousy throws me into spirals of unnecessary mood swings and leads to rancour between us because he wants to forget them altogether and feels that my jealousy keeps bringing them up. He’s blocked them on social media even though I didn’t ask him to, thinking it would ease my mind. Of course we get past it and reaffirm our love for each other, but these episodes happen far too often for my peace of mind.
I feel so silly for getting worked up over something that’s not even relevant any more, given that we’re both in it for the long run. I even Googled it and learnt that there was something called Retrospective Jealousy which arises from low self-esteem, but I don’t exactly compare myself to the other two and find myself lacking or something like that. It’s just… I wish I had been there for him all these years and not them.
*runs and hides under a blanket*
♠ ♠ ♠
Dear Lit Junkie,
As a Billi, I simply do not indulge in confidences. They are simply too unaesthetic for me. But reading your letter, I cannot help but tell you something about myself. One of my favourite songs is John Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy’. And it is the soundtrack to your question, it seems:
I was dreaming of the past, and my heart was beating fast
I was shivering inside, I began to lose control, I began to lose control
This song has a sense of compelling and dangerous descent into something, an unstoppable reverie, a breathlessly slide away from the self, or what you call a spiral. And that is jealousy, isn’t it – a tricky little drug.
It can make you a little – make that a lot – high. It can fuel hours of cyclical thinking, feverish stalking of the ex as described by you, fill you with a near ecstatic sense of submission and defeat, one that is strangely intoxicating in the near complete hold it has on our being. Negative fantasies are also fantasies after all, and jealousy is an orgy of negative fantasies, turning us into hysterical little match-stick girls, constantly imagining ourselves on the outside looking in at the people who just know what it is to love and be loved.
What is this mysterious perfection they have, we wonder. This magical ability, to tinklingly love and laugh and prepare meals with equanimity and plan vacations with calm confidence. We on the other hand rage at our own inadequacy, revel in the dark blood coloured fug of unwantedness.
Jealousy is so painful, it makes you feel alive. It feels as intense as falling in love did, just in an inside-out fashion. That is why it is also addictive, why it constantly perpetuates with an almost sexual fervour the doubt and digital detective work. It also brings with it a perverse kind of confidence. When we fall in love, we are, for a while, lightly confident and optimistic. When we give in to the gripping jealousy you describe, then too we are full of a kind of negative confidence that we are not worth loving. We are the strange sidey people in the class and everyone else is the cool person who just knows the ins and outs of love in a way we don’t. There is something heady about this confidence, even if it is a negative one. Its certitude is an armour against the vulnerable, unbearable uncertainties of loving and we rush to cling to it.
Perhaps like all addictions, it is indeed trying to fill some empty or troubled space inside, the toxic soulmate of that feeling which says you are unlovable and any minute now the game will be up.
The thing is too, that every time we are in the grip of this jealousy, we are unable to be responsible for our actions, for composing ourselves. You feel so vulnerable, you feel compelled to talk to your boyfriend about it to receive that other drug, validation. His reassurance that he loves you, his voluntary blocking of exes he never plans to talk to – they are demands you make without making them on him, insisting that he prove to you again and again that he loves you, without actually asking for it. It is a need for proof that you cannot control.
When you describe your boyfriend, you present him as absolutely perfect. He sounds almost unreal, without any minor flaws or irritants. Of course you are recently in love so your partner may seem like airbrushed perfection. But sometimes when we think of other people in such terms – like a list of appropriate great qualities that seem almost generic, almost impersonal – it might be worth wondering where are we standing from where we get this picture perfect view.
To my ears it sounds like maybe you are standing somewhere below, imagining he is perfect, and you are painfully not so. Then, in your mind, you start thinking that surely, the other women were perfect; his real equals. Women with slender fingers and composed, mysterious smiles – and those smiles were all directed at mocking you in some awful art movie nightmare or bad American high school film.
So yes, you may be right in that you don’t compare yourself to them per se. But you do seem to imagine a kind of perfection in your boyfriend which hints at a deeply felt sense of your own imperfection – and one that you feel will almost certainly cause him to leave you. Perhaps if he had never had a serious relationship before, you would have felt on equal ground with him – or not. Now it is as if you are using it to ascribe a kind of ‘normalcy’ he has known, which you have not, and then using that as proof that you are not normal and desirable – at least not for long. As if he is merely deluding himself about you, an impostor lover, and any minute now, he will see the light in which you will be revealed as a mistake. Then he will go back to his ‘own kind’; the ones with no flaws.
Intellectually you know this is not so. But dil is dushman and self-esteem a capricious mean girl in your case, bestowing her favours with terrifying unpredictability. And sex may have become the area you focus on because it is the place where – unshorn of all intellect and artifice – we are somehow just ourselves, our most perfect and least perfect selves at the same time.
It is so difficult sometimes to be happy, because the fear that it is going to end stands around at every moment like Patrick Swayze in Ghost. Your relentless jealousy is almost a way of bringing on the end you fear. Every time you throw yourself into a spiral of negative fantasy, it’s like a hit to your senses – like practising the relief of the worst finally having happened.
One of the great trickeries of love is that it can free us from a sense of isolation and alienation; and yet, on the brink of that freedom, it dizzyingly reminds us that there is no safety net, nothing as solid a promise as the bars of one’s prison of self-doubt and aloneness.
But you’ve come so far as to fall in love, make yourself vulnerable enough to live together, talk about the past. It means you have that much emotional muscle at least, no? Why give up half-way? You don’t have to be alone in doing this – and I don’t mean you can solve it with your boyfriend.
He sounds like he really cares for you and wants you to feel loved. It is time to consider therapy, is this Billi’s advice to you, my billo. The debilitations of self-doubt leave us too exhausted to do anything but weep and feel relieved that the night’s fevers are over. We barely have anything left to make ourselves stronger on our own. We have even less in the end to enjoy loving someone, allow ourselves that measured and warm happiness that loving someone can light in us.
A journey through psychotherapy may help you understand how to relate to this difficult, struggling self in you – or lead you to another way. It will help you find a path out of this engulfing state of mind. I don’t say this to you to ‘save your relationship.’ I say it so you may let the love into your heart in such a way that it becomes a part of you; that should it ever end, you don’t turn it into proof of not being worthy of love but are able to be happy you were loved and could love and know that it will always be so.