Jealousy and Its Antidote: Pioneering Psychiatrist Leslie Farber on the Tangled Psychology of Our Most Destructive Emotion
“Every jealous person knows jealousy to be a brutally degrading experience and resists with all his might revealing the extent of his degradation.”
By Maria Popova
There is but one emotion that claws at the heart with the twin talons of anger and shame, savaging self-regard with haunting ferocity that feeds on itself. “Jealousy,” wrote the Swiss philosopher Henri-Frédéric Amiel in his insightful treatise on love, “is precisely love’s contrary… the most passionate form of egotism, the glorification of a despotic, exacting, and vain ego, which can neither forget nor subordinate itself.” And yet jealousy is also one of the commonest human experiences — one that visits upon even the noblest heart, warping reality and reason beyond recognition.
The complex psychological underpinnings of jealousy, and what they might reveal in the way of relief, and how they might illuminate the most hopeful frontiers of love, is what the pioneering psychiatrist Leslie Farber (July 12, 1912–March 24, 1981) explores in his 1973 essay “On Jealousy,” found in his altogether penetrating collection The Ways of the Will (public library).
Every jealous person knows jealousy to be a brutally degrading experience and resists with all his might revealing the extent of his degradation.
Defining the central animating spirit of jealousy as “a state of virtual paralysis in which the will races around a single point,” Farber investigates its most salient psychological characteristic and its relation to the will:
What sets jealousy apart from other possible responses to real or imagined infidelity — such as rage or grief — is its quality of obsession… Literally, obsession means being oppressed or besieged, as if by an evil spirit. On the one hand, one wills one’s obsession to disappear, thereby ensuring its perpetuation. On the other hand, the obsession is the condition of the will — simultaneously assertive and impotent, simultaneously frenzied and paralyzed. The role of the will here is crucial. Whether one is alone or with others, whether one rages or is silent, berates one’s mate with questions and accusations or refrains from berating one’s mate with questions and accusations, the internal drama remains the same: the will has become fixed in a rigid orbit of injury — it spins and burns, but cannot escape its tiny, terrible sphere.
This internal drama takes on a life of its own, contracting the whole of reality into its narrow aperture of self-concern, and eventually subsuming reality altogether — a gruesome counterpoint to the unselfing through which we attain the heights of our nature and the antithesis of Iris Murdoch’s wonderful definition of love as “the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.” Farber writes:
In the grip of jealous passion one’s state is reduced to a kind of craven non-being. One strives to appear to be the person he was, but he knows that he has lost his autonomy — his sense of self — and has become a slave whose diminished existence is at the mercy of his mate. His human space has shrunk to the narrow boundaries of the jealous melodrama in which he must perform. The world beyond those boundaries seems utterly alien, unreal, and his participation in it — insofar as it is compelled — will strike him not as reassuring and comforting, but hollow and mocking.
This bottomless craving for reassurance leads the jealous person to seek constant evidence of their mate’s presence, compulsively reaching out for contact as their experience of the relationship becomes increasingly “tortured and fragile.” The paradox is that no amount of external affirmation can counteract the internal melodrama of the obsession, leading every littlest gap in presence to read like total abandonment and betrayal, like death itself:
Once the mate goes through the door, moves outside the allotted space, the jealous one dies; the mate holds, in the shift and attention of his or her very eye, the power to grant or withhold permission to be. Small wonder that jealousy contains so striking a portion of anger. In his desperate need to prove the unprovable — namely affection, both his own and his mate’s — [the jealous person] wills what cannot be willed, demanding an enactment of relation that can only be grotesque in its deceits and disgusts.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Adrienne Rich’s poignant definition of honorable human relationships, Farber notes that in such a dynamic neither person is “morally qualified” to use the word love — for it is exceedingly rare “that a fit of jealousy, whatever its provocation, is met with an outpouring of love from a guileless heart.” Instead, what commonly happens is a catastrophe of confirmation bias, wherein the mate’s every gesture and movement is seen as affirmation of the jealous person’s suspicions. Farber captures the parasitic nature of this ouroboros of thinking:
Jealousy is self-confirming; it breeds itself… In no simple way (such as: OK, I was wrong all along) will this state of torment and anguish give up its claims or its existence.
The imagination not to imagine is an important power of intelligence disabled here by the seeming necessities of obsession.
As jealousy folds consciousness unto itself with self-reference, the jealous person grows insentient to the impact of their jealousy:
The experience of jealousy always includes so strong a conviction of being injured that it is most unusual for the jealous person to be able to consider the injury his jealousy causes others. For this reason, the real guilt that is jealousy’s inevitable consequence is seldom acknowledged by a jealous person; it is obliterated by his overriding absorption in his own injury.
The extreme passions of jealousy can also be mistaken for other emotions, further blinding the jealous person not only to external reality but also to the internal, occluding the very nature of the relationship within which the passions play out:
These paradoxical surges of desire, in the midst of reduction and alienation, may be misconceived by either partner or both as a transcendent return to being-in-love and an escape from jealousy’s claims. Because of this misconception, jealousy has brought about marriages that were ill-advised, and prevented the dissolution of relationships in which meaning had altogether failed.
Farber considers how open relationships — a standard attempt to bypass the very potential for jealousy, aiming at “the achievement of an attitude toward, and practice of, sex that would combine total freedom with total invulnerability” — may in fact misunderstand and underestimate the force of these fundamental psychological dynamics. He cautions:
It seems unlikely to me that such an ancient fox as jealousy will be so simple-mindedly outwitted. I suspect that the new permissiveness offers him a vastly enlarged arena for his operations. If the new generation is serious about its ambitions in relation to sex and serenity of mind, it may be forced to reinvent fidelity.
Locating what he calls the “ground of jealousy” in the developmental psychology of childhood and the elemental pain of our quest for individuation, he writes:
As the child grows gradually aware of the absolute separateness of his being from all other beings in the world, he discovers that this condition offers both pleasure and terror. On the one hand he cherishes his separate, individual, regal self, and on the other he yearns for the loneliness of his autonomy to be relieved by relation with others. The manner in which he seeks and finds such relief, and the manner in which those about him not only answer his overtures but also turn to him for their own consolation, will have considerable bearing on his interpretation of his (and their) condition — and his handling of it.
If this delicate process of interbeing is mishandled, if the child learns that approval is the ground for connection, a kind of constant apprehension sets in — one that can metastasize into a dangerous alienation from ourselves:
This apprehension will, of course, proceed from, and present itself as, sensations of inadequacy, unaccaptability, and so on, requiring an habitual dissembling on his part to render himself lovable. This uneasy state is both painful and corrupting, the pain and the corruption… being consequences of his low self-esteem and fear of others’ indifference or rejection, which in turn causes him to project himself falsely.
So habituated, we can begin to lose sense of our true selves as the approval-seeking falsehoods take on a life of their own. This erects an insurmountable obstacle to love, for all emotional intimacy requires, as Tom Stoppard knew, “the mask slipped from the face” — a mutual revelation and mirroring of innermost truth. As Adrienne Rich so memorably wrote, “an honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’ — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.” Without access to our own truth, we are forever doomed to withholding it from one another, withholding the very breath of love. Farber writes:
Telling the truth is, to be sure, no simple thing. Sometimes it is uncalled for; often it is hard. But telling it is by no means always the most difficult aspect of truth. That may be knowing it. Ordinary people — you and I — not in the grip of inner separation… often encounter uncertainty and confusion in their efforts to reveal by word and gesture what they do actually think and feel. They, too, cherish their integrity, and tend to believe that what they say, by virtue of their saying it, does indeed accurately represent them. Often it is only later, when the moment has passed, that one realizes, gradually and grudgingly, that, for one reason or another, caught up in the occasion, one falsified. One spoke with silence would have been truer; one was silent when he should have spoken. One spoke, and aimed at the right meaning, but used words of the wrong color. And so on. Most of us do not habitually betray ourselves — or others — with sweeping deceits. We just crowd a little here and there, we make ourselves a bit more comfortable than our good sense or loyalties should permit, we take refuge in discretion… One way and another we compromise in tiny steps until, we come to realize — perhaps with a shock — we are standing on alien ground. To make such discoveries, and to retrace our steps, it is essential not to be willfully caught up in sustaning an illusion of truth-telling. It is hard enough without it.
There are some things it is impossible both to do and at the same time to impersonate oneself doing. Speaking truthfully is one of them.
This tendency to impersonate ourselves is an essential form of self-abandonment that inclines us toward that dangerous territory of relinquishing our self-regard to the approval of others. With an eye to “the inevitable jealousies that lie in store for a life lived on these terms,” Farber writes:
Out of this ground, with its racking insufficiency of self and harsh dependence on the excessive regard of others — no degree of excess ever being truly adequate — springs again and again the inescapable jealousy that follows the failure of one person after another to fulfill the impossible demand: make me whole.
That obsessive longing to be made whole by another is the pulse-beat of jealousy. Observing that obsession is “so poignantly lonely a condition” — what a searing insight — Farber charts the common ground between jealousy and its counterintuitive twin:
There is another affliction of passion which may be seen as a companion obsession to jealousy; that is the state called being-in-love. Unlike jealousy, about which, to my mind, there is really nothing redeeming to be said, being-in-love does have pleasures, even virtues, which can survive its transformation into some more reasonable relation. But the state of being-in-love itself is strikingly similar to jealousy. The imperative of total possession rules them both. In being-in-love each appropriates the other’s history as painlessly as possible (“I want to know everything about you, but be careful with the details”), at the same time that they rush to develop their own history and mutuality together, metaphorically fortified by their restaurant, song, drink, movie, first fight, and so on. Not only do they merge their lives, loyalties, passions, but their beliefs, attitudes, and opinions must match as well. Any hint of imperfection in his fusion… causes crisis. The smallest real difference of opinion… stands for the impossibility and unreality of the ideal of total mutual possession, and thus provokes jealousy, even in the absence of any rival whatsoever.
This impulse toward merging and total possession is the very opposite of the spacious togetherness at the heart of healthy relationships. Farber cautions against the central impossibility of such an orientation:
There is a blasphemous character to this endeavor, in which each singles the other out as an object of worship. To do this, and to be “worthy” of it, each implicitly yields — or tries to yield — up his separate existence to the exalted unity. He abandons — or tries to abandon — or tries to appear to abandon — his independence of spirit as though it were a false idol. Of course it doesn’t work. No matter how willing, one can never totally possess or be totally possessed by another. But before disillusionment sets in, and while the inevitable interruptions of jealousy are serving, paradoxically, both to cripple and to keep feverishly alive, being-in-love is often experienced as a miraculous rebirth, a time of exhilaration, inspiration, and ready transcendence, not to mention overstatement. Like jealousy, and all obsessions, it is addictive, requiring larger and larger doses of itself to satisfy the terms of its illusions.
With an optimistic eye to the capacity for self-transcendence that dwells in the human soul even at its most tangled, Farber adds:
But it is possible for two people and their relation to survive being-in-love. With enough appetite for each other’s company and enough hope in the possibilities for commonality that this life affords, they may go on to find a way of being together that includes being apart, a way that combines passionate affection with the reality of distance. A way that is also uncertain, vulnerable, and ever open to the contaminations of jealousy. There is no happy ending. But there is happy getting on with it.
Complement with Anne Carson on what Sappho teaches us about jealousy and the trailblazing French mathematician Émilie du Châtelet on jealousy and the metaphysics of love, then revisit philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s boundlessly insightful inquiry into anger, forgiveness, and the emotional machinery of trust.
Published April 7, 2023