Learning to Breathe – Coping with Jealousy

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Learning to Breathe - Coping with JealousyThere is a somewhat unspoken belief that people in open relationships don’t feel jealousy; and for quite a while this was my excuse for not exploring non-monogamy: I was just too jealous a person. The problem with this was that I never really believed it. I don’t believe that you have to be devoid of jealousy in order to be non-monogamous. And I definitely don’t believe that people who are non-monogamous don’t feel jealousy. What I do believe is that 1) jealousy is something the majority of us feel, 2) it’s never a positive emotion, and 3) we would all do a lot better if we learned how to deal with it.

In fact, even if I hadn’t fallen – happily! – into non-monogamy, jealousy is still something I would be fighting to overcome. At its best it’s a barrier to making myself useful, and at its worst it can be truly debilitating. It even seems to be a self-fulfilling emotion: the more jealous I feel, the more possessive I become; and the more possessive I feel, the more jealous I become. It’s a vicious cycle, and not an easy one to break. Furthermore, it is a socialised emotion – two words which, I think, never belong together. Through the culture and arts and literature we are surrounded by, we are taught that two people belong together, forever, and – perhaps most disturbingly – that jealousy is a sign of their love and commitment to one another. Because apparently you can’t feel jealous about someone you don’t love…? I don’t know about the rest of the world, but I can feel jealous about pretty much anything, and I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one.

So what do we do?

I’m sure there are a thousand ways to fight jealousy. I’m also sure that everyone needs to find the way that fits them. So to begin with, at this early stage of identifying as non-monogamous, I have taken the very simple path of learning to breathe.

When I discover something that makes me jealous, my learned reaction is to tense up. My heart beats faster, and I feel knots forming in my abdomen. It’s painful, and in extreme cases, it makes me want to cry. But I’ve realised that this is – as I phrased it – a ‘learned’ reaction. It’s not natural; it’s socialised. Because when I begin to unpack that tension, to really tug at those knots, what seem to exist at their centers are things I am already overcoming; reactions and trauma I have been left with as a result of unethical non-monogamy; of being cheated on. Those emotions may be real and visceral, but that doesn’t mean I’m willing to bend to them. In fact it makes me more determined to overcome them.

Which brings me back to breathing. A few days ago I witnessed some playful flirtation between a man I love and a woman I consider a good, if casual, friend. Small fry – but that’s good; I’m glad I get to start small. As soon as I saw their interaction, I felt my body tense. But in that moment, the rest of my life was so harmoniously in sync that the idea of letting this sweet moment between them ruin my sunny disposition seemed ridiculous. So I breathed. I let the jealousy flood through me, and I didn’t tense. I didn’t hold onto it. I just let it be. It sounds terribly wishy-washy, but visceral emotion has a physical effect; therefore, you can defeat it physically as well. I breathed and relaxed, and didn’t allow it to take hold of my body.

I asked myself – what’s the worst that could happen? And, as it turns out, my fears are really very slight; even the worst of them is something I know I could handle.

I have done it before. There have been times in my young life when I’ve decided not to let jealousy get the better of me; but this time it seemed to hold more meaning. It felt like a bolder turning point, because, for the first time, in my mind was not only the desire to deal with this particular moment, but also the desire to build a new way of coping with jealousy. I’m no longer satisfied with temporary fixes; I want to move towards thinking and feeling differently. And this is just my first step.

One brick laid; many more to go.

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Harper Eliot is a writer and podcaster whose work mainly centers around eroticism and social observation. You can find an archive of work, and links to all her other projects, on her website Harper Eliot. Harper lives in London, but rarely sees her own house, spending most of her time on public transport, listening to podcasts and tweeting too much. Her vices include cigarettes, lubricant, Earl Grey tea, opera, nail polish, and pinwheels.

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