Sometimes we meet someone, and for no clear reason, we dislike them instantly. Or we’re incredibly jealous of them. Sometimes it’s both.
We do not come into relationships unbiased. Instead, we enter them as a collection of all of our life experiences. And those we vicariously witness. Through the lives of those close to us. Or distantly, through media.
Therapists are well acquainted with the concept of transference, the subconscious redirection of feelings we formed for one person to a new one. Therapists count on transference — it has utility and danger. It becomes useful when the therapist can use this identification to help the client explore and resolve conflicts of past relationships. But that same connection can become dangerous if mishandled or exploited.
And of course transference isn’t limited to the confines of formal therapy (few things are). We are constantly forming impressions of new people based on past information, past experiences. Even if this process is unconscious.
And some of it can be rather arbitrary.
And sometimes transference can make us irrationally jealous of someone we’ve only just met.
I look to my own life for an example. One that I only realized quite far in hindsight.
Transference and Jealousy, Me and the A-Girls
I subconsciously developed a bias against women whose first names began with A. It was curious because I did know a few friendly girls with A-names. But they were the exception, not the rule. And a long procession of A-girls bullied or snubbed me.
And unbeknownst to me, I developed a bias.
So when Seth and I first started dating in 2001, and he said to me, “You’d really like A——. You two are so much alike,” I shocked us both.
Let’s just say I didn’t react well.
“She sounds pretty terrible from everything you’ve told me,” I said.
“She does?” he asked.
She didn’t. I was arguing for a thing that wasn’t even possibly true. “Oh yeah,” I said, “She’s one of those sheep activists. Not a real thinker of her own. Does it to be cool. Throwing out Thich Nhat Hanh quotes that barely fit the situation. And reading Annie Dillard where there’s a large audience to witness it.”
It was the height of hypocrisy. I loved both Thich Nhat Hanh and Annie Dillard. I quoted them. And read them in public. So I was attempting to insult A—– and demonstrate how different we were… by accusing her of doing a thing that I myself did (I’d found books in Seth’s room she had gifted to him with a thoughtful inscription). And continue to do now.
But even in my hypocrisy, I scrambled to create that distance between her and me. I was not her. And I told Seth that he was to never make that mistake again.
And over the following weeks and months, I took every opportunity to let Seth know how unimpressive I found this person. Fueled solely by scraps of information that Seth had told me about her prior to my blow up.
I’m not sure how Seth put up with it.
Looking back now, I can see that I was jealous of A—— as jealous as I was of Seth’s other ex-girlfriend (whose first name also happened to start with “A”). More so, even. Because in my mind, A—— was the one who got away. She’d decided Seth wasn’t quite right for her. Cut her losses early. So to my thinking, I was the girl that Seth had settled for.
And by all reports, directly from Seth and echoed by his friends, Seth had changed for A——. And for his other ex. Gone outside of his comfort zone. He did sexual acts that weren’t his favorites. He’d even eaten vegetarian for a while. Since A—— said the consumption of meat was a large cause of global poverty and starvation. The grain that livestock eat should be fed directly to the people.
But when it came to things I wanted, Seth always said no. Even when they were important to me.
I think Seth knew intuitively that I wouldn’t push back. And that I was a sure thing.
So I continued to be jealous. And to feel like Seth had settled for me because I was easy and attainable.
I’ve Learned to Admit When I’m Jealous
I’ve learned a lot about jealousy since 2001. It wasn’t a straight trajectory up. Not at all. But I have a completely different relationship with jealousy these days than I did all those years ago.
It’s not that I never get jealous. I do. But it’s less often. I’m more aware of it when it happens. And I admit it. Even if doing so is potentially awkward.
This notably happened with my metamour Sika when I first met her in 2012 (from You Have to Fall in Love with Metamours):
When I first met Sika, I was so struck by our similarities that I’ll admit I compared and couldn’t help but feel like I came up short.
She was the shiny new Christmas toy, and I was last year’s model, in danger of being relegated to the attic. A dust collector.
Irrationally, entirely without cause, I felt with every bit of my body, “Well, this girl is my replacement.” In my circle of friends. And maybe even eventually with my lover (Skypook and I were closed at that point but still very poly-aware, mono-flexible).
I’d run into these patterns with other women before, especially back when I considered myself monogamous. An insidious jealousy that would turn a friend into a rival. Before you know it, all of your female friends are insulting the same beautiful girl obliquely, trying to poison the well, consumed by threats to their own security.
I didn’t for a second trust myself not to misbehave, to act out in indirect ways towards Sika.
Jealousy and insecurity thrive in secrecy (Martin loves the shadows).
So I decided to tell her.
“It’s nothing you did,” I told her. “But I’m extremely jealous of you. You seem like a better version of me. And it makes me feel a little crazy.”
“Oh, that’s not how I see it at all!” Sika replied. “You’re like the cool, wise older sister I never had. You’re amazing. Stop.”
Two hours later, after a flurry of conversation and processing, we formally declared each other sisters. And regardless of where we’ve been or what’s going on in either of our lives, we have continued to foster a mutual love and respect that has certainly made my life so much better.
GI Joe Was Right – Knowing Is Half the Battle
And if fessing up every time you feel jealous of people isn’t your cup of tea, that’s okay, too. Just being aware of transference effects and knowing to double check the origin of such “gut feelings” can go a long way in giving people a fair shake. And not mixing them up emotionally with someone from your past.
I never did meet A——. I’m sure she’s lovely.
My new book is out!
Dealing with Difficult Metamours, the first book devoted solely to metamour relationships, full of strategies to help you get along better with your partners’ other partner(s).