Or, a brief examination of sexual and emotional jealousy and the ways polyamorous people are not immune to them
Polyamorous people are just as likely to feel jealousy as monogamous people. It’s often about different things; it’s a point of contention because some people like to claim they’ve evolved past it; it’s used to dismiss real relationship issues because “you’re just jealous!” is a get-the-first-aid-kit poly burn; and it’s handled with different expectations than when monogamous people experience it.
I think these two notes on the content of this essay are needed:
I will not be explicitly addressing compersion. That’s another day, and another time.
There is no way to be comprehensive about the way people experience emotions, so I will not claim or attempt to be.
Jealousy is the first issue brought up to a lot of people when they let friends or family know they’re non-monogamous. In the toxic end of monogamous culture (which, sadly, informs a lot of people’s romantic education - most romcoms are built on it, and a lot of people’s expectations are formed by media), jealousy is held up as proof of love, or as a virtue. “Don’t you have a problem with your partner <flirting with friends>/<going out without you>/<dressing provocatively>/<dancing with that other person>?” are all questions friends ask, in real life, out of concern. For some people, a simple negative answer is all they need to drop it and let their friend and their friend’s relationship be; but for others, the lack of jealousy is shocking, or an indicator that maybe this person isn’t “the One.”
Since polyamory necessarily does away with the idea that there is only one “The One,” a lot of people’s assumption on beginning a journey into polyamory is that now you can’t be jealous. Where it was a virtue in monogamy, it now becomes a sin in polyamory. I (and many others) would argue that this is equally toxic as toxic monogamy’s assumption that jealousy is proof of love. Not allowing someone to feel their feelings; or to tell them that they should feel guilt for these feelings; or that these feelings make them “bad at their relationships,” is a mode of thinking that stifles communication, and makes finding root issues underlying a particular incidence of jealousy harder.
I subscribe to the theory that jealousy is like a check engine light on your car (or at least like on older cars, the modern ones with 16 indicator lights might not suit this metaphor). (I’m fairly certain Page from poly.land coined that phrasing, to credit her.) It lets you know there’s a problem, a negative feeling there; but you’ve got to do a diagnostic on the car to figure out if it’s a big problem or a little one, and there’s something underneath, it’s not just a light for nothing. Jealousy can be an effect of anger, of resentment, of envy, of feeling powerless, of anxiety, or of stress - and each of those could be a “you problem” or an “us problem” - something in the relationship where there is jealousy could need an individual or a team solution, depending on what you find “under the hood,” and what the cause of that underlying feeling is. Sitting with your jealousy long enough to figure out what’s under it, or asking your partner for help identifying what’s there, is a lot harder if you and your partner have stigmatized jealousy between yourselves. It takes some patience and self-reflection to tell your partner calmly “I’m jealous of <person or situation x>, and I don’t want to flip about it but I’m really uncomfortable and I can’t figure out why yet;” and their response being “Ugh why are you still so jealous; this is ridiculous. I thought we were past this” helps no one stay patient and self-reflective long enough to figure out what’s actually wrong, and discourages you to pull back when you have negative feelings, unless they’re explosive. Waiting to fix a leaking head gasket, instead of getting it fixed immediately, will catastrophically affect your car; similarly, waiting to address at least within yourself, and sometimes with your partner’s help, the feelings underlying your jealousy will deeply harm your relationship.
I’ve never been a sexually jealous person, which probably made some of my learning to be polyamorous a lot easier; but my emotional journey has been a lot more complicated (and still is, sometimes - but that’s another post!). Other polyamorous people I know find it instinctive, to extend their understanding of friendship and familial love and how plural that can be to their romantic relationships, but struggle(d) with handing the physical and sexual side of non-monogamy.
Some people handle root envy by finding things that make them feel special that they can hold unique to their relationship without shaking the foundation of any other relationships that particular partner has; some handle it by sitting with it and letting it flow over and out of them; some by finding the other emotions that combine with the envy to make up the jealous “rush” and by addressing those, find that the envy or FOMO isn’t as bad. Any of these are equally valid approaches, and there are tons more.
If the root is anger or resentment, figuring out at whom it’s directed, when you started holding it, and if you need help to address it - if it’s a systemic “us problem” or if it’s a “you need to find the resentment and let go of it because it’s coloring your impression of your partner and they didn’t mean badly” issue - is a big deal. If you discover it’s the latter, it’s important to know you may have logically realized this is your issue, but you still need to bring yourself around to it emotionally, and that’s really hard work. Letting your partner(s) who are affected know you’ve figured that out and you’d like some patience while you help yourself to use positive reframing to undo the previous resentment (CBT and DBT techniques can be really helpful) can give you the space you need for it and “let them in” on your mental state in a way that builds positive communication.
There are a world of things to say about typical triggers of and reactions to jealousy, and over time we’ll be addressing more of those, so I’m making a category tag for it, and if you’re reading this when I haven’t freshly posted it, please, feel free to take a look there to find more information and resources. Regardless of when you're reading, if you have a specific section of jealousy or question about jealousy you'd like me to write about, please reach out and I'll try to address it soon!