20 Years of Polyamory: Jealousy

(Photo credit: Gustty)

Read the whole 8 part series:

1. The Introduction
2. Thoughts on Monogamy
3. Q & A
4. The Poly I’m Not
5. Jealousy
6. The Analogy
7. Personal Boundaries
8. The Wonderful


One of the biggest benefits I’ve gotten from polyamory is a different way to think about and process jealousy. In comparing myself to other polyamorous people, I think I experience very little jealousy, perhaps because I came to poly so easily and so long ago. Jealousy has come up for me now and then, though, and I’ve developed a philosophy about it that has helped me (and some other people) out a lot.

The popular way to respond to your feeling of jealousy is to tell your partner what ou has done wrong, demand that ou makes it up to you somehow and never again does the thing that made you jealous. The popular way to respond to your partner’s feeling of jealousy is to swear never to do the thing again while adamantly insisting that the thing you did didn’t mean what it seemed to mean.

My preferences for how to respond to jealousy are entirely different.

The first shift I made was rejecting the idea that jealousy automatically means someone has done something wrong and instead viewing the feeling of jealousy as the wrong thing. Sometimes jealousy is just stupid. Period. Not everyone is successful at logically convincing themselves to feel differently, but logic often works well on my emotions. I get a lot of cultural messages that support and perpetuate jealousy, even encourage it, but I am free to reject that. Not every flare up of jealousy is worthwhile for me. Sometimes it’s just stupid.

I’ll tell you my funniest example of this: Eight years ago or so, I had just moved into a new house with my husband, his girlfriend, and several other people. I had the master bedroom with my own shower. I came home from work on the day we moved in and went to take a shower in my bathroom, where I found my husband’s razor and his girlfriend’s brush in my shower. I immediately became angry – “They had sex in my shower before I did!” And then I immediately burst out laughing, because that’s just ridiculous. It was, in fact, okay for them to use my shower – it wasn’t an invasion of personal space. Just somewhere lodged in my brain was the idea that I should be the first one to have sex in it. I don’t even know where that thought came from! The thought certainly didn’t have my permission to stick around. Mainstream advice might have suggested that I should take the jealousy as a sign of something. Instead, it was right for me to just laugh at it and feel differently instead.

On the other hand, sometimes jealousy is a sign, and there’s something you need to address that’s bubbling up as jealousy. This can be tricky, because there’s a tendency to view the problem as centered on your partner, and to try to band-aid problems like these. Here’s a scenario I’ve seen played out multiple times in poly relationships: your partner is seeing someone new and going out with ou frequently. You feel jealous and determine that this points to you not getting enough of your partner’s time. You and your partner agree to set aside a certain number of nights to yourselves and think the problem is solved. Strangely, you still feel jealous every time ou goes out with the new person and the date nights you’ve set aside just feel forced. In general, if jealousy is a sign, it’s a sign of something personal – something about self-esteem or personal boundaries that you have to work on with yourself alone – or it’s a sign of something deep – something that can’t be addressed just by changing up a habit or two.

I mentioned in Thoughts on Monogamy that my ideas about jealousy could probably relate to mono relationships, too, and it’s this idea of jealousy as a sign of deep problems where that plays out. If your partner comes home from work two hours late without calling and you find yourself feeling jealous, you need to ask some really hard questions about yourself and the relationship. Does it really matter if ou comes home late? That’s not really the problem, is it? If you make some kind of agreement that ou will call anytime lateness arises, that does nothing to address why you felt jealous in the first place. You have some kind of an issue with trust within yourself or within the relationship. No amount of rule-making will fix that. You have much deeper work to do.

So sometimes I banish jealousy as stupid, and sometimes I take jealousy as a sign of mental/emotional work I need to explore in myself or my relationship. There’s one final perspective that I have on jealousy that’s probably been the most dramatically useful to me over the years. Conventional wisdom says you have to do something about jealousy. You have to express it to your partner, you have to make agreements to fix it, you have to explore the cause, or whatever, but you have to do something. What if instead you just felt the feeling and did nothing else?

I like to call this wallowing, and it’s a concept I use in a lot of areas (which played into giving my homestead the name The Wallow.) Here’s the idea: Sometimes, jealousy doesn’t have to mean anything. It doesn’t have to go anywhere or change anything. It doesn’t have to be expressed to others. It doesn’t have to be fixed or explored. It can just be. So I’ve had some nights in my polyamorous experience where my partner is off doing something else and I feel horribly jealous about it for one reason or another or no reason at all. And I just go with it. I cry. I wail. I pout. If I’m feeling really bad, I try to help the feeling along by watching tragic romance movies all night long (Legends of the Fall is high on my list). I go to bed. I feel alone and rejected. And then I get up in the morning, and everything is fine. In some ways, I might even be said to enjoy this experience. It’s kind of cathartic. If I found myself feeling like this a lot, then I’d go back to the drawing board and try to figure out whether there was some problem to address or if the source of the jealousy was something particularly dumb that I wanted to feel differently about. But there’s nothing wrong with having unpleasant emotions now and then and just letting those emotions be.

As much as I’ve thought about jealousy, though, it a bit of an intellectual topic for me. I am easily able to think differently about it because it’s not actually relevant to me all that often. When I think back over the last 20 years of polyamory, I can bring to mind just a handful of times I’ve felt jealousy. I’ve done the cathartic jealous crying thing maybe 5 times. I’ve laughed off a jealous thought as just silly a similar number of times. I’ve had a jealousy situation that indicated personal or deep relationship work was needed exactly twice. People who have experienced more jealousy have probably come to different conclusions or faced different challenges.

How about you? Whether you’re mono or poly, how has jealousy appeared in your life and what have you done about it?

Read the whole 8 part series:

1. The Introduction
2. Thoughts on Monogamy
3. Q & A
4. The Poly I’m Not
5. Jealousy
6. The Analogy
7. Personal Boundaries
8. The Wonderful


  1. SO true about not DOING anything. Similarly, when someone feels happy, that doesn’t mean that any particular thing needs to be done. When someone feels grouchy, it doesn’t mean they have to fix it. It can be cathartic to wallow in _____ emotion. Grieving is a big example (and timely for me).

    I also think there is nothing wrong with discussing your jealousy with the “guilty” party, without any particular “fix” in mind. Just to get some air through it.

    In the first half of my marriage, I saw jealousy a bit differently. I was a bit of the jealous type, though not to any extreme. And then… I read The Ethical Slut and rewired my thinking as I read. After each chapter, I discussed my thoughts with my then-husband.

    This all leads me to a question, though, and I wondered if I should go back to the original form… What about compersion? Is that a word that you use? Is it an emotion you have felt? Has it played a role in your relationships?

    Oh, one more thing… I think it definitely comes down to ownership of your own feelings. No one can MAKE you feel something. They can do _____ and you may react by feeling a certain way, but yeah – it is YOUR emotion. We have much more choice when it comes to emotions than most people recognize. Kind of like deciding to have a good day and just being positive.

    • I love that you pointed out the ownership of your own feelings thing. Getting a good grasp on that concept helps a lot in relationships! I’ve had a lot of success with deciding to change emotions and reactions, just by seeing them as a choice and not something that’s been done to. I’ve got some other areas (with my depression) where I can’t think myself out of certain feelings, but I’m at least successful in not blaming them on other people.

      I’ll come back to compersion in a future post. I think I mentioned it in The Introduction, but I’ll cover it a bit more in another post.

      • Sorry to jump ahead, then. I guess my mind was going the same direction as yours. ;-)

        And yes, as much as we truly can effect our emotions and our views on something, depression is probably the hardest. I’ve been there. Oh, have I been there! Wanting desperately to just let it GO, but being absolutely incapable. Beyond emotion, though, that can really be a physiological / wiring problem.

  2. Legatia says:

    I used to be a very jealous person, with friends as well as lovers. In my case, the problem was that I had very low self esteem. It went away with time as I matured, changed and became more confident.

    I really like your blog, it gets me thinking a lot!

    • I think low self-esteem is a really common source of jealousy, and is one of the strong possibilities with the deep personal work I mentioned. There’s no easy quick-fix for self-esteem issues, of course. But it’s always a good idea to work on trying to take better care of yourself.

  3. I don’t think I feel jealousy… at least I don’t recall ever feeling it. I do have trust issues from time to time, and not just within romantic relationships. Typically what happens to me when I feel like my trust has been compromised, it’s like a switch in my brain flips. I no longer trust that person or have any feelings at all. Period. It’s over. I am going through this right now with a dear friend who wants to start our friendship over on a fresh page, and it sounds so sweet and tolerant and possible, but when I close my eyes and focus on the feeling, I don’t trust her and I don’t think I ever will. I don’t see any reason to resurrect the friendship.

    Sometimes I think I’m a bit of an automaton about this. The way my feelings turn off like a faucet is strange to a lot of people. I don’t think I have a problem, but lots of people tell me I do. I have ‘commitment issues’ or ‘intimacy issues’ or what have you. I think it’s healthy, but yeah, unusual I guess. In the old days I’d cry and wail and wish things were different with so-and-so’s behaviour… now I just accept they are what they are, it’s not what I want and I move on.

    As for jealousy in romantic relationships… I can only think of two times in my life that the subject presented itself (once when I found an unknown condom wrapper in our bed and another time when a guy I liked went on a long trip to visit a woman he had the hots for) and both times, I felt nothing close to what other people would call ‘jealousy’. The condom I assumed he had a good explanation (he said he was masturbating with it on… whatever) but I didn’t even care. I trusted him, I presumed he was telling the truth, and even if he wasn’t, it really didn’t bother me. The other one, the guy visiting a woman he liked, I actually encouraged him. I remember having this deep feeling in me that I wanted him to be happy, and if that’s what it took to make him happy, I believed with all my heart that’s what he should do.

    I think I’m poly-in-theory, I’ve just never been bothered to get into the ‘community’ as it seems like you have to want relationships in general to persue.

    I couldn’t handle having a jealous partner. I think it would make me VERY hostile.

    • Trust is a really complicated topic, way beyond whether you like what the other person is doing or not. Your example of the condom wrapper is a good one – if trust is there, then the situations and explanations don’t necessarily matter. If trust isn’t there, then you’re going to find ways to be suspicious. I’ve had some situations where, in the absence of “proof”, I just had to decide whether I trusted the person or not and go from there. It’s interesting to see trust as a decision. I’ve got some other friends where I don’t trust them in the usual sense – I believe that they’ll lie to me or steal from me or whatever – but I like them and accept them for who they are, and in that sense I trust them to be themselves, and that works out okay for me.

      I also don’t handle jealous partners very well. It closes me off rather rapidly. I’m not sympathetic to expressions of jealousy, and I get cold-hearted about the topic and about them. I don’t mind if someone openly expresses their feelings, telling me about their raw and candid feelings. But, if that comes with accusations, demands that I change or fix it, or anything like that, I really can’t stand it.

  4. Jealousy – rather, the lack of – was one of the first things I envied (ha!) in the poly people I was meeting (you now know them as Age and Amber). I craved the security and trust they had in/with each other. “That’s exactly what I want! That’s what I think a relationship should be like!”

    ….long story short, no matter how much I read and research, see and experience, talk about and WANT it, that’s still an innate, involuntary issue (the insecurity/trust) that I think only practice will help.

    • I think practice can go along way. Just getting used to a certain feeling, testing out its boundaries, practicing different reactions, etc. It can also be helpful to get ideas from others – either other poly people you know, or through reading. The Ethical Slut was mentioned upthread, which might be a book you’d like to check out, if you haven’t already. I think it’s useful just to hear other poly people say, “Yeah, I experience jealousy, too, and here’s what I do about it.”

  5. I felt jealousy towards Elisabeth’s other boyfriend, John, fairly often while we were together. At some point I realized that those feelings all had a common theme, usually it was some activity that they were participating in that her and I didn’t do or hadn’t tried yet. If it was something that I was generally interested in trying, I’d ask her if we could try it sometime. First, though, I would ask myself whether I actually wanted to participate in that activity or if I was simply jealous. If the answer was no, the feeling was much easier to deal with.

    I’ve felt very little jealousy with Sarah, though, and that’s been fantastic. I’ve had little twinges of it from time to time, but nothing that I ever devoted much energy towards. I’ve not figured out why, yet. I thought that it might be that the relationship started out poly and that monogamy was never a possibility. However, while I was dating Jessica, I felt much more jealousy than I do with Sarah, and that relationship was also always poly with no possibility of monogamy. I’d like to figure out what it is about Sarah and I’s relationship, for my own introspective curiosity… but, really, I’m so thrilled that it’s not much of an issue for me :)

    I’m really enjoying reading your thoughts on polyamory. I’m finding that I resonate a lot with your philosophy, and I’m enjoying coming across new insights.

    • In my experience, it’s a lot easier to avoid jealousy when you’re the new one to the group, or when your lover has one or more established lovers before you come along. You don’t feel a sense of ownership over them in that case. A real test of one’s poly-skills is when you have a loving, established relationship with someone over whom you feel a sense of ownership, and then they start dating someone else. If you never feel this jealousy, you may not feel a sense of ownership over your lovers, which is a good thing, but rare.

    • It’s not surprising that you had jealousy with Elisabeth, since that relationship didn’t start out poly. It’s always hard to make a change in a relationship, and the change from mono to poly is a dramatic one, even if you really want it. With the difference between Sarah and Jessica, it’s harder to say. I can’t really guess about your specific situations there, but in general, the source of jealousy is often really mundane. It’s the kind of stuff that’s not popular to admit to, but are really normal feelings anyway. Like, for instance, that you think you’re hotter than Sarah’s other lovers, but you felt competition with Jessica’s, or that you feel like #1 in Sarah’s life, but Jessica had other things going on more central than you. I’ve found that polyamory is really easy when you think you’re “winning”, but harder when things aren’t going exactly your way. You could also just be in a better place with yourself right now, winning in your own life, if you will. I know you’ve had frustrations over school and jobs and moving, and that kind of stuff can spill over into other areas of your life in surprising ways. If that’s all going better for you now, that can also spill over into other areas, like feeling secure in your relationship.

  6. I would lie if I said that I didn’t get jealous. Jealousy doesn’t hit me any differently with Chip than it does with friends. My personal philosophy has always been that any feelings of jealousy I might develop come from my own insecurities, and not because someone did anything wrong.

    Most of the times I feel jealousy, it is because I feel like I am missing out on the fun… i.e. I’m stuck at work and Chip or one of my friends is out doing something I really wanted to do with them. Now that I think about it, jealously has rarely ever made me angry. It would just touch on my feelings of insecurity, low self-esteem, and abandonment issues. I’ve learned to move past this for the most part, but every so often, those feelings will resurface. I usually just have some “me” time where I relax and contemplate a bit, then I realize I am just being silly.

    oh, and love love love this sentiment. I might just have to steal it:

    “Sometimes, jealousy doesn’t have to mean anything. It doesn’t have to go anywhere or change anything. It doesn’t have to be expressed to others. It doesn’t have to be fixed or explored. It can just be.”

    One thing I am learning about myself is that even though I am monogamous, I get appalled at the things my mono friends do and say. I tire of hearing “you let Chip go to the strip club??!?!?” “Chip goes to the bar without you?!?!?” and don’t even get me started on porn. We both enjoy it, with or without each other. Just because we married, does not mean we have to lose our own personal identities. Sure, we are sexually exclusive, but it wasn’t a “rule” we made… at this point in our lives we simply don’t have any interest in exploring other romantic or sexual relationships…but, we also are in agreement that somewhere down the road, one of us might meet someone that changes all of that. Sure, if that were the case, all of my feelings on jealousy might get thrown out the window. They might not. I wont know until we cross that bridge.

    • I hate those kinds of questions, too. Really, anytime someone uses the word “let” about another adult, I bristle. I don’t “let” Joshua do anything. I hear that word a lot lately from pregnant women, talking about what their doctors will and won’t let them do. You’re an adult! You can eat in labor or refuse a medical test or whatever without permission from on high. Argh!

      • UGH! I have a friend that just had her baby. She literally takes EVERYTHING the doctor says as gold. Some of what she told me absolutely horrified me, and her constant “It’s best for the baby” made her sound a little like a robot.

  7. I bristle at the word “let” too. FUCK YOU YOU’RE AN ADULT, RIGHT? Unless we’re talking about the cops, or a restraining order, nobody is “letting” you do anything. “My wife won’t let me go to strip clubs.” Really? Is she your mom too?

    • Sadly, it seems most people see a wife as a replacement for mother. I see it a lot at work… granted a lot of my customers are corporate peon’s but it just drives me batty. I will spend one to two hours with a customer arranging suits and all the accessories, only for them to tell me “Ok, I’ll be back. I need to send my wife in to approve” ARE YOU FUCKING SERIOUS??!?!

      while I’m on the subject about idiot customers, I do wear a wedding band most (some) of the time… but if I mention “husband” on a day I am not wearing my ring they instantly look at my hand and are mortified. I actually had a few of them say something to the tune of “what does your husband say about that?” I was livid. I promptly told them that a silly piece of jewelry does NOT define my relationship. They shut up pretty quickly after that.

  8. I really enjoyed this article! I tend to be a fairly jealous person myself and am very interested in figuring out what my jealous feelings say about myself. I recently read another article on this topic that had some really valuable information about the causes of jealousy http://www.psychalive.org/2011/09/are-you-the-cause-of-your-jealousy/, I highly recommend it.

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