The first thing I want to say on this subject is that jealousy—the experience of jealousy—is real. I think that sometimes when we’re trying to make ideological arguments against the way jealousy tends to play out in monogamous scenarios, we sound too dismissive of the very real pain and suffering that jealousy often causes. So I think it’s important to say at the outset of this discussion that regardless of whether jealousy is a social construction, it causes very real emotional consequences for people. When we decide to become polyamorous, we don’t just press a magical jealousy off-button, though it would be fantastic if we could. Some of us might truly just be “non-jealous types.” But for most of us, jealousy is still something we struggle with. We’ve just made a choice to confront it and deal with it in a different way.
I’m strongly of the opinion that romantic jealousy is very largely rooted in fear. Monogamous culture tells us that other possible romantic (or sexual) interests our partners have are unequivocally threats to our existing relationship. We are taught that it is simply not possible for someone to romantically love two people simultaneously. Therefore, if my partner begins to have feelings for someone else, the traditional thinking says that he must no longer have the same feelings for me. This thinking conditions us to fear situations where even the potential for romantic interest exists, to be uncomfortable with and skeptical about scenarios such as a partner developing a deep friendship with a person of their romantically preferred gender (good luck if you’re bi; all of your friendships must be treated as suspect). In this kind of paradigm, where other people are seen as a threat, it’s easy to view fear as a rational response.
In turn, jealousy is then used to justify all kinds of dehumanizing, possessive, controlling behaviors, particularly those enacted on women by men. The traditional monogamous (and patriarchal) ideology says that it’s reasonable for men to tell women who they can and can’t spend time with, what time they should be home at night, what they can and can’t wear. When jealousy is a motivating factor, we excuse people for invading one another’s privacy by reading each other’s emails and text messages, spying on them or listening in on conversations, and all manner of creepy, controlling behavior that’s often considered a precursor to physical abuse.
I have said a multitude of times that I do not have a problem with monogamy itself. But I do have a problem with the way monogamous ideology plays out when it fuels this kind of behavior. Jealousy does not ever justify controlling the behavior of others and treating them as possessions, and any social allowance for this kind of behavior is highly problematic.
But unfortunately, this fear-based jealousy is so deeply engrained in us, it can be very difficult to shake, even if we’ve shifted our thinking to recognize that others don’t pose a threat to our existing relationships. So what’s the alternative approach to dealing with these very real feelings, if not to enact rules and regulations to control the behavior of others?
In my opinion, and in my experience, the most valuable way to deal with your own feelings of jealousy is by communicating what you want and need from your partner, not by attempting to control their behavior outside of the relationship. If you’re feeling insecure, don’t respond by criticizing something your partner does with someone else, or by comparing one relationship to another. Instead, ask directly for what you need to feel better. Not by saying “I want you to spend less time with her,” but instead by saying “I really need some more quality time with you.” Try to identify exactly what bothers you about a particular situation. Are you afraid this other person is smarter, better in bed, more attractive? Do you feel threatened because they share something in common, an interest or a skill, with your partner that you don’t share? Does it just plain make you feel icky to imagine your partner having a similar emotional intimacy with someone else as they have with you? It’s important to really understand the particulars of your jealousy in order to be able to ask for the kinds of reassurance that will really succeed in making you feel better. But whatever you do, don’t beat yourself up for feeling jealous. It’s not your fault you’ve lived however many years in a society that teaches you to feel extreme discomfort at the very thought of your partner relating intimately to someone else. Communicate openly, be as honest as possible, and don’t turn your own feelings of fear into an attack on the other person.
What about when you’re on the other side, and it’s your partner who is wrestling with jealousy? First of all, validate and empathize with you partner’s feelings. Don’t try to simply rationalize him or her into feeling differently. Emotions are messy, and don’t always correspond neatly to ideology; it’s possible to know that a new relationship poses no threat to an existing one, and yet still struggle with very real pain and insecurity. Respond to your jealous partner with sympathy, not anger. But also, make it clear that your partner needs to be asking for what he or she needs from you, not trying to control your behavior with others. And when your partner does communicate needs and desires, make sure you do your best to meet them. This is how you build trust and security, and prove that your new relationship is not a threat.
Be sympathetic, too, about the pace at which your partner feels comfortable actually spending time with you and your new partner. Respect and recognize that someone saying “I’m not ready to see you two together yet” is not the same as saying “I’m not ready for you two to be together.” I don’t believe in making “rules” to circumscribe the behavior of others, but I do believe we all have a right to make our own decisions about what social situations we are or aren’t feeling ready to put ourselves in. After a time, it might become reasonable and necessary to ask a partner to step out of his or her comfort zone in this regard, but I recommend a willingness to take this part of things slowly if that’s what your partner needs.
I think it’s entirely possible for even monogamous relationships to use this sort of model for dealing with jealousy, rather than falling into the trap of possessive, controlling behavior. And conversely, it’s also possible for poly folks to respond problematically to jealousy, even after we think we’ve left the old paradigm behind. The basic suggestions I’ve offered here are no surefire guarantee that things will always go smoothly and that no one will ever feel hurt or angry. We have to remember how thoroughly we’ve been conditioned to feel jealousy, and to give ourselves permission to have some difficulty overcoming that. But we can’t extend that to permission to control and dehumanize others, regardless of how real our emotional experience of fear might be.