Tuesday, June 19 , 2018, 10:26 pm | Fair 62º


Russell Collins: When Jealousy Strikes

The story of former NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak helps illustrate the cultural tendencies of jealousy

Early in February 2007, Lisa Nowak famously climbed behind the wheel of a car loaded with strange tools and paraphernalia, and drove 900 miles across country from the Johnson Space Center in Houston to the international airport in Orlando, Fla., where a Navy captain named Colleen Shipman was scheduled to arrive.

Russell Collins
Russell Collins

Nowak disguised herself, waited at the airport for two hours for Shipman, then followed her to the parking lot, where she attempted to confront her, allegedly with the intent of kidnapping her. Nowak regarded Shipman as her rival for the affections of astronaut William Oefelein. It was a contest Shipman apparently was winning.

Shipman escaped, and Nowak was apprehended as she attempted to ditch her wig and outfit in a trash can. She later said she just wanted to talk to Shipman about Oefelein.

Nowak apparently had no history of mental disease. Even more interesting was that her relationship to Oefelein was, in her own words, “more than a working relationship but less than a romantic relationship.” Yet, the details of the case would suggest she was in the throes of agonizing and powerful jealousy directed at Shipman. Nowak’s mental state at the time of the incident no doubt will be a topic of great interest at her trial, beginning in a few weeks.

The New Social Psychology of Jealousy

A renaissance in the study of emotion during the past 15 years has catalyzed new research and new thinking on jealousy. Four ideas have emerged, and they tie together to form a more complex picture than we’ve had in the past: 1) Jealousy is an important survival mechanism bestowed by nature; 2) the feelings of jealousy come out of childhood events, particularly experiences of abandonment by primary caregivers; 3) jealousy arises from a particular set of ideas and beliefs about the world; and 4) jealousy is in the air — it’s cultural. Each of those is a topic in itself, but perhaps the most interesting is the last one, because it’s just not the way we normally think about jealousy.

Jealousy is cultural. Does this mean that in some cultures nobody minds when an interloper goes after your mate? Yes, in fact. According to social psychologist Ralph Hupka, who specializes in understanding emotions across cultures, society sets the rules for just where and under what circumstances you get to be jealous.

Throughout history, various cultures have decided that someone else being intimate with your spouse can be seen as anything from a capital crime to an inconvenient necessity. Certain Eskimo tribes once encouraged intercourse between a man’s wife and a visitor from out of town (this practice is now extinct). As recently as the last century, the Toda people of Southern India practiced fraternal polyandry, in which a woman married all of the brothers of a family. Even in present-day United States, a religiously-sanctioned practice of polygamy survives among certain Mormon families. In each of those cases, the cultural approval of interloping mates — for both men and women — seems to eliminate or at least drastically reduce jealousy toward the interloper.

In cultures where subsistence is a struggle, on the other hand, community attitudes have been historically less flexible, according to researcher Ayala Malach Pines, author of Romantic Jealousy: Causes, Symptoms and Cures.

Among the Plateau tribes of northern Zimbabwe, if the husband didn’t exercise his right to punish the offending wife and the sexual interloper by killing them after they were caught in the act, the villagers themselves would take on the task, impaling the unfortunate couple on sharp stakes, then taunting them as they expired. The Apache tribes of North America had similarly strict enforcement of marital contracts. For the Apache, women and children were collaborators in the survival effort with the men, and preserving the family unit was a matter of life and death. Different circumstances give rise to differing cultural values, in other words — including attitudes toward loyalty to the family unit, and emotions of jealousy toward interlopers.

(Of course, the elephant in the room with any discussion of jealousy and culture is the difference in response to a romantic interloper between men and women. In nearly all of the native cultures described by Pines in her book, if revenge is taken, it’s carried out by the jealous male on either the interloper, the wife or both. Women don’t seem to have the same right to violent revenge, and when they do, it’s revenge against the transgressing woman, not the man. Among the Toba Indians of Bolivia, a wife could leave her husband after infidelity, or fight her rival with bare fingers and cactus thorns. What she couldn’t do was fight her husband. The simplest explanation for that — and probably a valid one — is also a cultural: In most cultures, women weren’t given sexual property rights over men, whereas the reverse was often true.)

In the United States, as in most cultures, jealousy is fueled by the specter of social humiliation. Pines illustrates this idea in Zuni culture with the story of a wife who was unconcerned that her husband was having an affair. She took action only when the village started to gossip, threatening her status within the group. Jealous mates in the United States have an additional problem, and a troubling double bind. In the past century and a half, as a result of shifting social values, jealousy itself has become shameful.

Around the turn of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud described jealousy as a neurotic fixation leftover from early childhood. Around age 4 or 5, as Freud describes it, a child yearns to achieve sexual possession of the opposite-sex parent: their mothers for little boys, their fathers for little girls. The weirdness of that picture alone is enough to cause most people to deny ever being jealous. Added to that, the sexual and cultural revolution of the 1960s revived the romantic notion that all forms of possessiveness (“Imagine no possessions”) was fundamentally piggish and clear evidence of low self-esteem.

Social psychologist Gordon Clanton says such explanations just add to the problem. Unlike the Dobuan, the Eskimo or the Apaches who take jealousy to be the natural and socially sanctioned response to a romantic interloper, U.S. culture (and Nowak’s military culture especially, I would guess) consider it a sign of flawed character or weakness. Clanton says we may have it backwards. As the mirror of public opinion reflects back a picture of weakness and instability, the shameful self-image causes low self-esteem, which — in a self-realizing feedback loop — incites further social censure and further loss of emotional balance.

In a culture of tight control such as NASA, Nowak might have perceived herself not as a normal person reacting normally to a threat against her relationship, but as a shaky impostor among the elite corps of steely-eyed astronauts — an outsider spinning out of control. This fits nicely with the picture of astronaut Nowak speeding toward Orlando with a weird assortment of plastic bags, a mallet, pepper spray, rubber tubing and diapers in her car, wearing a wig as a disguise at the airport and behaving in increasingly bizarre ways. It fits, too, with so many of the spectacular headlines of homicidal and suicidal jealousy, where a jealous mate or partner exhibits erratic, self-destructive behavior that seems at cross-purposes with getting his or her relationship back — or even getting revenge.

How Much Does It Take to Make Us Really Jealous?

One version of Nowak’s involvement with Oefelein was revealed when NASA released some e-mails between them. They were warm but not intimate, the kind of talk you would expect from people experiencing a mild mutual attraction at work. Would that level of relationship be enough to kindle a blazing jealousy like Nowak apparently experienced?

In a computer lab at the University of Texas earlier this year, a large group of psychology students were wired with EEG equipment to measure their brain responses as they played round after round of Cyberball, a computerized game that includes passing and receiving passes from virtual teammates. Each of the students was put on a small team with a male and a female virtual player, and the games began.

The program tracked what happened inside each student’s brain when a cyber teammate favored the student with passes or, conversely, seemed to prefer the other cyber player. Surprisingly, the students responded with brain activity that suggested an elevated level of jealousy when the virtual teammate chose his or her virtual pal over the real-life college student. It might suggest that even the smallest hint of lost connection strikes the chord of jealousy in us. It also might suggest that — as with the Dobuan tribe, the Apaches and maybe the elite team of NASA astronauts — jealousy arises quickly and naturally when small communities or teams of people are engaged in a high-intensity, survival-related cooperative task.

Can Culture Be a Cure for Jealousy?

The source of Nowak’s obsessive jealousy undoubtedly will emerge in her individual therapy. It will probably have something to do with her childhood — some insecurity in her early relationships — and with distorted ideas about herself. However, as with many obsessive quests, the chaotic behavior of her jealousy may have been hugely exacerbated by her fear of social ostracism, by the contempt that Americans reserve for those who behave jealously. That is where the relatively new science of social psychology may have a contribution to make.

“Jealousy is a social phenomena,” Hupka said. “It is not the product of the mind of an isolated individual.”

The healing work of the social psychologist is to identify the ways in which cultural influences affect our attitudes and behavior, and make us aware of them. By locating our suffering “out there” in the culture, we have a chance not just to feel better, but to change the culture as well.

— Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.

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