Help! Does Jealousy Mimic Childhood Relationships?

Louisa Leontiades Advice Column, Epic Relationships

Dear Louloria,

Would love your opinions on something I’ve been pondering: in my immediate mono and poly friends I think I’m seeing a link with the amount of jealousy you feel and the amount of jealousy you felt towards siblings as a child. For example, I don’t remember having any such feelings towards my younger sister, quite the opposite. And as an adult I have some, but nothing debilitating, and my non-possessive reasoning soon diminishes them. Would love to hear your thoughts on this? Is jealousy learned in childhood, and then those feelings are triggered when we’re older?

-Ms. ThinkingOutLoud

Dear Ms TOL,

Thanks for allowing me to lift your question from FB for this week’s column ;)

  • What is jealousy?

Jealousy is used as a ‘catch all’ emotion; and the question is difficult to answer precisely, without first defining what we mean by it. Over the years, I’ve defined for myself what I perceive jealousy to be and the definition below has served me well.

  • Jealousy; A painful emotion triggered by a stress response experienced by a person who perceives a threat of loss of someone/something from their life and who believes that they need the affection/attention/presence of that someone/something in order to survive.

Why do we feel that we need someone to survive? Because as babies that was physically true (these are very old patterns). The amount of jealousy we feel corresponds to the style of attachment we have; scientists agree that adult attachment is likely to mimic childhood attachment, even if they currently disagree about the overlap and extent.

Which means that if you had a history of insecure attachment as a child, it is more likely that you will feel more insecure and therefore more jealous, when you lose someone as an adult, even though that loss usually does not threaten our survival in a physical sense as it did when we were babies. A person with a secure attachment style (and good self-esteem) trusts that they will be okay, even whilst they grieve, and even without the person they are attached to. A more insecure attacher (with a lower self-esteem), feels like the world–and maybe even their life–will end if the person they are attached to leaves. It is easy to understand why then, they would feel extremely jealous. They are fighting for their survival.

  • What strategies do we use to combat jealousy?

Jealousy masks insecurity and drives us to employing strategies to reduce our insecurity (and thus our jealousy) as follows:

  • Possessiveness; normally of a person and/or potentially an ‘exclusive’ activity with them that you have formerly used to make yourself feel important.
  • Entitlement; normally by a person who believes they need to be ranked first/be seen as superior in order to preserve their sense of identity.
  • Anger; normally the emotional response of a person to a perceived threat esp. where they feel powerless to change the status quo. But can also be employed as a strategy as it inspires powerful, often aggressive, reactions, which allow us to defend ourselves and feel more secure.
  • Compromise; normally seen as the ‘healthy’ strategy by a person making concessions in order to achieve a greater good. This is sometimes true, but can bleed over to reduction of the self due to lack of healthy boundaries/people pleasing in an attempt to regain the perceived loss of security.
  • Martyrdom; normally the strategy of making others responsible for the pain of insecurity you experience, and seeking that they stop or change their behaviour to ‘make’ you feel more secure.

The list goes on and often we combine the strategies. It doesn’t get any prettier either because the strategies we tend to employ are based on manipulating others or diminishing the self and do nothing to improve our self-esteem.

Yet very few of us are at the extreme ends of the scale, being neither wholly insecure nor wholly secure and thus you can find possessive, entitled and angry behaviours across the board which are employed, usually unconsciously, to mitigate an ominous sense of insecurity. Whilst these behaviours are often called out, I believe that the employment of them is a survival strategy and so in effect by preventing them, we are taking away people’s ability to fight for their survival and protect themselves. Of course these are only anyway band-aid solutions, the best most sustainable way to cure jealousy is only ever by improving self-esteem (and thus your ability to trust that you will be okay).

  • The Evolution of Security/Insecurity

Events and the way we react to those events throughout our lives, will diminish or contribute to our sense of security and our ability to ‘trust’ that we will be okay, no matter what. Those events which occur during childhood, will in most cases, be more impactful than those which occur as adults because

a) the mind is experience dependent and early experiences have relatively more impact (all other things being equal)

b) the brains of children are highly malleable and the architecture is more easily affected by influxes of stress hormones generated by perceived ‘threats’ to our survival during the formative years

The deeper rooted the insecurity which drives you, the less able the rational mind will be able to counteract these unconscious strategies. One because the more insecure you are, the more likely it is to be due to an impactful early event which has left you more prone to anxiety (and we are driven to reduce anxiety by any means possible including what may seem to be totally irrational strategies). And two, because the cause of deep rooted insecurity is usually pre-verbal and subconscious and it is more difficult for our prefrontal cortex to rationalise than if it is known and knowable.

Moreover the pre-frontal cortex – the rational mind – does not develop until later life and only reaches maturity at the age of 25 (which is in itself an average). The strategies you choose to use to compensate for insecurity as an adult are likely to be similar to the strategies which worked for you as a child because they supported you long before your prefrontal cortex made its neural connections.

  • A Few Examples

My son–at time of writing is four years old–has a tendency to act like a baby because he perceives that people attend to his needs when he wails. Excluding any other influence as he grows up, as an adult he may be more likely to play the martyr. My daughter–at time of writing is six years old–has a tendency to use entitlement to achieve her ends, because she believes her position of ‘first born’ justifies superiority. This is just one of many possibilities because of course more influences will occur both externally and internally, for example, as my son gets physically stronger he may potentially feel more powerful, more superior and more likely to use entitlement over martyrdom as a strategy. Or not. My job as a parent is to try my best to make them feel loved, secure and provide them with a good base for their emotional development. But the influence of a parent is only one of many factors in a child’s life.

Therefore as a model it can be generalised, but it cannot be used as a predictor, because there are an infinite number of influences and variables.

I was an only and therefore first born child, but as an adoptee in a hostile environment developed insecure attachment. I did not employ ‘entitlement’ as a mitigation strategy. The overriding strategy I used as a young adult was martyrdom and was something I learned from my mother–who was herself second born to an adored older brother–who employed martyrdom in the relationship to my father, who in his role–as a first born Greek son–employed entitlement rather too well. It resulted in an abusive relationship for me with a first born entitled mediterranean man before I turned the tables, and used entitlement in a subsequent relationship.

I have a ‘female’ friend who was second born after a brother, but was also the ‘adored’ one because her mother had always wanted a girl, and had more of a tendency to use entitlement as a strategy to make herself feel secure. That our adult patterns are rooted in our development is undeniable. But everyone has different influences as they grow up which will make their own patterning unique.

So to answer your question–is jealousy learned in childhood–no. I do not believe that jealousy is learned; it is an unconscious emotional response to a threat to our survival. But it is directly related to attachment which is formed during childhood due to a multitude of influences. The best and most permanent way to heal jealousy is though working on self-esteem… but that’s a much larger topic!

Good luck,