Friday, November 30, 2012

Polyamory 101: Jealousy


I'd been meaning to write some Poly101 articles for the blog and I believe it's only fitting that I start with Jealousy. Anyone who has attended just a small number of poly forums and discussion groups would tell you Jealousy is the first concern folks have when starting their polyamorous adventures. It has the potential for being a lengthy narrative so I'm going to try to keep it as succinct and practical as I can in my own pleasantly assertive way.

I'd like to begin by making a distinction between two terms: envy and jealousy.

Envy is the emotion felt when you covet what somebody else has and you want it for your own; jealousy reflects the fear of somebody taking away something you already own.

Anyone can experience envy for a relationship, a possession, an experience, or a person. At its core, envy is want, desire, and passion. We want for ourselves and we're envious of others.

Jealousy, on the other hand, is the an emotional response to potentially losing something we own. At its core, jealousy is fear. We're afraid to hurt and to be wounded by others.

The moment that a couple chooses to identify as polyamorous, it's intrinsically possible to think outside of the confines of a relationship being between just two people. You want or she wants, but regardless, opening up permits envy to be acknowledged and acted upon.

Further, the moment that a relationship opens up it's instantly vulnerable; with the promise of exclusivity removed, Polyamory risks jealousy and insecurity.

People who identify as Polyamorous are not superhuman. They experience envy and jealousy in the same way that anyone else might. Instead, how the polyamorous examine and exploit their emotional responses may be what separates them from others.

Now please don't take offense if I'm to assert that a traditional Western view would look at envy and jealousy as potentially negative emotions capable of painfully-aggressive acts; that Western thinking might encourage these emotions be suppressed, ignored, or morally shamed as to avoid discomfort, volatility, and violence; and that the Western practice of marriage might be seen as a control to insure accord in a civil society. Here, I'm obviously passing along my own value judgement on marriage.

Yet if you were to buy-in to my argument that the structure of traditional marriage exists to avoid these complex emotions rather than confront them, then you'd see the difference I'm trying to articulate.

Polyamorous folks engage in a lifestyle where they are forced to contend with these raw, base emotions all the time. In general, those who participate in polyamory engage in a social order that puts them at greater risk of exposure to envy and jealousy than monogamy. How they confront their emotions, rationalize their actions, and deal with their responses, is what separates the Polyamorous.

I'm often chided for calling Polyamory "Relationship Models for Critical Thinkers" because it denotes a tinge of arrogance or elitism that many find distasteful and I won't argue with that, but I think "critical thinking" adequately describes what I find to be true in my community.

Instead of reacting to want and fear, Polyamorous peeps in my circle like to examine their emotional responses spurred on by envy and jealousy. In my circle, it'd be unconscionable for a partner to fly off the handle in a jealous rage - I'd expect a calm invitation to talk, have tea, and explore those responses so that all parties could find a mutual resolution; in my circle, envy and jealousy are something to be puzzled out to best understand your nature, and to improve upon your responses over time.

Envy and jealousy are real emotions. Certainly they're difficult to rationalize, but they cannot be dismissed or suppressed for very long without doing long-term damage to an individual. Shoving these feelings into a box, or back onto a partner as "their issue" and "they're just going to have to get over it", isn't loving, caring, or consensual. Ignorance and suppression don't deal with the core problems of want and fear. Instead, Polyamorous seek resolution to these emotions through puzzling them out and through negotiation, to set expectations for how all parties within a relationship will get their needs met.

In short, I believe the Polyamored tend to regard envy and jealousy constructively: as means to understand who they are, how they respond to circumstances and emotions in relationships, and how to improve their skillset. This trait gives them a coping mechanism to contend with the relative insecurity they must contend with in comparison to traditional concepts of Western monogamy.

S1m0n
(Russell)

6 comments:

dave94015 said...

I think you hinted at the root cause of at least jealousy - insecurity. It doesn't help that society generally regards polyamory as "abnormal" with their smug "I told you this would happen" reactions. It means that the threshold for polyamory is a lot higher and those who want to preserve these relationships have to work a lot harder at keeping them or default to monogamy.

Annelle Wright said...

But, especially with someone new, how do you know if their jealousy is just a sign that a poly relationship just isn't for them and they'd be better suited to something open like swinging or perhaps, totally monogamous. If you asked a monogamous person if they'd be jealous about their partner spending a significant amount of time with another and having sexual and romantic liaisons, most would say yes. That isn't because they are emotionally retarded, it is because they are monogamous. How do you know when this is the case for someone who identifies as poly? The reason I ask is because it isn't uncommon or unreasonable for someone poly to ask that their new partner not make other connections until your new relationship is settled, sort of thing. Asking that, however, can also be a sign that they aren't fully comfortable with their partner having other partners and they will always feel negatively about it. I guess I am looking for warning signs. Are there any?

Cheryl Ledwidge said...

What a great entry. Celebrating 11 years with my primary today - this is a topic we faced more than once. We have worked through it with lots of communication and honesty.

Thank you for sharing your wonderful insight.

Anonymous said...


@dave94015 -

Hi! And thanks for reading. I would completely agree, especially on the perspective of a 'threshold' and on working harder at it than monogamy.

Not that monogamous relationships are without envy and jealousy - and I think it's important to say that - but monogamy deals with these emotions through attempts to suppress them.

If we lean a little further to Western Religion and its role in providing faith to combat/stifle these emotions as sins within monogamy rather than try to understand them. Your character or eternal soul rests on your ability to not understand these things but remove them, which isn't - in my mind - very healthy for anyone concerned.

Thanks again for reading!
R

Anonymous said...


@Cheryl -

Awesome and congratulations! Eleven years is amazing ... that's wonderful! Thank you so much for reading ...

s1m0n

Anonymous said...


@Annelle -

In my opinion, if someone finds difficulty dealing with these emotions constructively and are constantly struggling with them, I would absolutely suggest maybe Polyamory isn't for them. That would be their own journey and conclusion. I'd definitely err on healthy over stress, contention, and unhappiness.

Monogamous and polyamorous feel these emotions in just the same way. It's hard for poly people, too, when their partner wants to be with someone else. Envy and jealousy are a problem.

Under monogamy you can dismiss these feelings because the structure of monogamy forbids it. These emotions are not likely to be dealt with constructively as they're felt in the context of social shame arising from the breaking of that commitment.

Under polyamory, we're forced to reason with these emotions and still maintain relationships - removing the shame, removing the reactions we've been trained to feel. And part of that negotiation may be to temporarily suspend dating new partners, as you bring up. It's a tool to deal with the emotion.

I don't know if asking for that control is bad, Annelle. I'd see it as a reasonable request ... I made a similar request of my wife when we first started.

For me, I think the danger sign would be if the control is never lifted ... the control is permanently exercised for one party to feel secure. The greater degrees of control represents a need for someone to feel better about the situation, and those controls may lead down a path of resentment.

Thanks for reading!
s1m0n