In the same way, the momentary wish that we, and not our girlfriend, were dating that hot new guy can be a useful way to get in touch with our own feelings about romance. Maybe there are problems with our current relationship or with our solitude, and we haven't been willing to act on them. Perhaps we've been pretending to ourselves that things are fine, and only a sharp jab of envy wakes us up to the realization of how dissatisfied we really are. If we are willing to explore those uncomfortable feelings, we might make some important discoveries that can ultimately enrich our lives.
Or we could go in the other direction and focus all of our discomfort upon our rival. This is the stage of female rivalry that I call jealousy, which might be expressed as You've got something I want -- and I want you dead.
All right, maybe "dead" is putting it too strongly. None of the women I interviewed actually confessed to murder, though some real-life stories come fairly close. One bizarre case of a mother accused of plotting to kill another mother suggests that women can indeed become toxic if their jealousy gets out of hand. In this instance, the daughters were cheerleading rivals and the scheming mother wanted to upset her daughter's competition as a way to take her out of the race. But even when we don't take our jealousy to murderous extremes, it's important to understand how we sometimes project our own desires and frustrations onto other women. Instead of figuring out what we want and how to get it, we focus on what they have and why we hate them for it. My research showed me that the more powerless we feel, especially when competing for "scarce goods," the more prone we are to turn healthy competition into a corrosive jealousy that can destroy our relationships, our peace of mind, and even our sense of self.
Consider the story of Brenda, a forty-eight-year-old registered nurse who had been married for about nine years:
Once I married Roy I expected to be satisfied, but a weird thing happened. I became jealous of other women's lifestyles. ... Those with families seemed to be the most enviable of all. ...
Suddenly, I had to have a baby. I hadn't even considered it a possibility, and now I was consumed. I ended up in a support group for infertile women and when two of the members became pregnant, I went nuts. ...
Once Roy and I adopted a baby, I settled down, and today I feel blessed. But I find myself competitive now over my daughter and other mothers and their children. I think this jealousy is just a big part of who I am.
Fear or Fascination? Our Preoccupation with Female Rivalry
Once I started exploring this topic, it seemed as though stories about female rivalry were everywhere. Not only were numerous movies and TV shows structured around this ever-fascinating theme but the media seemed to report endlessly on feuds, competitions, and catfights between famous women in entertainment, business, and politics. Jennifer Aniston versus Angelina Jolie; Hillary Clinton versus Monica Lewinsky; Camilla Parker-Bowles versus the late Princess Diana -- it seemed that few stories were as popular as two women competing over the same man.