Lately, since I’ve started dating non-monogamously, I’ve gotten a lot of questions and comments regarding jealousy. Usually something to the effect of, “You’re poly? Damn, I’m waaaay too jealous for that!” After mulling it over a while, I’ve come to the conclusion that jealousy really has nothing to do with it. I’d like to propose that we are not inherently jealous, but that we’ve been taught that jealousy is an appropriate, perhaps even necessary, reaction to these kinds of situations.
Jealousy is a secondary emotion. In other words, this means that the jealousy is blossoming from another emotion– almost always fear (which, coincidentally, is also anger’s primary emotion). In the context of relationships these fears tend to be fear of losing your partner and/or fear of not being good enough for your partner.
Let me first say that your fears are unfounded. For one, your definitely good enough. Could your partner still leave? Of course. That’s the risk you run with relationships. But from my experience, people don’t leave a relationship they’re happy in. Even in situations where there has been “someone else,” they were the catalyst to ending an already failing relationship, not the cause. Which isn’t to say things couldn’t seem blissful and then one day your partner does a 180, it happens. But it’s unlikely that if there have been no warning signs, something will happen out of the blue.
So jealousy is really just fear dressed up for the party. And if everyone is communicating openly and honestly, there’s little to fear. So what’s with the jealousy? Do we just enjoy tearing ourselves down? Or do we think, somehow, that we’re protecting what’s ours? Defending our claim? Does anyone else think that sounds weird?
Relationships are just that– the way you relate to people. You aren’t employing a servant or buying a flightless bird to keep in a cage. You’re relating, you’re learning, you’re getting to know another person and sharing yourself with them. So the possessiveness that can arise in relationships is actually kind of a scary thing. We become defensive and greedy when we’re afraid, we try to hide our partner away and keep them close to us… and when they get fed up with being treated like a pet, we use this outcome as validation for our fears when, in reality, the fear created the problem from the get go.
No joke, if you want to chase away a partner as quickly as possible, try keeping them tied down. Keep them from the other things in their life, friends, hobbies, family, etc. and they’ll leave faster than you can say, “Did I do something wrong?” A lover or partner is not meant to be the center of our lives. Our partners are supposed to enhance our lives and support our choices. If that’s not happening, it won’t last long.
The more we flesh out jealousy as an idea, the clearer it is to me that it’s a hallmark of monogamy, oddly enough. Think about it: Where is jealousy more likely? In a relationship where each partner is emotional and physically exclusive, or one where partners, though emotionally committed, are free to find others attractive and pursue that? Instinctively you want to say the latter, but the latter situation is one where boundaries have been established that allow partners to engage with other’s sexually without threatening the trust or the emotional intimacy of the relationship. Your poly partner is going to tell you if/when they sleep with someone else. In monogamous situations, we consider that cheating, which in turn encourages lying.
An example might help. If I’m walking down the street with my monogamous girlfriend and I see someone else attractive, I keep my mouth shut. If I mention the attractive person instead, the response is usually something to the effect of, “And I’m hideous??” or something as equally insecure and needlessly aggressive. When I’m walking down the street with my poly boyfriend and we see someone sexy (which happens a lot) he might say, “Wow, she’s beautiful!” and I might say in return, “Yeah she is! Why don’t you go talk to her?” One of those is going to result in a fight, and it’s not the poly example.
Listen, I’m not saying everyone should be polyamorous. Clearly, monogamy works for some people and I do believe that some people are better wired for a monogamous situations. What I am saying is that it’s funny to me that people associate jealousy with polyamory since what polyamory does is basically remove the barriers and insecurities that cause and feed jealousy. To me, it’s more honest in that you’re admitting up front that you WILL find others attractive. The difference is that in poly situations, we know that finding someone else attractive doesn’t mean NOT finding us attractive. We know that both can and do co-exist. What’s even better, though, is we don’t make you choose, either. It’s not like you have to leave one partner to be with another.
But I do understand what people are getting at. They want to know how I can handle seeing someone I love love others. (It sounds like a silly question when I put it that way, huh?) And the answer is two-fold: (1) I’m secure in the relationship my boyfriend and I have, and he does a great job of making me feel special and loved even though I’m well aware that I’m not the only person in his life in that capacity. (2) I got over my insecurities. And this really is the key. For a long time I didn’t think I could handle non-monogamy, but at least I was honest about why: “I just think I’m too insecure for that kind of relationship.” And at the time, I definitely was. Confidence is sexy, sure, but confidence will also preserve your sanity. That is, it doesn’t bother me seeing my boyfriend with another woman (or man–actually, that sounds hot, but I digress) because I’m confident in who I am and that he likes and cares for who I am, regardless of whether or not there are other attractive people around.
This isn’t a call for polyamory for all, that just wouldn’t work. But this is a call for confidence for all– whether you’re monogamous, polyamorous, single or asexual. Faith in ourselves is essential for survival, and if you only get yours from other sources, one day your well will run dry. Learning to love myself (because it’s still a work in progress) has been simultaneously one of the most challenging and rewarding things I’ve ever done. It’s hard, but it’s well worth the rewards.
Consider starting small. I know I did. My therapist gave me these post-it notes to put around the house with positive messages on them. I tried not to gag when she first gave them to me. (Yeah, I’m definitely that person who rolls her eyes at “positive affirmations,” even knowing they can work.) For weeks I sat with the post-it notes, unable to think of a single nice thing about myself that I actually believed. And then it hit me, “Love yourself anyway.” I started writing things like, “You’re a ridiculous human being, but I love you anyway.” or “I have seen your struggle and I love you anyway.” It managed to acknowledge my resistance to loving myself while still sending a positive message. Go figure. But those words have come to mean quite a lot to me. They mean that even on days when I just can stand myself, when I muck everything up, when I want to just pull all my hair out and throw a tantrum, they mean that despite all the imperfections I should love myself… anyway.
Love more, fear less.