My Chattering Monkey Mind

Jealousy: Good for Evolution, Bad for Me

You realize, of course, that if I date you I will block you on social media. It’s not that I don’t care about your new band… or, more realistically, your new grandchild. (I’m trying to date age-appropriately, I swear!) It’s just that I don’t ever want to be dragged down a Facebook rabbit hole again. I don’t want to see Instagram pictures of other people — read “women” — you’ve been socializing with, or socialized with in the past, or used to be married to, or are currently kinda-sorta dating. I don’t want to know which posts you liked, even if they’re my own, or what events you RSVP’d to.

That way lies madness.

So if I unfriend you, it’s not because I don’t like you. It’s the opposite. It’s because I know how much it sucks to fall over the cliff into love addiction, and I also know that nothing will push me over the edge faster than jealousy. Nothing turns up the heat on my lukewarm affection for you than seeing you with another woman. “How can I love you if you won’t go away?” isn’t a joke ‘round these parts.

You may have a similar problem, and that’s because jealousy is — say it with me — hard-wired into our brains. Just like craving drugs or alcohol or sugar, jealousy is a function of the neurotransmitters in our limbic reward center. Jealousy, like hunger, is pro-survival.

Science always makes me feel better.

Jealously makes us feel bad, and that’s good. It motivates us to compete, and competition is survival. Competition is how any species gets faster, stronger, smarter. But romantic jealousy is its own animal. An actual tomcat, apparently, is free to tomcat around without torpedoing his relationship. Not so with humans.

“To understand romantic jealousy, we have to go back in time 2 million years,” says Sarah Pascoe, a comedienne who specializes in evolutionary psychology. I know, weird. But she’s good at it. Here’s the podcast I’m quoting from.

Pascoe explains that because homo sapiens have unusually big heads (for thinking) and small hips (for running), we give birth to babies that are… call it half-baked. A fully mature infant head won’t fit through the birth canal.

“When the female chimpanzee gives birth,” explains Pascoe, “the baby is equivalent to a human toddler. She shoves him on her back and swings off through the forest. Human babies are useless - they just lie there. He won't be able to hold his own head up for a year. They also need a huge amount of nutrients provided by the mother's body via lactation. One person cannot keep a baby alive on her own.”

This is strong motivation to keep a partner around for at least a couple of years, to hunt and gather and protect the offspring. This is why women are more likely to be most jealous when their partner becomes emotionally involved with another. No one likes to hear “It was just sex,” but it’s still better than “The heart wants what the heart wants.” The female doesn’t want to see the male off caretaking another cave.

Men, on the other hand, are more incensed by sexual jealousy because they don’t want to get stuck raising another male’s genetic material. Here’s a study about that.   Passing on one’s genes is the Prime Directive of species survival, which of course also motivates men to run around spreading their seed as wide as possible. Which takes them away from the cave, and sends their descendants down a Facebook rabbit hole.

“We need to pair bond very deeply in order for children to survive into adulthood,” says Pascoe, “but that doesn't mean that we pair bond monogamously. For males, the ideal situation may be to pair bond and then have some extra sex outside of the relationship for an extra chance at genetic success. Perhaps there will be another male foolishly raising his offspring. Similarly for females, having offspring by different males would give her children a wider range of genes than mating with one.”

This particular bit of science does not make me feel better. I never once thought, “Go ahead and knock up your side-piece, honey. It’s good for humanity.” Nor have any of my partners said, “When I fall asleep after sex, you should run out and fuck another couple of other guys to increase the odds of procreation.” But it is interesting to consider.

For now, I’ll just remember that while jealousy, like hunger, may be pro-survival, some of us are more insatiable than others. I don’t have a “that’s plenty, thanks - I’m fine” bone in my body. So if it’s all the same to you, I’ll just unfriend your adorable ass. Don’t take it personally.