When I tell people that I am polyamorous, I often get responses along the lines of “Oh I could never do that, I get too jealous”. In fact, jealousy is probably the number one argument I hear against polyamory. I always want to respond with “that’s something you can get past”, or “yeah, poly people get jealous too, that’s not a good excuse”, or honestly just “get over yourself”.
I shouldn’t be too quick to judge though; the truth is I rarely get jealous. Even when I was actively against polyamory, my objections were always practical, they never had to do with feelings. I can dismiss jealousy as just another emotion, or tell you that you shouldn’t and don’t have to let it run your life. And I do believe those things, and have heard them repeated by other polyamorous people. But I just don’t know how bad it is, so it sounds a little bit silly coming from me.
I thought I would document here my experiences of getting, and not getting, jealous, in the hopes that it might help some of you deal with your own jealousy and wibbles,* or that you’ll just find it interesting. At the very least it will keep me honest about where I’m coming from. I have general thoughts about jealousy and how society relates to it that I may get into another time, but here I want to focus on my personal experience.
* Wibble is a term used in the polyamorous community to refer to minor pangs of jealousy
I highly recommend other polyamory blogs, and books such as The Ethical Slut and More Than Two for more comprehensive approaches to jealousy (in polyamory) based on many more experiences than just my own.
I could count on one hand the number of times I remember being jealous*, so I’m just going to go through them all here in roughly chronological order, expounding what I’ve learned, and ways I’ve gotten past the feeling.
* If I had a six-fingered hand
Before I was polyamorous, I never really critically engaged with the idea of jealousy. As such, the first several of these examples are surely coloured by retrospective thinking and the societal view under which I was operating.
Note: The first three of these are kind of boring, are only questionably jealousy, happened to me a while ago, and don’t really relate to polyamory. I’ll include them for completeness’ sake, but definitely feel free to skip them.
As embarrassed as I am to remember it now, in middle school I was in a love triangle of sorts. There wasn’t much to it, just that me and another guy both had crushes on the same girl. I have no idea if she liked either of us, or if they ever got together, but I don’t think anything ever came of it.
In retrospect, I laugh at mini-me for considering this a problem, but that’s how growing and maturing works; you end up older and wiser than you were before.
In any case, I was too timid to actually do anything about my crush (another silly younger me thing), so I don’t think I was very resentful or jealous of the other guy, but I think there was a little bit of those emotions.
Senior year of high school, I went through a breakup up with someone, who then started dating someone else. It was a small school, and we were all part of the same friend group, so I ended up seeing them together a bunch. I was very envious.
Envy and jealousy are often conflated, but I think it’s worth making a distinction. I didn’t resent the time that they were spending together, I just wished that I could be intimate with her too.
Envy is a feeling of desire for things we see someone else has. Jealousy is a feeling of not wanting other people to have things, regardless of what we have.
Sometimes, we desire things that we can’t have, like if someone else doesn’t want to give us their time and intimacy. That sucks. But ultimately, that’s life. And it’s okay to have desires we don’t act on.
Sophomore year of college, I was friends with benefits with one of my flatmates (A longer story for another day). We ended it at some point, and she started dating another guy.
I wasn’t his biggest fan, but more than that I didn’t like the way they interacted. I felt like they weren’t very healthy together.
I was also a little bit resentful and sad because I had lost a certain kind of intimacy with her that I valued.
I couldn’t (and still can’t) tell, though, whether my thoughts reflected genuine concern, or just jealousy.
I like to go social dancing, especially blues. Blues is often danced very close. I like to dance very close. It carries with it a feeling of intimacy and connection, often with total strangers, that I find that beautiful and meaningful.
It often happens that I dance with someone very close, and then later I see them dancing with someone else very close. This isn’t unusual, that’s how social dancing works. I can’t help thinking, though “did it mean anything to them, to dance with me that way?” (Given that they dance with everyone that way). This is ridiculous; I do the exact same thing! And every person I dance with is unique and meaningful to me.
Realizing that didn’t make me less jealous, but it did allow me to laugh at my own jealousy, and just let the feeling wash over me, and know that I was being irrational and didn’t need to take the jealousy seriously. It’s not the end of the world to feel jealous sometimes.
Interestingly enough, I’ve gotten less jealous in this situation, since becoming polyamorous. The idea that sensual experiences needn’t be a zero-sum game, that you can feel intimately towards multiple people at the same time, made it less concerning that they felt intimately towards other people. Also, if I want to pursue a further relationship with someone, their being attached to and intimate with someone else doesn’t present a barrier to that, so I don’t need to be anxious about it.
When I first started dating two people at the same time, I had some major jealousy whenever the two of them were together without me. It helped a little bit when they would call me while they were hanging out, but ultimately it didn’t do much to assuage the broader feeling.
One evening I figured out what was going on by sitting down with myself and writing down everything that was bothering me. Every feeling that I was feeling, and why I was feeling it. Doing some real introspective sleuthing.
I figured out that I didn’t know what the expectations were. Were we expected to do most of our communicating all together in a group chat, or separately between pairs of us? Was this one three-person relationship, or three two person relationships, or maybe a 2 person relationship with a third person dating that relationship?
I had been expecting that it would be either the first or the last of those, which meant that if they were hanging out without me, or communicating without me, it meant that they were actively excluding me; that they didn’t want me around. Of course, it didn’t really mean that, but that’s what was in my head; in reality, it was my expectations that were off.
As soon as I understood what was causing the jealousy, I had control over it. My jealousy was trying to tell me that something was wrong, and as soon as I understood what it was trying to warn me about, it didn’t need to bother me anymore. A couple of days later I had a conversation with the two of them to clear up expectations, and I could rest easy after that.
Recently, one of my partners moved further away, and started up a new life finding friends, and community, and lovers. We had been seeing each other about once every week to two weeks, and now we were seeing each other once every couple weeks to once every month. This was a big change, and whenever we were on the phone talking about the life she was building, I found myself resentful and jealous.
At first I thought that I was jealous of the people she was sleeping with; it’s easy to blame jealousy on polyamory. The truth, though, is that polyamory had nothing to do with this. I was jealous because she was building a life without me, and I was feeling left out.
It didn’t help that my own life was kind of lacking. See the earlier discussion of envy.
This time, realizing what was causing the jealousy didn’t really help.
One thing that helped me to cope with this jealousy, though it didn’t do anything to get rid of it, was just to tell her I how I was feeling. Just knowing she was on the same page as me made me feel much more comfortable. It was a scary thing to do, because I didn’t want to make her feel bad for having a good time. But here’s the thing: I can’t control how she feels. I can’t say “don’t feel bad about this”, all I can say is “this is my problem, and I’m not expecting you to do anything about it, I just want you to know how I’m feeling”. And usually, that’s enough.
Then I came across two new methods of mindhacking:
I was listening to Sam Harris talk about our conception of “self” as an illusion. I won’t go into his whole argument here, but the part that is relevant is that we can adjust what we include as a part of our “self” just by thinking about it.
This happens when I use a tool such as a pen or a baseball bat: the tool becomes encompassed in my sense of self. When I drive, my “self” grows to encompass the whole car.
My favorite example of this is when I put in my mouth guard at night. At that point I can choose at will whether to experience myself biting down onto the mouth guard, or whether the mouthguard is a part of my teeth, my bite.
I decided, therefore, to try extending my sense of self to include my partner when she was telling me about her day. To experience her excitement as my own, her life as my own, so that rather than resentment, I felt empathetic joy.
I was reading More Than Two, which talks about how sometimes your emotions are physical sensations, that are then interpreted as emotions. If you want, you can notice the physical sensations, and reinterpret them as a different emotion.
I noticed that the feeling of resentment I had was physically similar to a feeling of anticipation and excitement. So I just decided that I was feeling the latter, rather than the former.
Together, these resolved most of the jealous feelings.
* * *
I noticed in writing this that four out of six experiences of jealousy happened before I was polyamorous, one of which has become less of an issue since becoming polyamorous, and one of the remaining two I would argue had very little to do with the polyamorous nature of the relationship.