Can somebody who's completely secure in themselves and their relationship still feel jealousy with respect to their partner?
I’ve heard it said that jealousy is rooted in insecurity, but I’ve also heard it said that jealousy is irrational. Can people with complete security in themselves and their relationship still experience jealousy?
Our rational brain (pre frontal cortex) and emotional brain (limbic system) don't communicate directly with one another. Instead what happens is that we receive an external stimulus e.g. your partner talking intimately to someone else, and the emotional brain sends signals to the body depending on your own perception of the situation. Let's say you fear their intimate talking will lead to you losing your partner, your emotional brain will tell your nervous system that a 'fear response' is necessary, and send your adrenalin, cortisol and norepinephrine levels higher (among a bunch of other stuff). The rational brain will perceive the hormonal changes in your body and prescribe a 'label' to this reaction. Oh lookee here… jealousy!
That's because usually jealousy is the fear of loss of someone we deem valuable to our survival and quality of life. The question which lies behind the extremity of the emotional response is,
'How valuable do you deem that person to your survival and quality of life?'
In most cases if you trust and believe you can survive and be happy without them, the less 'valuable' they will be to your survival and the less fear of loss or jealousy you will experience. The more you believe them essential to your survival, the more extreme your emotional fear response and most likely, the strength of your chosen reaction to it. It takes a good amount of self-control* to temper reactions to strong emotional responses. Although they sit on separate barometers they are linked by a causality--i.e. first comes the emotional response, then the reaction as a consequence--and usually they are positively correlated with one another.
I don't really like the words rational and irrational here since I believe there is always a reason for feeling what we are feeling. I could instead use the words 'in proportion or out of proportion with the current and perceived threat.' Jealousy is usually tarred with negative connotations, but it--like any other emotion--can be viewed as a starting point for enquiry (and this can be seen as entirely positive!). Jealousy is an emotion which stems from our very real need for other people--and when we were children, we certainly did need certain people, our caregivers, in order to survive. As adults we usually do not need people to the same extent. Yet our attachment patterns and unconscious mental models--laid down when we were children--can often be seen very clearly in our adult relationships. Those with insecure attachment patterns will be more likely to experience greater jealousy. What you do as a consequence of feeling it is a different matter.
As an adoptee, I developed what is known as an insecure attachment pattern. I could not trust that my caregivers would not leave since my experience-dependant mind had already experienced the most major abandonment a child can experience, and in my first adult relationships when someone left me, I felt devastated beyond what was proportional to the situation. Yet in my mind, and since the mind follows those models which have already been laid down, that abandonment harkened back to the very real danger to my survival I had experienced as a child. My reactions were not in proportion to what was going on currently.
I hope it's clear that working on your ability to trust that you will be okay with or without a particular someone, will improve your sense of security, reduce your fear of loss response and thus jealousy. Yet relationships do more than help us survive, they also help us thrive and whilst reducing the fear of loss will also diminish your jealousy, there are other emotions which can equally be in or out of proportion and which are easily confused with jealousy, like grief, envy and anger which are all bound up as part and parcel of our human experience.
We generally fear change since it is unknown, but can work to embrace the unknown as an opportunity. Yet eradicating fear entirely I don't believe is healthy. Fear and pain are both essential to how we navigate our survival in this world and it's a question of balance.
In summary, yes, anyone can experience jealousy. But I do believe that people who feel entirely secure with themselves will experience less jealousy than those who aren't. However security and insecurity are feelings which are useful to us. Security itself is a multi-faceted beast; you can have a false sense of security, from denial for example or inflated sense of self-importance.
Some people who claim not to feel jealous may simply have avoided forming deep attachments out of their own survival models. Others truly do not fear the loss of a particular person whilst caring deeply for them even though they know such a loss may very well entail grief and be life changing... and this can also change over the course of a relationship as your lives become bound with one another's.
Yet it's important to note that there are legitimate reasons for feeling jealousy, and sometimes it's because your partner is being a total ass. This might be especially true in polyamory if your partner is spreading him or herself too thin, or is using polyamory as an excuse to avoid spending time with you. Only you can decide.
Still, feeling secure in a relationship doesn't necessarily mean knowing for sure that the relationship will not end. On the contrary, it does mean feeling that you can cope with the changes and even the transition of the relationship from one state to another without it being a threat to your own survival. That might be something more desirable and achievable.
*Note your ability to exercise self control I also believe is rooted in how secure and 'trustful' your formative experiences were. The more 'deprived' you felt, the more eager you were to stock up on good stuff when you had access to it. This can also be hacked and changed as an adult. Big work.
**It's also important to note that feeling insecurity and jealousy is not shameful; it is part of what our mind has deemed necessary to survive, yet the mind is so very often wrong because it can only judge current situations on what it has--past experience. Recalibrating this is part of what will help us navigate our present landscape better.
Read next: Does jealousy mimic childhood relationships?