Learn about Polyamory: What About Jealousy?
It’s almost guaranteed that if you’re polyamorous and mention it to someone who isn’t, one of the first questions you’ll be asked is “But what about jealousy?” Many polyam and consensually non-monogamous people have answered this (a lot), but it can still be useful to get into some more depth around this topic.
What jealousy is (and isn't)
Let’s take a minute to clarify what we’re talking about. What is jealousy? Many people have different definitions of, and experiences with, jealousy, so it can be useful to check where they’re coming from.
Jealousy is commonly thought of as a ‘feeling word’ - and it’s one that comes with a lot of societal baggage. Often, people’s minds throw up a series of images – pictures of a green-eyed monster, a scowling face, a child having a tantrum, grabbing hands, or a spouse arguing with their partner. You might see these things, or something else. Western media in particular loves to use the trope of the jealous partner or friend, so it’s seen modelled a lot.
Jealousy is actually what’s known as a ‘secondary emotion’ - that is, there’s often a ‘primary emotion’ hidden behind it. Those primary emotions could be feelings of insecurity or inadequacy, anxiety around doing the right thing, or a fear of not being accepted or of missing out.
Melissa Fabello gives a great definition: “Jealousy is an unpleasant feeling that arises when we perceive a threat to a relationship. We may feel scared, concerned, or otherwise insecure about our safety in our connections — it’s simply one of several common emotions that are virtually universally experienced in humans.”
Additionally, people regularly mix up jealousy with envy, and the two aren’t the same. Unlike envy – where we want what the other person has as well (e.g.: “They have fashionable shoes, I want to have a pair of them as well, so I can also be fashionable”), jealousy generally describes us as wanting a thing in place of the other person having it (e.g.: “I want to take their shoes from them, so I will be fashionable, and accepted by other fashionable people”). The process of wanting that thing – or getting that thing – is an attempt to soothe the primary emotion behind it; to reduce the feelings of insecurity, minimise the fear, or wash away the anxiety.
Ways jealousy can come up in relationships
Jealousy isn’t only something felt within romantic relationships, as the above example shows. It can turn up in the workplace, school, at home, within friend circles. And it can definitely be present in monogamous relationships as well as open ones.
Where there’s a difference is that, fairly often, people in polyam/CNM relationships have come face-to-face with their jealousy – there are more opportunities for it to show up, because there are more relationship dynamics at play.
Does that mean people who are in open relationships are part of a drama-fest waiting to happen? Unsurprisingly, that’s not a simple one to answer, as it depends on the people involved. Generally speaking, polyamorous people need to be able to face their jealousy and figure out what it’s indicating, in order to have relationships that work for all parties.
Is jealousy a bad feeling to have? Not inherently. Acting on jealousy can be hurtful to people, but recognising that one is feeling jealousy – recognising the emotion and acknowledging the impact it is having? That’s a mighty useful awareness of self to have!
Bitchy Jones put it beautifully when she wrote in Jealousy is Useful: “I don’t see ‘not feeling jealous’ as a worthwhile goal at all. Feeling secure is a worthwhile goal, rarely feeling jealous is just a side-effect of that. Communicating well with your partner so you solve problems before they become a big deal is a worthwhile goal, and rarely feeling jealous is just a side-effect of that. Go for the real goals, don’t mistake the side-effect for what you really want to accomplish.”
How to manage jealous feelings when they arise
So you’ve figured out that you’re feeling jealous – maybe of the time a partner is spending with someone else, maybe with the experiences they’re having without you. Now what? Here are some steps to take:
1: Are you jealous or are you envious? If it’s the latter, can you find a way to also have that experience so you’re not missing out?
2: If you’re feeling jealousy, take a few minutes to examine it. What’s going on behind it – can you figure out the primary emotion? Are you feeling left out; feeling uncertain about your relationship future; feeling nervous about whether you’ll measure up to this other person?
3: If you’ve been able to determine the primary emotion: is this your brain expressing fears or anxieties that are genuine? Or has there been a cascade of ‘worst case scenarios’ playing out?
4: If they’re worst case scenarios, are there ways you’re able to emotionally regulate or self-soothe? This might be reading a book you like, calling a friend, playing a video game, or something else entirely. (You know yourself best in this regard.)
5: If they’re genuine fears and anxieties, are these things you can arrange to talk about with your partner/s, once you’re both in a good emotional place to do so?
Once you’ve done the above steps, you’ve now figured out if you’re envious or jealous; what’s behind the jealousy; and what to do about the primary emotions.
Naturally, none of this is easy when you’re in the moment. But if you don’t follow the steps at the time, and instead express or act on your jealousy, you’re still able to come back to it later and think back to what your mind was saying, to help you to figure out what was going on.
Jealousy is you telling yourself that something’s going on. If you pay attention to the message and figure out what it means, you’ll understand yourself a little better - and your relationships will do better as well.
More reading about jealousy
Ten Responses To “But Don’t You Get Jealous?” - ResearchToBeDone
Does Jealousy Mimic Childhood Relationships? - Louisa Leontiades
Jealous of What? Solving Polyamory’s Jealousy Problem - Elizabeth Stern
Jealousy and Control - Peppermint
Polyamory, Jealousy, and the ‘Buffet Analogy’ - Polyphilia
Jealousy Toolbox: and Then What exercise - Polyamory Weekly
Deconstructing Jealousy - Multiamory ep 110
The Jealousy Workbook: Exercises and Insights for Managing Open Relationships - Kathy Labriola