20 Years of Polyamory: Jealousy
(Photo credit: Gustty)
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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?
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Issa is a wild and rebellious mama who wants to live a carefree life where that little anxious voice is put on mute. How about you? As a writer she feels successful if just one other person feels any comfort or inspiration from what she’s written.