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Polyamory and Jealousy
A More than Two Essentials Guide
By Eve Rickert, Franklin Veaux
Thorntree Press, LLCCopyright © 2016 Eve Rickert and Franklin Veaux
All rights reserved.
THE GREEN-EYED MONSTER
So you're in a polyamorous relationship; you're involved with someone who has another partner. There you are, cruising along, and wham! You see something, or hear something, or think about something, and now you're in the thick of it. Jealousy. It happens, sometimes when we least expect it. When it does, we can feel like we want to set fire to the world before running into a dark cave, screaming "I will never let anyone get close to me ever again!" (Or maybe that's just us.)
We give such talismanic power to jealousy that the fear of it alone can shape our relationships. We've never heard anyone say, "Polyamory? I wouldn't want to do that. What if I feel angry?" or "What if I feel sad?" But many people say, "Polyamory? What if I feel jealous?" The fact is, at some point you will. Few people are born immune to jealousy. The good news is, jealousy is just an emotion, like any other emotion. Sometimes you feel sad, sometimes you feel angry, but you don't let those feelings define you. They don't run your life. Jealousy doesn't need to either.
WHAT IS JEALOUSY?
Jealousy is the feeling we get when we drag tomorrow's rain cloud over today's sunshine. It's the feeling that we are about to lose something important to us, including maybe our self-worth, to someone else. It's the fear that we aren't good enough, that the people around us don't really love us, that everything is about to turn to ash. It comes like a thief in the night, stealing our joy. Jealousy is a sneaky thing. It sits behind us whispering that we are the victim, not the villain: that the people around us are wronging us, and we must act to protect ourselves. And perhaps most destructively, it tells us not to talk openly about the way we're feeling. It thrives on secrecy and silence. At its most toxic, it makes us angry at others and ashamed of ourselves at the same time.
Jealousy wears many faces because, unlike surprise or fear or anger, it is built of many emotions. Insecurity, fear of loss, territoriality, inadequacy, entitlement, poor self-esteem, fear of abandonment ... all these can pile onto one another to make different versions of what we think of as jealousy.
Is jealousy an intrinsic part of human nature? Some folks say yes, some no. We say it doesn't matter. We feel what we feel — but there is a difference between jealous feelings and jealous actions. Regardless of the origin of jealous feelings, the actions we take are our responsibility.
Jealous feelings come from a sense of loss, or a fear of it. Jealous actions are usually attempts to take back control over the things we're afraid of. For example, if you feel jealous when your partner has sex with her new partner in the Monkey with Lotus Blossom and Chainsaw position, you might be afraid that you're losing something special: "That's our position! What if this new person handles the chainsaw better than I do? What does she need me for, now that she's found someone else to do this with?"
The jealous action might be to say, "I don't want you to have sex with anyone but me in this position," which is an attempt to deal with the fear by taking back control. "If she stops doing this, I won't feel replaced anymore!" At least until the next threatening thing comes along.
Those kinds of actions don't create safety or security. Rather, safety and security come from knowing that your partner loves, trusts and values you. Putting controls on your partner's behavior, or other jealous maneuvers like invading privacy or criticizing a metamour, won't give you this knowledge. They do exactly the opposite — they undermine intimacy by telling your partner that you don't trust her.
THE CHAMELEON EMOTION
Sometimes jealousy can be a relatively simple emotion, easy to detect and recognize. This is especially true when it happens in response to clear triggers, like watching a partner kiss another partner. The first time Eve saw her husband, Peter, holding hands with his first poly girlfriend, Clio, the lurching feeling of the ground dropping out from beneath her feet was an unmistakable sign of jealousy. It was impossible to interpret as anything else, and the stimulus responsible for it was clear. That made the feeling, as scary as it was, relatively straightforward to confront.
But one of the things that can make jealousy such a challenge is that it's a shape-shifter: jealousy masquerades as other emotions. Before you can fight it, you need to see it for what it is. Some of the emotions that can have jealousy at their root are fear, loneliness, loss, sadness, anger, betrayal, envy and humiliation. If you are feeling these in connection to one of your partners or metamours (your partners' other partners) and there's no obvious reason, or if the emotion is much stronger than the situation would seem to warrant, ask yourself if it might be jealousy.
On the other hand, those same emotions can arise in response to a genuinely hurtful external situation. In those cases it can be too easy to blame jealousy, and thereby duck the real issues. It's reasonable to ask yourself, "Am I really having these emotions just because I'm feeling jealous?" Take heed if a partner or metamour frequently minimizes your emotions as "just jealousy." Do you feel you are being listened to? Are you being offered genuine insight about yourself by someone who knows and cares about you? Or are you being belittled and dismissed?
Jealousy can be a valuable signal that we have some soul-searching to do. Managing jealousy means having enough insight to tell it apart from its imposter emotions (and vice versa) as well as from external problems that may be developing. Distinguishing it from its look-alikes means knowing yourself and communicating with your partners.
TRIGGERS FOR JEALOUSY
Sometimes jealousy is triggered by public behavior we often associate with "couplehood": holding hands in public, sending flowers to a partner's workplace, meeting a partner's parents. These triggers usually happen when we fear losing the social status that comes from being part of a couple. In polyamorous relationships, such a loss is probably inevitable: polyamory by definition expands the idea of relationships beyond the couple. These triggers can often be avoided by using the strategies we talk about in the mono/poly chapter of More Than Two, such as including everyone in a family portrait. It also helps to demonstrate that you are not a victim or a pawn, but a full participant in the poly relationship. For example, if you're feeling jealous about your partner's new sweetie meeting his parents, scheduling the meeting when you can also be there will show his parents that it's not happening behind your back.
A common trigger for jealousy is seeing your partner being physically affectionate or flirty with someone else. This can bring up fears of being replaced, or activate the "Why am I not enough?" script. It can also lead to destructive comparisons with your partner's other partner: "Is she sexier than I am? Prettier? Smarter? Better?"
Physical evidence of intimacy between your partner and another lover, like a condom wrapper in the trash or extra slippers at the foot of the bed, can trigger jealous feelings. So can seeing your partner do something for the first time with a new lover. Sometimes all it takes to deal with these triggers is to recognize the feelings for what they are and say, "I am feeling jealous because it seems like I'm learning to understand I'm not your only partner. Please bear with me while I work through this." Sometimes handling these triggers is more complicated, and we talk about more strategies in a bit.
LISTENING TO JEALOUSY
People often think of jealousy as evil. It can certainly make people do evil things, but by itself, jealousy is morally neutral. Like all emotions, it is the way the ancient parts of our brains — the parts that don't have language — try to communicate with us.
The problem is that as communicators go, jealousy is pretty inarticulate. It might be pointing to a significant problem in a relationship. Or it might just be our inner wordless three-year-old stomping its foot and saying "I'm not getting everything I want!" It might also be a symptom of a weak spot within us — some insecurity or self-doubt we're trying to protect. We have to decode the message if we are to decide what to do about it.
We can be tempted to approach jealousy by blaming whatever triggered it. "It's so simple! Just stop holding hands with your other partner in front of me!"
FRANKLIN'S STORY Ruby was smart, beautiful, strong, outgoing, opinionated — just the sort of person I find irresistible — and one of my first partners during my 18-year-long relationship with Celeste, my now ex-wife.
I was just out of school, and up to that point, I'd never experienced jealousy. I'd had partners who had other partners, and I'd never had even a twinge of bad feeling about it. I naively (and somewhat arrogantly) believed I was immune to jealousy — that it was something other people experienced, but not me.
I was utterly smitten with Ruby. Our relationship was emotional wildfire. Unfortunately, the terms of my agreement with Celeste didn't really permit a close, bonded relationship — which was exactly the kind of relationship Ruby and I were emotionally drawn into. We both chafed under the restrictions: no overnight stays, no public affection, a strict ceiling on how far the relationship would ever be allowed to grow. We both understood at some level that our relationship would never be permitted to become what we both needed it to be.
Before long, Ruby started another relationship with a close friend of mine, Newton. He was an excellent choice as a partner for her: quick-witted, laid-back, good-natured. His relationship with Ruby had no ceiling and no restrictions. Instinctively, I knew Newton could offer Ruby more than I could, and I was terrified that he would replace me in her heart.
The jealousy happened so fast and hit me so hard I couldn't even recognize it for what it was. All I knew was when I saw them together, I felt scared and angry. I assumed that because I felt this way, she must be doing something wrong, though it was difficult to figure out exactly what. I remember going to sleep replaying all my interactions with her in my head, looking for that thing she was doing to hurt me so much.
Because I was starting from the premise that she was doing something wrong — why else would I be feeling so bad? — I lashed out at her, accusing her of all kinds of wrongdoing, most of which existed only in my head. The tiniest, most trivial things she said or did that I didn't agree with were magnified to epic proportions. Before long, unsurprisingly, I had destroyed my relationship with Ruby, and not long after that, my friendship with her (and with Newton) as well. Not until years later did I finally put together what had happened.
By the time I realized I had been jealous, and that I had allowed my jealousy to poison my relationship with Ruby, it was far too late. I had done so much damage that neither Ruby nor Newton ever spoke to me again. I lost a partner and two friends.
Franklin destroyed his relationship with Ruby because he was unable to conceive that he might feel jealousy, and therefore he was unable to listen to it. In this case, the jealousy was saying, "You are encumbered by rules and constraints specifically intended to prevent you from having the kind of relationship both of you need. Newton is able to offer her a relationship without limits. If she wants that kind of relationship, you might be replaced."
Was Franklin actually in danger of being replaced? No. Ruby loved him very much.
How might listening to the jealousy have changed the outcome? For one, Franklin might have seen how destructive the agreements he'd made with Celeste were, and this might have saved many other people — and Franklin and Celeste — a great deal of pain. More to the point, he might have been able to go to Ruby and say, "I'm feeling jealous. I realize that our relationship is constricted, and Newton does not have these limitations. Do you still value our relationship, even as circumscribed as it is? What do I offer you, and what do you value in me? How can we make sure we build a foundation that means you will continue to want to be with me?" The outcome would probably have been very different.
It's so easy to pin responsibility for our emotions on other people. "You're making me feel this terrible thing. Stop doing that!" We forget that our emotions might be the result of our own insecurities rather than our partners' actions. When we transfer responsibility for our emotions to others, we yield control over our own lives. And when we feel that we have lost control of our own lives, we often try to take it back by controlling others.
It's okay to feel jealous. That might sound strange, coming from people who are writing about polyamory. But we've been there. Almost everyone you meet has been there. Being immune to jealousy is not a prerequisite for polyamory, and feeling jealous doesn't make you a bad poly person. So take a deep breath. Like all feelings, jealousy is not the sum of who you are. It won't kill you, even if it feels like it might. It doesn't necessarily mean something's wrong with you, or with your relationship.
Even when you're feeling jealous, you still have power over your actions. Jealousy is like that creepy guy sitting behind the king whispering in his ear, "The ambassador has just insulted you most grievously, Your Grace! Attack his lands at once! Raze his villages!" But remember, you're still the king. You don't have to set the world on fire and run off to live in a cave, no matter how satisfying that sounds.
FRANKLIN'S STORY About the time I was involved with Ruby, I had a friend who had a pet iguana, a huge green lizard more than four feet long. It was usually docile and friendly. But a pattern would play out every time she took it out of its cage. She would open the door and reach inside, and it would lash at her with its whip-like tail. She would jump back, then reach into the cage again. The second time, the iguana would calmly climb up her arm to sit on her shoulder.
One day, as I watched her go through this ritual, she said, "I wish it would hit me with its tail, just once, so I wouldn't have to be afraid of it anymore."
In the aftermath of my relationship with Ruby, I was heartbroken. I spent long nights thinking about what had happened and wondering where our relationship, which had been such a source of joy to both of us, had gone so horribly wrong.
Eventually, I realized an inescapable truth: Our relationship had been destroyed because I destroyed it. It wasn't destroyed by her new relationship with Newton. It wasn't destroyed by anything she had done to me. I had destroyed it, because I had felt something I believed myself incapable of feeling and therefore couldn't handle when I did. She had been absolutely right to end the relationship with me. In the blindness of my own pain, I had been completely unaware of the pain I was causing her.
The things I felt during and after my relationship with Ruby were the worst I had ever felt in my life, and I didn't ever want to feel them again. And, gradually, I realized something else: I didn't have to. The secret of not ever feeling this way again was right in front of me. It had been all along.
First, after she broke up with me, I learned something valuable: I could lose someone, and I might want to curl up and die, but it wouldn't actually kill me. I knew what it felt like for the lizard to get me, and I didn't have to be afraid of it anymore. I would survive. I could even, eventually, be happy again.
Second, I realized she had the right to leave me. Everyone has the right to leave me. Whether they choose to leave me is something I have some control over, by the way I treat them. Ruby left because I did things that hurt her, and that drove her away. But it was within my power to do different things. It was not the hand of fate or the uncaring stars; it was the choices I made. If I had made different choices, if I had made decisions that drew my partners closer rather than pushing them away, I might have had a better outcome.
Excerpted from Polyamory and Jealousy by Eve Rickert, Franklin Veaux. Copyright © 2016 Eve Rickert and Franklin Veaux. Excerpted by permission of Thorntree Press, LLC.
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