Thursday, August 14, 2014

Revisiting Jealousy: Is "Getting Over It" the Best Idea?

Photo courtesy of Greg Westfall
Lots of advice in the poly blogosphere has to do with jealousy. It's typically one of the first questions we poly folk get asked when discussing our relationship styles with people unfamiliar with the concept, and it's a common stumbling block for many people in committed relationships, both poly and monogamous.

We've all felt it: that stinging, unhappy bite of a thought that says, "But why isn't it me?"

It's not just romantic partners who get jealous of each other. We feel jealousy toward our siblings, our friends, our coworkers, strangers we've never met but whose success we hear about. It's a common human emotion, and there's even research to suggest it doesn't belong uniquely to us.

Yet most of the advice you'll hear about jealousy tends to imply that you should try not to feel it so much. Or that it isn't real, but only a manifestation of some other emotion, like anger or sadness. Hell, even I am guilty of giving this very advice.

Yet I'm starting to wonder if it's wrong.

The study I linked to above, regarding jealousy in dogs, suggests that jealousy is a normal emotion, and a natural consequence of feeling emotionally attached to someone or something. It's not an expression of anger or insecurity or anything else. It's just itself. It seems, also, to be rooted not in insecurity, as many have suggested, but rather in emotional closeness and bonding.

We typically don't feel jealous toward strangers who have nothing to do with us, even if we're quite obviously anxious, insecure, and angry. Jealousy arises when something we feel emotionally close to, such as a partner, a parent, or a dream job is being shared or entirely taken by someone else. "This is supposed to be mine," our brains tell us. "Why does that other person get to have it?"

If you're a dog lover, you've watched this happen when you brought home a new puppy and introduced her to your older dog. For several days, the older dog growled defensively whenever the puppy came near, and snapped at her viciously when she got within reach. You had to keep them separated to keep her safe.

But you slowly kept putting her in front of him, and he began to warm up to her, until finally they cuddled up to sleep next to you on the couch. You breathed a sigh of relief, knowing they'd be okay together now. Right?

Human jealousy, I think, works much the same way. When first confronted with a partner's new partner, we instinctively balk. We become possessive. We poly people usually try to talk ourselves through it, alone or with our partners and friends. Of course, we sometimes behave badly, trying to control our partners' behavior and reduce our exposure to situations that inspire our jealousy. But our partners continue having good experiences with other people, and eventually the jealous instinct fades until it's gone entirely.

I posit that it's this repeated exposure that reduces jealousy, not any late-night discussions of our personal fears and insecurities. Like the old dog learning to accept the new puppy, we find that, with time, we just feel less bad about the other people in our lovers' lives.

Thus, I also posit that it's okay just to feel jealous and not try to stop it. Do not, of course, act on it. Jealousy constantly tells you to do very stupid things, like have sex with someone you're not interested in just to spite your partner, or forbid your partner to see the object of your jealousy, or spread nasty rumors about that person. It is supremely important that you don't do the things your jealousy tells you to do. But not to feel it at all? That's lunacy.

Maybe, instead, just feel it. Recognize it. Understand it. Know you will feel it again. And again. And again. And eventually, you'll feel it less, until you don't feel it anymore.

I'm not sure any of this is even true. I could be entirely wrong. What have your experiences been?


  1. Thank you for this! As one who is always in her head analyzing, dissecting, and rationalizing "negative" feelings in order to acclimate to a mono/poly relationship, it's refreshing to hear that it's ok to call a spade a spade and let those feelings be.

    I like for partners to acknowledging the jealous feelings. I'm not to proud to admit that it may burn and while I won't act out violently or in destructive ways, I may be a bit snappy and distant until I'm used to the new puppy. I won't be snuggling up on the couch with her or anything, but willing to share a bone ;)

  2. I haveimnot been processing my jealousy this year, for the most part. I've just chosen to be with it, accept it, and not act out. This is also because I feel that some of my jealousy is valid. I did experience some loss when the newest partner came into the picture.

    As for exposure therapy, it is responsible for some of the of the progress that I made during my first 2 yrs in poly. I think it could still help me a little, but I don't think it will help me as much as it did when I was newer to poly.

    1. I'm sure it can be tough when you've been hurt in the past by a partner treating you badly when someone new came into the picture.

      But if you don't trust your partners not to do that, why are you with them in the first place? Poly relationships require trust if they have any hope of succeeding. If you feel your jealousy is grounded in real potential loss, that's the sort of thing that likely would benefit from talking through. Make sure your partners know what you need, and if they don't provide it, perhaps it's time to reevaluate your relationships.