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Micah Toub: The Other Half

Flirt away, it's all in the name of healthy jealousy Add to ...

"We get a lot of sexy pirates," says Jason Walsh, the retail manager at Malabar, a popular costume shop in Toronto. I called him to ask what I could expect to see women strutting around in at next week's Halloween parties. "And for whatever reason, the circus theme seems to be sort of big, so we have a lion tamer with a short skirt, very close to the body."

As he listed more costumes - a female gangster called Brass Knuckle Betty (pinstriped skirt suit with a high slit) and a vampire with an emphasis on the vampy - he used this term "close to the body" several more times, bringing my blood pressure as high as I imagined the hemlines to be. Once again, as we do every year, the male species thanks whatever genius pagans of yore are responsible for this celebration.

But for a guy in a relationship, there is a twist. While previewing his sweetheart as a sexy lion tamer, it could suddenly dawn on him that in a week, he'll likely see her in this provocative outfit talking to some werewolf in the corner of a kitchen, a random dude whose growing smile is a little more carnivorous than he's comfortable with. It's the kind of thing that could transform him from the lion he's dressed as into a green-eyed monster.

Jealousy has a bad rap for good reason. For example, it's not so awesome when a guy starts tracking and stalking the person who is already committed to him. Or worse, when he becomes abusive as a result. But, if kept in check, could a little jealousy in a relationship be a good thing?

According to Sybil L. Hart, who pulled together contributions from a variety of scientific sources for the forthcoming Handbook of Jealousy , this answer is yes. Long ago, she tells me, jealousy was an accepted part of a relationship, usually settled by duels.

"But then somewhere in the 1960s," she says, "along with the idea of free love, came the idea that you should trust your partner deeply and if there is jealousy in the relationship, obviously somebody is very insecure. Or the relationship is vulnerable."

Now, she says, the pendulum is swinging back.

In Dr. Hart's own study, she observed the behaviour of infants to get a picture of healthy jealousy before socialization and taboos are drilled into a kid's head. She put an infant in a room with its mother and then introduced a doll, which was given more attention than the human child. Most of the infants got upset at having their mother encroached upon by an intruder, but one in 50 did nothing at all. Far from being a healthy free lover in the making, Dr. Hart says, the unresponsive infant is not "securely attached" and will have problems later on in relationships.

Although there is some truth to the cliché that men sometimes act like children, Dr. Hart assured me her findings do translate to adults. The jealous infant, she says, is concerned about "survival of the self." In adults, it the same instinct focuses on survival of one's offspring. "Sexual exclusivity helps preserve your mate and her exclusive attention to you, thereby preserving your offspring as opposed to being cuckolded and so protecting somebody else's offspring."

Elizabeth Dunn, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, gave me another positive spin on jealousy. Although Dr. Dunn said she doesn't endorse jealousy in general, she suggested that a small dose of it could reignite a stagnating romance. She ran a study where she compared interactions between couples to interactions between strangers of the opposite sex. With the stranger, she says, both men and women were consistently more charming and cheerful than with their partners.

"It's like you can kind of flop on the couch in your ugly sweatshirt and be your grumpy self with your long-term romantic partner, whereas if you just started dating somebody you're going to try to be your best self," she says.

When she put the couples back together and asked them to pretend they had just started dating, it spurred them to be more attentive and engaging. "People feel significantly happier after that interaction," she says, noting this was true of both the lion and the lion tamer. "This is speculative, but it's quite conceivable to think that if people feel a little twinge of jealousy and feel that they have to actually work hard to keep their partner's attention, that could spur them to engage in positive self-presentation."

A long time ago I saw a documentary following Leonard Cohen and one of the things that stayed with me was his suggestion that "sexuality is general" and that "although only one man may be receiving the favours of a woman, all in her presence are warm." I like the idea that there's a certain part of us, of our affection, that we share with everyone. And what is that thing people always say - if you love someone, let them go socialize freely at a party without prowling about them constantly?

Of course, as Dr. Hart pointed out, context always plays a part in how interactions outside the couple are viewed. "Say your wife is standing topless in front of somebody," she posed as an example. "If you're on a beach in France, it doesn't mean much." I guess the same is true for Halloween. Of course, if a woman starts leaving the house dressed like a French maid every day, that could make even the most "securely attached" guy a little nervous. Unless he lives in France. And she works as a maid.

Micah Toub's memoir, Growing Up Jung, will be published in the fall of 2010. mtoub@globeandmail.com

Follow on Twitter: @MicahToub

 

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