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October 3, 2013 7:46 AM   Subscribe

What causes the weird possessiveness/jealousy experienced by many people when you fall in love?

Apparently not everyone experiences this. However I've noticed, among many people, myself included, the early wallop of limerance seems to create an absurd feeling of entitlement to the object of obsession's time and an almost stabby reflex regarding the 'competition'.

It seems like human sexuality mostly takes this for granted when we talk about it, as well as in fiction. Whether it's Taylor Swift warbling away about her crush's girlfriend's vapidity, or Jane Eyre casting the person she thinks Mr. Rochester is going to marry into absurd opposition to herself (prettier than her but meaner than her), it appears to be a well entrenched concept. I've also noticed myself basically go into a "HE IS MINE!" mode, even when I have zero interest in dating said hapless chap.

From my perspective it's embarrassing and irrational, especially the jealousy side- I don't mind getting the glow sensation from a cute man and making him into my muse, being able to 'smell' something pleasant around him, and over inflating his value as a human for six months. It's kinda stupid, but tolerable. But, viewing other women as 'rivals' is weird and makes me feel like a crazy person. It's not like fighting someone over a person you've glued to would even work, and just as I consciously am aware my crushes are never as pretty as I think they are, the people I'm being jealous at are always blameless.

For me, I'm not really concerned with how to deal with it (not being stabby in behaviour seems to work okay) or how to handle love-crush (do not stalk, make art) but what is going on in the meat.

So what is causing this? Is it a hormonal thing? Is there a measurable other animal equivalent? Some sort of evolutionary ghost from when I was supposed to butt heads and pee on things?
posted by Phalene to Human Relations (18 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

Vulnerability and a sense that the person you're with isn't as committed to you as you think you are to them. It's not irrational because we all have experiences and baggage that make us view the world through a certain lense, but it is overpowering, and the way people deal with their jealousy is often irrational and destructive.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 7:53 AM on October 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Fear of being alone. Fear of losing what feels like your best chance for a life spent not alone.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 8:00 AM on October 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think it's mostly insecurity. Most of us only feel that level of emotional love a few times in life, if that. So fear of losing it because we aren't really worthy in the early stages seems like it would be a thing that would affect us in a lot of ways. The jealousy, inability to sleep, inability to concentrate, etc.
posted by COD at 8:03 AM on October 3, 2013

Some sort of evolutionary ghost from when I was supposed to butt heads and pee on things?

You're supposed to be madly in love, i.e. hooked on the drug that is the other person, so that you two copulate like crazy and perpetuate the species. Competition makes you want to stab someone because you don't want those sweet superior genes going to someone else, you want them all.

Think of the person as the most delicious chocolate cake ever and you're in the midst of a sugar binge. Sharing that chocolately goodness isn't on the top of everyone's list.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:06 AM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

When you like someone, you gotta take out all your rivals so that you can pair bond for a while and have a baaaaaaaaaby!
posted by zscore at 8:06 AM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

It is most definitely hormonally driven, as is the majority of the courtship and pair bonding experience. What's more, I think this particular feeling that you experience is being placed in a separate box simply because your experience with it happens infrequently enough that it isn't considered ordinary.

For example, when people refer to pair bonding they call it "falling in love" which is a distinct chemical process that, although one can influence, one does not control. You cannot choose someone out of a lineup to love them, not really. A big chunk of that has been taken out of your conscious control by evolution. The entitlement experience is undoubtably part of that. The mixture of hormones that causes the behavior and how extreme it is varies from person to person.

Merely by the words that you have used and the treatment of the subject, you don't sound like an extraordinarily emotional person. Emotional people don't tend to try to figure out what's going on with their emotions because feeling them strongly and consistently is not notable. For you, it is.

I know you're being funny about the evolutionary ghost, but, to be honest, we're all a product of that process in our entirety. Without emotions, we wouldn't do much of anything. Happiness is a feeling, not a logical end... Sadly.
posted by Feel the beat of the rhythm of the night at 8:14 AM on October 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

Some sort of evolutionary ghost from when I was supposed to butt heads and pee on things?

This, although it really isn't a ghost. Much of what we do is the result of millions of years of evolution that we often futilely try to will away because we are so enlightened.

Even if one intends to remain childless, these feelings are ultimately driven by the impulse to reproduce. Humans have few offspring, long gestation, and long parental care, so we follow what is called a K-selection strategy. Part of this process is pair bonding, which is to ensure that the offspring will be provided for during their long period of immaturity. You want the father of your offspring to be invested in you so he will devote his resources to your offspring rather than offspring that he has with some other female.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:20 AM on October 3, 2013 [6 favorites]

As others have said, it's mostly fear and anxiety about being alone.

Mindfulness meditation helps a lot with this. Detachment! Objectivity! Seeing things as they really are... mostly pointless, irrational, and empty! We're basically always alone no matter what, even in a relationship!

Weird how understanding and accepting those things has made me MORE ready to be in a mutually respectful, no-hidden-agenda, enjoyable relationship.
posted by 3FLryan at 8:25 AM on October 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

First of all this "how to handle love-crush (do not stalk, make art)" is awesome, made me lol, and should be on the AskMe wiki somewhere.

Secondly, one thing I wanted to add to the pool is the validation thing with a crush.

So for example, my crushes often happen on people who are strongly into a subject that I'm also pretty keen on. I then get jealous of people who vie for the position of Person Crush Enthuses To About That Thing. I want them to validate my feeling that I am Winning At That Thing.

However, if you've ever been on the other end of that, you'll know it comes across as a bit weird. Having someone in your life become a yes-man just because they look up to you because of one thing you're both into, is odd and feels uncomfortable. So when I become aware of myself doing this, I just remind myself that it looks MUCH cooler to be seen to just go about my business rather than doing the clamour/jealousy approach.

I am aware that that sounds a bit shallow, but hey crushes ARE shallow and it's ok to get tactical about it. Be cool. When your "rival" approaches your crush, make it a competition to be the MOST nice to her, so that you appear even cooler.

And, ultimately, ensure you're getting your validation from your own faith in yourself rather than the admiration of one person. Being cool will help with that. You sound cool. I don't think you'll have a problem.
posted by greenish at 8:46 AM on October 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

It's worth reading the book Sex at Dawn to see the weight of evidence against the 'evolutionary ghost' idea. Monogamy is not universal to all human cultures, present or historical.
posted by Jairus at 8:49 AM on October 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

If you only have eyes for them, you (probably; not everybody is like this) want to feel like they only have eyes for you. If they pay attention to someone else, you feel as if they don't feel about you the way you feel about them -- because if they did feel the way you do, they wouldn't be able to even look at anyone else! Obviously this is total insanity -- I've caught myself feeling this kind of jealousy, then turning away to chat cozily with someone else in a way that would give me a real twinge if I saw him doing it. "But it's different! This doesn't mean anything, I'm just being friendly! Whereas when he does it it clearly means something!" sez your brain. This is the voice of the Excuse Monkey speaking from the Solipsism Control Tower.

I think most resentment of a "rival" is sublimated stress about the person you're crushing on and resentment of them for "making" you feel this way. It's your general tension about the crush and fear that he's indifferent to you expressing itself in a vitriolic way, because vitriol is stimulating and distracting and overall easier to deal with than stress and uncertainty. That's why for most people this dies way down if they actually get with the crush object and start getting some attention from them, even though from a solely evo-psych perspective this would seem to increase your vulnerability.

But, yeah, this is totally atavistic. I've been genuinely shocked at the way emotions I honestly don't think I'm capable of at any other time come out of the woodwork when I have a crush. So don't feel too embarrassed about it.
posted by ostro at 8:54 AM on October 3, 2013 [5 favorites]

I am pretty sure it's mostly a brain-chemical reaction, somewhat akin to addiction. Pheromones and such probably play a role in getting that ball rolling. Don't know how much evolution's got to do with it beyond the basic hard-wiring to procreate (or at least engage in activities associated with procreation). I mean, who's to say that the individual(s) who drive you the maddest would yield the 'fittest' offspring with you anyways? Wonder if anyone's tried to study that in some way...
posted by fikri at 9:03 AM on October 3, 2013

Levels of intense sexual jealousy vary a lot cross-culturally. Our emotions are "chemical" but the chemistry evoked is also social and cultural. There are differences in how men and women tend to normatively experience jealousy in different cultures, and differences in how specific actions (from flirting to actual sex to just existing as a potential rival in the same space) are experienced as jealousy-inducing. So while jealousy is perhaps a universally recognized emotion, the intensity of the experience towards all possible rivals really isn't a shared human universal experience cross culturally and is not necessary to reproduction of genes.
In modern Western culture at the moment, we have a master narrative about evolution causing nearly everything we do or feel. But after a certain baseline ("jealousy") the specifics of how, when, why, and to what degree it's experienced have a lot to do with culturally (and psychologically) diverse meanings.
posted by third rail at 9:46 AM on October 3, 2013

I agree that though there is certainly an underlying biological mechanism at work with regards to the emotions involved in falling in love and jealousy, the experience and expression of that emotion, and the reinforcement of it in certain cases, is very much cultural.
posted by Nothing at 10:03 AM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think it's anthropological. Male apes and chimps are possessive of their mates in order to make sure their seed is successful. Female apes and chimps are possessive of the alpha male to keep their dominance. We have lots of behaviors in common with our fellow hominids. We also have big brains and, ideally, can make choices about how we act on our urges. IANAAnthropologist.
posted by theora55 at 10:43 AM on October 3, 2013

Another argument against the ev psych explanations that connect jealousy purely to reproduction is that intense jealousy can and does also appear in non-sexual/non-romantic relationships, such as between siblings, friends, parents and children. (As a matter of fact, very small kids seem to me especially prone to intense jealousy.)

I'd rather say jealousy has more to do with fear of loss, rejection, loneliness and social pain. Being unloved, not having your needs met. Your loved one is a resource (for emotional gratification) and your brain wants to keep it, and sharing or losing it is a threat.

Add to this that in some cases a good chunk our sense of self-worth can be tied to the relationship we have with someone, or even just the possibility of it. (Even when it's a crush and the whole relationship exists only in your mind - the brain doesn't always seem to differentiate.) Your intense feelings for someone grant that person a special say in how you look at yourself and how you feel you compare to others. Jealousy is fear that you'll be deemed lacking or unworthy.

I remember reading some articles claiming jealousy (as well as social rejection) activates the areas in your brain that also process physical pain, which was then used to explain why it hurts. I don't know enough about that to say if it's true, but you could try googling jealousy and neurology.
posted by sively at 11:11 AM on October 3, 2013 [6 favorites]

I'm reading the book Attached about attachment theory, and one of the big ideas is that individuals with an anxious attachment have various protective behaviors to guard the relationship in a sense and attempt to generate closeness, especially if there are any subtle indicators that the other person might be pulling away. The examples were things like obsessive thinking, frequent contact, jealousy, and attempts to make your mate jealous. It was explained as an evolutionary mechanism to keep anxiously attached individuals locked into the relationship in a sense. Good book! And helpful from an insight standpoint.
posted by mermily at 2:22 PM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah... 'mate for life' animals actually don't do as much of the fight to the death (or at all) for the target of ones desire as the animals that choose one or many new mates every season.

So if we are blaming biology I don't think monogamy is what this green monster has in mind. All SudoScience (tm) Aside.

As a person who doesn't feel this sensation, my observation has always been that jealously is usually paired with insecurity and insecurity is usually due to lack of information and communication. The wonderful new relationship/crush time is also a time of almost no real Data so it's easy to feel insecure because you have no reason not to. And for a lot of folks insecurity is best expressed via jealously.
posted by French Fry at 8:03 PM on October 3, 2013

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