Polyamory and Jealousy
When I discuss polyamory with people, polyvangelist that I am, they often ask me about jealousy; after the “permission to cheat” and the “you don’t really love hir,” jealousy is the next most asked about topic.
Jealousy happens; it’s a natural part of the human emotional spectrum, just like anger and happiness and fear and lust. The primary difference between people who are poly and people who are monogamous seems to be not that poly folk don’t get jealous, but rather that poly folks see jealousy as something to deal with and overcome, while monogamists seem to see it as an insurmountable barrier. I often talk to monogamous folks about my relationship and hear them say, “Oh, that sounds nice, but I could never do that, I’d get jealous.” Funny, you never hear them say things like “Wow being in a relationship sounds nice, but I could never do that, I’d get way too annoyed with their flaws.” Nothing is perfect, these things take work.
Our society constantly feeds us bullshit about how jealousy is a sign of love, and if we act possessive it’s because “we really love” someone. We are supposed to embrace that negative emotion, that rage, based in insecurity and possessiveness and objectification, that poison in loving relationships. It causes resentment and anger in all relationships, polyamorous and monogamous ones alike, and is a symptom of a problem, not of “love.”
To call this romanticization of jealousy bullshit is an insult to actual bovine feces. It perpetuates a culture of intimate partner violence, in the same way that the commodification of sex [it’s something that men try to “get,” it’s something that women “give up,” et cetera] perpetuates rape culture. When a third of all women murdered in the United States are murdered by their partners, when 4.8 million women experience physical intimate partner violence per year, perpetuating the message that jealousy is somehow good and healthy is tantamount to murder.
Jealousy happens, though, and we need to understand the reasons that cause it, rather than simply assuming that it’s because of the POWER OF WUV. We might be insecure, or have abandonment issues, or feel possessive. These are problems to be fixed, not traits to be accepted.
There’s many different ways to handle jealousy, but it all comes down to figuring out exactly why you feel jealous, and what sets you off. Don’t assume that you’re jealous because your partner is with someone else, duh. It’s never just that; there’s always fears or insecurities, and triggers. For example, I got jealous a while ago because I kept hearing about some girl [who I’d never met] and people talking about her and my girlfriend like they were together. It drove me up the fucking wall, and it wasn’t because I minded my girlfriend being with other people, but because she hadn’t told me anything about this gal. When I talked to her about it, everything was fine; they were just friends, anyway.
Communication and jealousy management are not only important in polyamorous relationships but monogamous ones as well. We are not naturally monogamous creatures, and never have been. The choice to be in a monogamous relationship is a perfectly valid one, but we must be realistic about what we are doing; we don’t suddenly stop wanting others, but rather make a promise to refrain from having others. This is an important distinction to make, and we must be accommodating of our partners, regardless of the relationship model we choose.
Even in a monogamous relationship, mistakes happen, and they must be considered. For example, my partner knows of a monogamous hetero couple. The man travels a lot, and whenever he goes out of town, the woman packs him condoms and lube into his suitcase, because she’d rather have to forgive him for cheating than for giving her an STI. Besides, having infidelity be the self-destruct button on a relationship constitutes a huge risk that one may lose a perfectly good thing because of one stupid mistake. Beware of relationships with self-destruct buttons that one can hit by accident; that is a sign of a poorly-designed relationship model.
My partner also recommends talking through a scenario to figure out exactly what makes you jealous. For example, a couple he knows of were trying to be poly but kept getting jealous, and finally, they sat down, and each thought about the other’s date, step by step. ‘Okay, ze is getting ready… ze is meeting hir date for dinner… they’re eating… having dessert… going home together… they’re kissing on the couch… taking off each other’s clothes… sex… more sex… THEY’RE FALLING ASLEEP IN EACH OTHER’S ARMS!’ and they figured out that they BOTH got jealous over the thought of the other spending the night with someone else. Easy to fix; they both went dates with other folk, practiced polyamory, et cetera, but the rule was that they had to come home to each other every night. With time, this rule changed. Remember that all relationships change with time, and don’t expect any rules you put in place now to remain there forever.
How much actual sharing of information occurs varies from person to person and from relationship to relationship, but the bottom line is that, in my experience, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” polyamory doesn’t work, ever, and is, unlike actual polyamory, just “permission to cheat.” If you’re not comfortable talking about it, you shouldn’t be doing it. Doesn’t mean you have to sit through a blow-by-blow [pardon the expression] of your partner’s date, but if you can’t even say “oh, I went out with so-and-so and we had sex” then you both need to figure out what’s going on in your heads.
Lastly, keep in mind, that a relationship of any kind is a team effort; I had a lover that I met with his primary. They’d made a deal that if she wasn’t comfortable, she’d give a signal and they’d leave, but it didn’t work; she wasn’t comfortable but she never gave a signal and they hung around and it was torture for the poor girl. Later, when he told me about the fight they got in over it, he blamed her for not speaking up. I felt, however, that it was as much his responsibility to check in on her as it was hers to communicate with him. When I go on dates, I am constantly checking in on my primary to make sure he is okay; I don’t want to risk him feeling uncomfortable but feeling unable to speak up about it.
[There is an analogous situation in the kink community; while it is the submissive’s responsibility to safeword, it is accepted that a responsible Dominant will still check in.]
Polyamory is something that my partner and I have in common that we love sharing with each other and experiencing together; it doesn’t corrupt our bond, it strengthens it, and this brings me to my last point about jealousy in polyamory, or rather, the opposite of it: compersion. Compersion is a word invented by the non-monogamous community to describe the feeling of joy one experiences at the thought of one’s partner with other people. It’s a beautiful emotion, a giddy euphoria, and the special treat that non-monogamists can experience once they tackle jealousy issue.
An excellent resource for managing jealousy is this article that my partner pointed me to. Enjoy.