Jealousy is very common in both monogamous and non-monogamous relationships. However, in monogamous relationships it's much easier to engineer the way you and your partner interact with others to minimize activities that trigger jealousy. In poly relationships, you're nearly guaranteed to regularly encounter jealousy in either yourself or your partners. So you better figure out a strategy for dealing with it. Even though my husband, Alex, has a long-term girlfriend and I have a long-term boyfriend, I still get jealous. Sometimes in profound and meaningful ways, and sometimes over silly things. On the more serious side for me, I get jealous when my husband shares major thoughts with his girlfriend, Hanne, that he hasn't shared with me. On the sillier side, I also got a little jealous when some cute gay guy was extra friendly to my boyfriend on a business trip.
When someone is jealous, they perceive the potential to lose something important to them. Sometimes it is clear what the thing is that the person fears losing, although in other cases it is more difficult to define. An example: A monogamous person has a reason to be jealous of their monogamous partner falling in love with someone else because there is the real potential that their partner will leave them for that person. Their monogamous partner has the belief that they can only have a loving relationship with one person at a time, so loving someone else implies ending the existing relationship.
Conversely, a poly person knows that love is an infinite resource and their partner is committed to continue loving them no matter how many other people they love, so it seems like they shouldn't be jealous, right? However, even if a poly person deeply believes that love is not a finite resource and that their partner will not remove love from them, they may still perceive the real risk of losing something meaningful to them when their partner falls in love with someone else. What are they losing? That depends on the relationship. They may feel like they are losing a special role as the only person their partner loves. They may feel they are losing a unique status as the only person who has reached that level of specialness for their partner. They may have a legitimate fear that this makes it possible or likely that the new person will surpass them in their partner's affections, and losing the status of being someone's “most special love” (even if they are okay with not being the only love) is a real threat. They may fear that this will lead to the loss of time with their partner, something which is most definitely a finite resource. Perhaps they believe that New Relationship Energy (NRE) will draw their partner's attention and romantic energy away from them. At the very least, adding a new partner means things will change, and that can be something to fear in and of itself if you're in a happy and stable situation.
So what is the best way to handle jealousy? I'm sorry to say I haven't found the final answer yet, but I can share what is mostly working in my life right now. I think Alex and I are heading for a two-sided system where the person who feels jealous has certain responsibilities, and there are other expectations for the person who has done something which triggered the jealousy.
If I'm jealous, I try to find a way to work through it if I can. Here are ways I try to do that:
- I recognize that jealousy is not an emergency. Jealousy is an uncomfortable emotion and panicking about it can make me act irrationally. However, I don't have to let it dictate how I respond. Just because I'm jealous doesn't mean I have to take action on it. I don't have to tell my partner to stop what he's doing. I don't have to get upset. I don't have to assume that my partner is doing something to hurt me. I can stop, take a breath, and just think about it for a while. Just let the feeling be. Examine it. See if it stays with me or goes away. See what it feels like inside me.
- I try to identify exactly what I fear I might lose. If I'm feeling jealous because my husband is seeing his girlfriend, why is that? Is it because I fear I am losing a place in his life as his favorite person to spend time with? Or do I feel like I'm not getting enough attention from him and I fear that him spending time with her will take away from the attention he can give to me? How important is the thing I might lose? How likely is it that I will lose it? Are there other ways to fill that need?
- I try to spend time thinking about the benefit my partner is getting from the behavior that is making me jealous. What is motivating him? What are alternate explanations of his behavior other than the one that provoked my jealousy? Is it really likely that this behavior is taking something away from my relationship with him?
- I also try to spend a little time thinking about the benefits of jealousy. What?!? Jealousy has a positive side? You don't hear that often, but I think it does. Jealousy spurs me to examine the state of my relationship with my partner. Do I feel confident that I'm being a good partner to him? Or are there areas I'm slacking off? Do I feel like I'm getting what I need from him? Jealousy also highlights that my partner has other sexual and romantic opportunities in life – and yet he still chooses me. He still thinks I bring enough to his life that he keeps coming back for more, even after 18 years. Other people value this person's time and attention and affection, and yet he is still devoted to sharing those things with me on a regular basis. And that makes me feel good.
- I talk to my partner and try not to be accusatory (“You shouldn't have taken her to that event! You knew I wanted to go!”). I fail at that a lot of time. Being less accusatory is an area of growth for me. But I try.
On the other side, the person who is doing the behavior which is triggering jealousy in their partner has some responsibilities as well. The most basic responsibility is to listen to their partner's concerns compassionately and with empathy. Beyond that, each couple needs to figure out what path works for them. Is the default assumption that the person doing something which has triggered jealousy should stop that activity while the issue is worked out? Is the assumption that the person who is jealous should spend a lot of time trying to work through it first? Alex and I are gravitating toward a system where the person who has done something that triggered jealousy can trust that their partner will do their best to communicate their issue without blame and work though jealousy if they can, with support from their partner. And the partner who feels jealousy trusts that if they find they do have a genuine reason to feel uncomfortable with the behavior or just can't work through their jealousy, then their partner will stop the behavior and take care of them.
See how I italicized trust both times in that last sentence? There's a reason for that.
I believe that jealousy ultimately comes from not trusting that your partner understands your needs and will take care of you as a partner. Building trust in a relationship is beyond the scope of this post, but I'd like to recommend a book called “The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples” by John Gottman as an excellent resource for understanding the role of trust in a relationship and how it can be built.
For more discussion on managing jealousy, I recommend reading “Love in Abundance: A Counselor's Advice on Open Relationships” by Kathy Labriola. This book has four criteria for determining if the insecurity you feel is a jealousy that is threatening to your relationship, and thoughts about how to manage it. Some advice she has for combating many of the fundamental sources of jealousy is to instill in yourself these three core beliefs about your relationship:
1. My partner loves me so much that (s)he trusts our relationship to expand and be enriched by experiencing even more love from others.
2. My relationship is so solid and trusting that we can experience other relationships freely. My partner is so satisfied with me and our relationship that having other partners will not threaten the bond we enjoy.
3. There is an abundance of love in the world and there is plenty for everyone. Loving more than one person is a choice that can exponentially expand my potential for giving and receiving love.
I'd love to hear about how you manage jealousy. Do you have core beliefs that minimize jealousy? Do you have techniques you use when jealousy arises for you? Comment below.