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.