Polyamory and jealousy: we’re having the wrong conversations

jealousy“How do you handle the jealousy?”

The question every poly person hears uncountably many times when they talk about or come out about being poly. It is, in some ways, a very important question, and I think talking about jealousy (as I’m about to do here) is something everyone needs to do more of, poly or not. However, I do have a beef with the way the word “jealousy” is often used as a sort of umbrella term for all kinds of negative and complicated emotions that can happen in relationships (again, poly or otherwise).

I’m going to start with my most basic thought on jealousy: Jealousy is a bad thing, you guys. And if you feel it, that’s some shit that you need to work on within yourself; and it really, really isn’t something you should expect your partner(s) to pander to. Allowing jealousy to impact the actual functioning of any relationship is just plain bad.

Well, ok, obviously this sounds pretty extreme. But stick with me for a minute and allow me to explain myself, k?

Here’s the thing: real, actual Jealousy (in the sense of not wanting other people to benefit from your partner’s awesomeness (i.e. jealously guarding them or whatever – I hope you see how creepy this is when I put it this way), or in the sense of not wanting your partner to find happiness or fulfillment in relationships with people who aren’t you (again, I hope it’s obvious how this is a terrible way to feel about someone you purportedly love)) is just plain awful *(See note below: I don’t intend this as a condemnation of monogamy, I swear, though I know it sounds that way). Jealousy is all about feeling a sense of ownership over another person (Ew), of not wanting to share the person you own (omg EW), and/or just plain wanting to control them so that they will be only yours (Scary. Don’t do this).

Thus, my theory that jealousy is always bad, is always the problem of the jealous person, and something they need to work on in themselves. And pandering to it will only make it worse.

Ok, yes, you are probably all thinking “but that’s not what I’m feeling when I experience jealousy!”, or if you’re not poly “But that’s what I’m thinking of when I say I would be jealous, or when I wonder about how people navigate jealousy in poly relationships!” Yeah. My thing is, that’s because most of the time when we talk about “jealousy” in a poly context, we’re not talking about jealousy. We are simply using the word jealousy as a catch-all term for a whole bunch of non-abusive, understandable, and very complicated and difficult emotions. And I actually do think that it’s important to keep these feelings separate from jealousy.

For starters, jealousy, as I’ve defined it here, is an giant red flag for abuse. And I think then when we talk about other, non-abusive feelings and relationship dynamics using the same words as those which apply to abusive behaviours and world-views, we make it harder for the people in abusive situations to identify the awfulness of their partner’s attitudes toward them. Because hey, everyone experiences jealousy, right, and we should be sensitive to our partners’ desire to control us right? Just, no. We need to make it clear that jealous attitudes are not ok, and they are no one’s responsibility but the jealous person’s.

And ok, I guess we could solve this be actually referring to the desire to control, as “the desire to control”, and a sense of ownership as “a sense of ownership”. That would be fine. But it wouldn’t be best.

Because here’s my real point: one of the most important factors in making someone both more capable of communicating clearly about their feelings, and more capable of dealing with and responding to them in healthy, constructive ways, is having the vocabulary to identify them adequately and precisely. The better granularity we have for talking about our emotions, the easier it is to know what is needed to help soothe them (and the easier it is to identify whether the soothing changes need to be internal or external). With this in mind, here’s a partial list of some of the feelings that I think we often confuse with “jealousy”, because they manifest in very similar ways, and that we should all stop trying to refer to as such. Also, spoiler alert: none of these feelings are valid reasons for trying to control your partner. There is no valid reason to do that.

  • Fear: I think this is the real feeling most people are having when they describe a feeling as “jealousy”. I also understand why the impulse is to use the word jealousy, because admitting to fear is an extremely vulnerable thing. In fact, I don’t think that ever “fear” is precise enough, and would like to break it down further, in order to facilitate conversation about the things that might actually be going on when a person says they feel “jealous”:
    • Apprehension: when a person or a couple first decide to be poly, it can be scary. It is a foray into the unknown, for which there aren’t any scripts (or at least, for which we haven’t been bombarded with scripts in the way we have for monogamous relationships). We know what monogamy looks like; we’ve seen it portrayed all our lives, probably the good, the bad, and the awful. And because of it’s familiarity, the even the awfulest kind of monogamy can seem less scary than polyamory. This is normal. But I also think that it’s important to acknowledge that you are not going to be able to make this feelings go away by making an endless list of rules, or by moving the goalposts every time you get scared. Although this impulse to try to exercise a certain amount of control over this scary, new adventure is extremely understandable (and absolutely a thing I am guilty of, for the record), I think that simply accepting that this is a scary thing will go a long way toward mitigating unhelpful and potentially damaging responses to this kind of fear.
    • Insecurity: A big source of fear in all relationships, including poly ones, is that idea that your partner will find someone better than you (because we all believe deep down that we are totally unworthy of the amazing people that through some stroke of luck have somehow fallen in love with us, and obviously at any moment they will realize that they are way too good for us – I know this isn’t just me, you guys :P). And, because poly relationships very often involve our partners actually falling in love with other people, they can be more likely to trigger these kinds of insecurities than monogamous ones. This kind of insecurity very often has no basis in reality (though if your partner has ever told you that you are not good enough for them, or that you should feel lucky that they deign to be with you, then this is a problem that should be solved by leaving that mother-fucker who doesn’t appreciate you in all your awesomeness. Seriously, everyone who has ever said this to a partner is wrong. Everyone.), which actually means it is a problem that the person having the feeling needs to deal with within themselves. It is reasonable to tell your partner when you are feeling insecure, and maybe ask them to be more explicit about the ways in which they value and love and appreciate you, but ultimately you need to learn to value yourself in order to mitigate these feelings, and no amount of controlling your partner will help.
  • Feeling neglected: This is actually the feeling that is the hardest to separate out from plain jealousy. Sometimes for whatever reason your partner might not be carrying their share of the relationship’s weight, and you may feel that there is some way in which you need them to be there for you that they are not. I had this happen with my husband at one point, not because of another romantic relationship, but because of a friend of ours who was a total emotional vampire and constantly left him so totally drained that he couldn’t even be present with me when he managed to find time to be with me (this friend also systematically prevented he and I from having any time alone together pretty much ever; it was a complicated, fucked up situation that went on far longer than it should have.) At the time, I lacked the vocabulary to properly communicate the way I was feeling, and I wound up downplaying the degree of the awfulness of the whole thing for me, and this is part of why I think this post is so important. It is important to note that people are not obligated to fulfill all of your emotional needs, but being able to talk directly and honestly about them will make it easier for them to fulfill the ones they can, and will also make it easier for you to know what areas you should focus on taking care of yourself, or finding other potential supporters for. Because no one should be relying on one person for all of their social/emotional needs anyway.Also, in particular, it is very important not make your feelings of neglect all about your partner’s relationships with other people, specifically. It is common when feeling neglected or unfulfilled in some way in a relationship to start resenting the people you perceive as receiving the attention/energy/whatever that you want or need from your partner. But it is really not helpful to approach the issue this way. The bottom-line is that if you are feeling neglected, that is a problem in the way *your* relationship with your partner is working, not a problem with their other relationships or commitments, romantic or otherwise. And while fixing the problems with your relationship might sometimes involve an adjustment in your partner’s other relationship (especially if it is a question of time commitments), it is still best to focus the conversation on the actual relationship you are trying to fix. Don’t worry about what the other people in their life may or may not be getting; your partner can figure out how they will adjust those relationships to make more space for you, if necessary, and it’s not really your business how they choose to do so, since it’s not your relationship(s).

I’m sure there are other feelings that people have and call “jealousy”, but these are the ones that I have experienced. And I know for certain that the only way I learned for dealing constructively with these feelings is by identifying them clearly, and never by trying to control my partner (though this is a thing I have done. I very much regret it, though.)

So yeah, let’s start complicating and problematizing the “jealousy” conversation. It’ll make relationships better and stronger.

What do you think?

—–
*This all comes off as extremely anti-monogamy, I know. I don’t have a problem with monogamy on its face, though; I have a problem with compulsory monogamy. I think that joyful, mutually made monogamous commitments are perfectly great for the people who want to make them. But I also kind of feel like way too few monogamous commitments actually meet this standard. More often than not it’s that two people share a mutual desire to control each other and accept a mutually assured destruction scenario in order to achieve that control. And I think we should stop pretending that this is ok, even though it is very much normal right now. And, I mean, for the record, I am just as squicked out by poly arrangements that aren’t mutually and joyfully arrived at. Coercing a partner into being ok with non-monogamy isn’t any better than the social pressure that forces so many people into unfulfilling monogamous relationships. And you are not obligated to accept another person’s desire to be poly (though you should also have the decency not to pressure them into making a non-enthusiastic monogamous commitment); no one should stay in a relationship that makes them unhappy.

16 comments

  1. Excellent post Kasey. You’ve articulated the distinctions between jealousy and other difficult feelings mistaken for it really well. I hadn’t looked at it in this way before.

    Feeling insecure and neglected is something I definitely struggle with a lot of the time. When it comes to a head, I end up with a long list of complaints that were once based in reality but that have become distorted, exaggerated and turned into mountains. Tearful arguments are the unpleasant result. It’s made worse by my long distance relationship and our joint inability to communicate well over the phone. :-/

    1. I get this as well to some extent. I am just somehow an inherently insecure person, though I am much better now at identifying when the insecurity has any basis in reality or not.

      Long distance definitely makes things much, much harder though. <3

      1. Sounds like it can get better with practice then which is reassuring.

        I am sick of long distance – nearly three years of doing it since the start of our relationship. But the only way it will cease being long distance is if we move in together and I’m finding that prospect equally nerve-wracking!
        Sigh.

  2. I think you’re being way too hard on monogamy.

    The way I see monogamy is that for many people, if they love someone, it will be painful to see them be romantically or sexually involved with other people. They want a partner who will agree not to do that to them and they promise not to hurt their partner that way.

    The key is for people to get involved with people who want the same thing as they do.

    1. ultimately, I agree with you. But the problem is that we are living in a context where too many people don’t think they have any other choice but to buy into their partner’s desire for monogamy. It makes the idea of consent to that kind of commitment somewhat murky, in the same way that consent to sex in cultures where women are raised to believe that sex is a duty they owe to their husbands. Consent happens in these contexts, but it’s hard to really know for sure where.

      And as I say, I think a truly mutual, consensual monogamous commitment is a great thing. I just also think that the western cultural context makes it hard for people to really know what they want, so it’s tricky.

      I also actually find it legitimately problematic for someone to feel hurt by something wonderful in their partner’s life (i.e. love). I get that it’s hard and scary, but I also don’t think that “the idea of you having sex without someone else hurts me” is a neutral statement. I think it’s a fundamentally fucked up thing that the person should work on. Like, deciding that you don’t want your partner to experience certain kinds of pleasure without you is a little weird, if you really think about it. It’s not inherently wrong, but that kind of feeling or instinct definitely should be seriously examined before you decide to give it too much weight.

      We need to think about where these feelings are coming from, and I really do think that the vast majority of the time they are based in feelings of insecurity and inadequacy (basically the relationship equivalent of impostor syndrome. Almost everyone feels it, and we all have moments where we are sure that our partner is only with us because they haven’t figured out that we aren’t good enough yet, and of course they’ll find someone better, and blah blah blah.) These feelings are perfectly normal and natural, but they are not valid in the sense that they tell us anything about our partner(s). It’s all about ourselves, and we should try to mend them by mending ourselves.

      Honestly, it’s the same thing I’d say to someone who insisted that they “just aren’t attracted” to people of a certain race or whatever. That’s not a neutral statement, and it’s not “just the way you are” or “just the way you feel”. There’s no such thing as “just the way” someone feels – there’s meaning and power behind these things, and it is very, very worth it to unpack these things, even if in the end you don’t end up somewhere significantly different. Monogamy that has been deeply questioned and still decided upon is hella more beautiful and meaningful than monogamy based on “but that’s just how I feel, tho”

    2. Yikes. Here’s a TL;DR analogy alternative:

      If someone were to ask their partner to not accept a promotion because they would be hurt if their partner had a better job than them, I hope we could all agree that that would be a fucked up thing. Even if their partner was ok with that, and went along with it happily, most people would say that’s not ok.

      I feel the same way about people who insist that the painful feelings that can come with their partners having certain kinds of relationships with other people means that it’s reasonable for them to tell their partners not to have those relationships.

      It’s way more complicated than that, obviously, but monogamy it based in a lot of problematic ideas that are largely ignored and invisible because it is the norm, and I think it is incredibly important to point those things out.

      1. First, I definitely agree that your partner shouldn’t be expected to give up a promotion for you!

        On the other hand, in our society most people would agree that if your partner forgets your birthday, it’s reasonable for you feel hurt.

        You could argue that caring whether or not your partner remembers your birthday is a sign of insecurity and try to accept their behavior, but I think most people would tell the partner to try harder next year.

        My point is that we think it’s reasonable to be upset about some things and not others. Romantic/sexual jealousy is something many people feel and I think it’s okay to feel that way.

        I don’t want to insult people who choose polyamory. I want to affirm people who choose monogamy because they know what they want in a relationship.

        1. I have many thoughts about this, so I am super glad that you’ve engaged me in this conversation!

          The remembering birthdays comparison is an interesting one because I think it can help get at the heart of some of the differences in our approaches here. Because you’re right to some extent that being concerned about a partner forgetting a birthday is sort of couched in insecurity – someone remembering your birthday is a way for them to demonstrate that you are important to them, and them not doing so, while not constituting evidence that they don’t, is a lack of reinforcement that can definitely throw someone for a loop emotionally. It’s also extra fitting as an analogy because some people really just don’t give shit about birthdays and anniversaries and stuff, and that’s fine too – but it’s one of those situations where it’s highly recommended that people with similar feelings about those things pair up with other, as is the case for both mono and poly people.

          Ultimately, you can frame it as the ways in which different people understand and are made to feel that the people in their lives care about them. And for some people, making an agreement of sexual exclusivity is the thing that communicates the importance of the relationship. This makes sense to me, and represents the view of monogamy that I can totally get behind (well, I mean, for other people, though not so much myself :P)

          It’s kind of a difference of semantics, but it’s an important one. I’m also gonna make a new analogy here: I think part of the problem is that we tend to talk about romantic aspirations in terms of what we want in a partner, instead of what we want in a relationship. If we focus on the latter, it’s a lot easier to have non-problematic conversations and to think deeply about what you want and need without resorting to the kinds of weirdly objectifying things people often claim to be looking for. Even if the things you want in a relationship imply the need for certain qualities and traits in a person, it’s just less icky to frame it that way.

          The reason I bring this framing up is because it also helps me dig out a little nuance in my “don’t take that job” vs “don’t take another lover” analogy. I still stand by the statement that “the idea of you having happiness of certain kinds with other people hurts my feelings” is not a legitimate reason to expect someone you love to give up on those kinds of happiness. BUT, if you put it as “I want the exclusive sharing of our sexualities with each other to be one of the ways we communicate our love and commitment for each other” it seems pretty ok.

          And this is where the difference between that and jobs becomes clear, because even if you make the job scenario about the relationship, it’s still obviously fucked up (“I want to have the kind of relationship where I always make more money than my partner” is just all kinds of obvious nope, most obviously because of the total imbalance in the nature of the commitment being asked.) Mutual monogamy is still a great and wonderful thing.

          But, as I have been saying all along, I would really like to see a shift in the ways we talk about monogamy, what it means, and the reasons why those who value it do so.

          1. Another thing I like about focusing on what you want in a relationship, is that it moves away from evaluating the potential partner to finding out what the partner wants in a relationship.

  3. Kasey Weird, I love your point of views on jealousy, and also in the comment section, monogamy. Just… Wow. You have such a way of expressing things clearly that are exactly how I feel but how I didn’t quite know how to say.

    One thing I wanted to add on the jealousy topic, though, is that one basic type of jealousy is wanting something that someone else has. So like, it’s one kid’s birthday and all of the other kids at the party watch him opening his presents, and one little girl may realize she wishes she was getting a gift and a new toy or whatever right now, and so she feels jealous. She feels a negative emotion over the birthday boy having something that she doesn’t have.

    That’s the kind of jealousy that translates pretty easily into your “feeling neglected” category. It’s the kind of jealousy where you see your partner flirting with someone else and rather than the controlling impulse of “my partner’s flirting should be reserved only for me”, it might be a “in the moment my partner is flirting with that stranger, that stranger is getting a birthday gift while I’m not getting anything” type of feeling. It’s this weird… I don’t quite know how to explain it, but I do think that’s a large part of it. We use the word jealousy to describe a lot of different contexts, some legitimate.

    I have an abusive mother who I’ve cut off all contact with and haven’t spoken to in about 7 or 8 years. I’m mainly happy with my life, but there have been times when I’m jealous of people who have good relationships with their mothers, who basically have mothers.

    I’m asexual and even kissing-averse, but I didn’t know that until I was 23. When I was 18 years old, my 16-year-old brother confided in me that he’d experienced his first kiss. I felt instantly jealous that he’d had such an experience while despite being older than him, I had not. I was almost mad at my brother for beating me to that life rite of passage, and I’m pretty sure that moment caught me off guard and brought me to tears. I hid them pretty well from my brother and pretended to think “oh, cool, congrats” about his first kiss but I had a lot of complex feelings that at the time were one of my strongest experiences in my entire life of jealousy. It certainly wasn’t about not wanting my brother to be happy or have the experience. It was all about me and my feeling like a failure in life, feeling like the most pathetic 18-year-old in the world, feeling possibly broken because I didn’t know the words for asexual or kissing-averse yet and maybe knew somehow I was those things but didn’t know there was an option to be that.

    But still, jealousy is such a complex thing. I think you unpacked it wonderfully here in this post above. So thanks.

    1. Aw, thanks! And also, you’ve definitely hit on one of the hardest kinds of jealousy to deal with. I don’t have much cogent to say about that right now, other than thanks for contributing!

      1. I’d like to add that I’m not actually sure I’ve ever really felt jealousy about people’s relationships with their moms. I think it would make sense for me to feel jealous and intellectually I might wish I had what they had. Maybe I felt jealous when I was younger and still in the midst of the abuse. Jealous of people who didn’t have to deal with abuse. But I think most of my negative feelings were more “Ah I wish I wasn’t being abused” and less jealousy focused, more focused on kind of hating my mother. Lol. Also emotionally I feel so grateful to have a dad and now to also be away from my mom that really idk if jealousy plays into that dynamic for me at all. I brought it up, but I feel like maybe I should take it back. Maybe that was never jealousy for me at all.

  4. Thank you, this is great!
    At first I was confused by your article, but the explanation of all the different feelings that we confuse for jealousy is very helpful!

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