How Do I Not Trust Thee: Jealousy
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How Do I Not Trust Thee: Jealousy

Let me count the (sometimes ridiculous) ways I get jealous. Should my wife be flattered -- or worried -- that I fear I'll catch her cheating?

A Suspicious Letter

Diane left some letters on the kitchen counter for me to mail, as she always does, and as I walked down the steps I quickly looked through them, as I always do. Among the endless bills was a hand-addressed envelope to a man at an address I didn't recognize in another state.

I thought for a second about asking Diane who he was, but I didn't want to appear, y'know, suspicious. So instead I went down to my office and acted suspicious, searching the name and address on the Internet. I finally found him on a government scientific Web site. And while I tried not to jump to any conclusions, I couldn't get my mind to stop considering the possibility...

Is my wife cheating on me with an algae researcher?

I wrote down the name and address on a Post-it (easier to eat if I had to destroy the evidence), mailed the mail, and went about my business. For the next two days I thought about how to bring this up to Diane. Then I got an e-mail. It was from the researcher. Oh my god. I clicked it open and there was just one sentence:

"Did you get the swizzle sticks yet?"

That mystery letter? A check Diane had written for something I forgot that I'd bought on eBay.

Okay, I'm an idiot. I'm also a jealous guy. Always have been. Probably always will be. If nearly 20 years of marriage to a woman who loves and completes me hasn't cured me, nothing will.

Jealousy is one of the few emotions that husbands have always been expected to express. Unfortunately, most of us express it really badly -- often for absolutely no good reason, and sometimes with disastrous consequences. It might be the only emotion that wives wish husbands would suppress.

After the swizzle stick episode, I started asking my basketball buddies about jealousy -- what Shakespeare called "the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on." (I didn't mention Shakespeare specifically because I didn't want anyone to throw the ball at my head. It was bad enough I was asking them to admit they actually had feelings.)

I was most interested to hear from one guy because I knew he and his wife had just entered a scenario rife with betrayal possibilities. After many years of being home with their kids, his wife took a job at a small company with a lot of younger single people. I was at a party recently where I saw her with some of her new male colleagues. They flocked around her, almost flirtatiously, I thought. It actually made me feel a little jealous on my buddy's behalf.

So I was amused by the way my friend denied the role of jealousy in his marriage. "Not as big a deal now as it was 20 years ago," he said, "but I've always had more to be jealous about than my wife, because she is a first-class flirt." Then he added, a bit irritably, as if the facts were irrefutably in his favor: "Look, her coworkers are all much younger and/or gay. And the one person she is hanging out with lots is 10 years younger, with a pregnant wife."

Oh, okay. Good thing you're not feeling threatened. And, of course, guys never cheat on their pregnant wives.

Why I'm a Jealous Guy

How he stays calm I don't know. I get jealous over much less. I'm not what experts call "morbidly jealous" -- I don't get aggressive or have much of a temper. But I do feel more jealous than any happily married man should. And it comes out in all kinds of little ways I'm embarrassed to admit. Besides occasionally checking out the mail (or, okay, the cell phone bill), I definitely do the "husbandly hover." I pay a little too much attention to whom Diane talks with at parties, remaining far enough away to be inconspicuous but close enough to stealthily intercede in any conversation that seems suspiciously long.

Why do husbands do this kind of stuff? During our first few years together I believed my actions were well-founded responses to something real -- perhaps a carryover from fighting off other suitors to win Diane's hand. Like many husbands, I felt I had married someone way better than I deserved and needed to diligently protect myself against losing her. I still feel that way and can see how Diane attracts people: She's smart and disarmingly funny and, at 50, still turns heads (sometimes all the way around) in just a T-shirt and jeans.

But I have also come to understand that most of my jealousy is unfounded and unprovoked -- something I brought into the marriage, like that ugly brown sleeper sofa.

According to social scientists, husbands and wives are jealous in different ways: Supposedly, men care more about sexual fidelity and women care more about emotional fidelity. And, in a more important sociological indicator -- bad movie dialogue -- it is usually "did you sleep with him?" versus "do you love her?"

Now, I've always been troubled by this notion that men care more about possessing women than loving them, treating them like toys that nobody else can play with, while women will overlook sexual indiscretions as long as he loves her best. So I'm glad to report that recent studies show jealousy is becoming a more equal-opportunity obsession. Men are now scoring as more emotionally jealous than ever before, and women as more sexually jealous. Our worst relationship fears have all begun to even out. This could mean men are learning to love more or that women have finally wised up about the old "I slept with her but it didn't mean anything" line, or both.

As for us, I consider myself lucky that after 20 years together my wife is still kind of flattered by how possessive I can be. Even now Diane recalls as "funny and cute" how, during our courtship, I used to show up "coincidentally" at restaurants where she was dining with friends. ("Funny and cute?" a friend of ours gasped when she later heard about my extreme wooing. "He was a stalker!")

When I recently fessed up to Diane about the algae researcher incident, she found it "hilariously touching." I guess that's because she appreciates the upside of jealousy in a marriage. And no matter how many times she has to deal with me waiting up for her like some '60s sitcom dad on the few nights she goes out with the girls, I can think of only one thing worse for our relationship.

And that would be if I stopped being so jealous.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, September 2006.