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.

Poly stuff

Relationships are complicated regardless of whether sex is involved. Because feelings are complicated!

One of my husband’s friends has been asking him a lot about being poly, and how our relationship works, and such. Because I’m not directly involved in this conversation, and because I think a lot of the things that have come up in it are common questions and misconceptions about being poly, I kind of want to put forth my own take on it, with reference to the perspective of a non-poly person.

A brief note on language before I begin: Sex Geek recently posted a thorough take-down of the mainstream poly narrative, and while I have reservations about many of her criticisms, she did mirror my own concerns around the hierarchical primary/secondary etc. language so often used to talk about poly relationship structures. I might talk more about this at another time, but suffice to say that I will be using the term “domestic partner” to refer to my husband, who is the person I live with and share domestic chores and finances, and with whom I have committed to raising a family.

One of the questions that came up, which I think is a common way of framing poly hesitations is “isn’t your domestic partner enough for you?” I think this question sheds light on the primary misconception/bias that makes it difficult monogamously inclined people to wrap their heads around being poly.

Because it’s pretty rare that people get asked “aren’t your existing friends enough for you?” We are generally not discouraged from trying to make new friends lest we will no longer be able to maintain our existing friendships. And friends who get jealous of our new friends are generally considered to be overly controlling or unhealthily invested in the friendship.

Ok, but romantic relationships are romantic, and that makes them specialer than friendships and more of a finite resource, right? Well, no. And, no. And also, well, no, love is not a finite resource. Again, we generally don’t make this argument in any other context. People are not discouraged from having more than one child because it will prevent them from loving their first child properly, or fully. It certainly isn’t ever suggested that they are not fully committed to raising their first child. That would be silly.

Similarly, people with large numbers of siblings don’t love their siblings any less than people with only one – they may have individual and varying levels of closeness with each sibling, and they may relate in different ways or over different interests, but these relationships don’t devalue their other sibling-relationships.

And yes, there are some finite resources that affect poly relationships (time, emotional energy, etc). But these resources are necessary for all relationships of every kind, and still, we don’t discourage people from forming all kinds of relationships with all kinds of people.

Moreover, many people have friendships that can be as deep and meaningful and emotionally fulfilling as romantic relationships. It’s also true that monogamous people can be made very uncomfortable when their partners form this kind of friendship (and emotional infidelity is most definitely a real thing), but I also can’t help but notice that in the hetero world, this discomfort usually only arises when such a friendship is of the mixed-sex variety (i.e. we only tend to see emotional infidelity in relationships where the friends could conceivably be sexually attracted to one another). And this actually confuses me, because honestly, I don’t think adding sex to the equation in the kind of relationship demonstrated in the link above makes any big difference at all.

Because the thing is, sex? It’s not magic. It is wonderful and it can be a very powerful experience. But sex itself is not the thing that keeps relationships strong. That’s all your shared interests and emotional compatibility and other things that you have with all of your friends that does that.

All of those things, plus the actual magic ingredient, which is far more mundane than sex or love: commitment. What shapes my relationship with my domestic partner into something different than any other relationship of any kind that I have right now are the things I used to define it above. We share a living space. We share finances. We are actively and deliberately building a life together, and supporting each other in creating fulfilling lives for ourselves and each other in ways that go beyond (most) friendships. This is what makes our relationship meaningful to me. The sex is icing.

Honestly, as for as I see it, the main difference between a very close friendship and a romance is the expectations placed on that relationship. Most of us are more emotionally invested in our romantic partners than our friends, for approval, and for continued and (fairly) consistent emotional support. And I think that this is the main thing that makes people see romantic relationships as so different from other relationships, to the point of wanting some form of exclusivity.

Because I understand that most people have different/stronger feelings of jealousy with romantic partners than with friends – a lot of of this comes from the greater degree of dependence (emotional or otherwise) that we have on romantic partners relative to friends. But I also wonder at the idea that asking for a monogamous commitment makes your relationship inherently stronger or safer. If there’s structural problems in a relationship, it will crumble, monogamy or no. And if your partner is actually at risk of leaving you for someone else, they are still interacting with other people and forming new relationships and sharing different kinds of intimacies with other people every day. Regardless of whether they are allowed to actively seek out sexual relationships, they are at risk of finding someone better. You either trust that they are actually committed to you, or you don’t.

I do want to make it clear that I’m not against two people deciding together to be monogamous, if they’ll both be happier that way. I actually think there is something really beautiful about freely made monogamous sexual commitments. But that “freely made” bit there is a little slippery. So often, monogamy is presented as a natural and non-optional part of proving that you are truly committed to building a life with someone. Those two things are not connected, and we need to be able to untangle their threads in the way we talk about relationships and commitment.

It so often happens that a person who doesn’t want monogamy gets demonized or told that they don’t *really* love their partner(s) because if they did they would get the super-special kind of love that they wouldn’t want to share with anyone else ever. Or worse yet, that sex is only really special and good when it’s with your one twoo wuv. These myths devalue so very many functional and valuable relationships models, and not just poly ones. What about any relationship wherein the partners are sexually incompatible but still totally love each other? Companionate marriages, where people stay together over values that have nothing to do with sex, are wonderful things. What about people who just prefer to have their own space, and don’t want a live-in partner? Are they less capable of love? Are they less capable of commitment? Of course not, it’s just that their commitment looks different than the standard form of commitment.

The truth is that all of us juggle the relationship expectations and emotional needs of all kinds of different people in our lives, all the time. The only substantial difference is that poly people might have more relationships of the romantic variety, or all over the friendship-romance spectrum. All of us have many different people in our lives that we love in all kinds of different ways, with different expectations as to what each love means in our lives. And poly people are more likely to explicitly establish the expectations and boundaries around their relationships, which is a skill that everyone needs to have, regardless of whether poly is for them.