Jealousy: Nature or Nurture?

Elle Beau
May 1 · 7 min read

Is it a basic human emotion or a product of our culture?

As someone who was monogamous for most of my life and then opened up with the same primary partner, I have to say that I think that monogamy fosters jealousy and is in many ways hardwired into that social construct. I’ve heard several people say, “I could never be polyamorous because I’m too jealous.” But I think it’s hard to know for sure because most people have only ever known a system where that is considered legitimate. If you can only have one mate, then you need to fend off interlopers and defend your “territory.” If you don’t have all of your proverbial eggs in one basket, then it’s a bit easier to not be so possessive. Patriarchy compounds this by teaching men that they own their partners, and some women feel the same in return.

I’ve seen a lot written lately about jealousy. Many seem to believe it’s just an inherent part of being a human being, but I’m not so sure. Before we lived in a dominance hierarchy called patriarchy that began about 10,000 years ago, humans mostly lived in small bands that shared everything just to survive. Of course we have no way of knowing exactly how those societies truly functioned, but many anthropologists and archeologists seem to believe that possessiveness and jealousy are largely a by-product of a relatively modern competitive culture. For most of human history, humans lived a lot more cooperatively.

But even present day there are many examples of societies that do not have possessiveness and jealousy as a foundation for relationships. And that seems to be the real dividing line — are you a part of a culture that supports monogamy as the only legitimate way to engage in relationships, or is it considered socially acceptable to involve other partners in some form? This doesn’t mean that no-one ever experiences any jealousy in these societies, but simply that it is not an intrinsic part of the model.

Two US anthropologists, Katherine Starkweather and Raymond Hames, have recently shown that polyandry, the practice of women taking multiple husbands, is much more common than people in their discipline previously recognized. And Stephen Beckerman at Pennsylvania State University has drawn attention to what he calls ‘partible paternity’, where a woman has sex with more than one man in order to get pregnant, with these multiple partners jointly recognized as fathers of the offspring. This practice is common throughout the lowlands of South America, and other examples can be found around the world. And some cultures, such as the Na (or Mosuo) people in southwest China, don’t seem to have any stable pair bonds at all. Among the Na, monogamy is frowned upon, everyone is free to have as much casual sex as he or she wants, and jealousy is apparently unheard of.

James and I decided when we opened up to only see other people together. This was in part to help bridge the gap between monogamy and not, but also because we had opened up for the purposes of enhancing our relationship and our sex life, not to be independent of each other. We have since come to agreement about situations where we might see other people separately, although to this point, it has not yet happened. So far, we just haven’t had any real desire to do that. For us, threesomes and foursomes are a great way to both enjoy each other and enjoy other people at the same time — and I don’t mean just enjoy sexually. We only play with others whom we really like as human beings— people that we find attractive on all levels. In fact, I really can’t imagine having physical intimacy with someone whom I wouldn’t want to hold a conversation with.

I can still remember the first time that we had a date with another woman. Our first non-monogamy experience was with a couple, and it was easy for everyone to feel like they were being paid attention to. But in a threesome, sometimes there are moments where two people are paying more attention to each other than the third person. I was used to being the focus of James’ admiration and attention. Suddenly there was another beautiful woman there who was taking up a lot of his focus. It wasn’t that I was shunted to the side, but there was a split in attention that I had been previously unused to. I had about 10 seconds of jealousy as I watched him kiss her, and then I realized that I was the one going home with him. This was his opportunity to explore and to spend some time with her, and that this was no reflection on me. She wasn’t trying to take him from me. He wasn’t looking to replace me or edge me out of the interaction. It was just a cool and consensual situation with a beautiful woman engaged with James. I could join in, or I could create a problem. I chose to find a way to add myself in. This was welcomed by them both. Ava liked me as much as she liked him and it was just where they were in that particular moment. I felt jealous, and then I questioned by thoughts and emotions and no longer felt that way.

Since that time, I have never really felt jealous again. James was initially inclined more towards jealousy than I was, perhaps due to his socialization as a man, although he’s gotten past that now. James was always fine with me being sexual with someone else but he did have to work a bit harder when we realized that I was actually in love with someone else other than him. Once again, conventional society had taught him that as his wife, my affection belonged to him. Getting used to the idea that I also loved another man took some doing, but at the root of that was his own insecurities and programming. Once he worked with those and cleaned that up, he saw that whatever I feel for someone else does not detract from what I feel for him. Since that time, we have both fallen in love with the same woman. He has had the opportunity to understand first-hand that his feelings for Tamara do not diminish his feelings for me. Also, my feelings for her have nothing to do with our relationship.

We’ve been non-monogamous for about 5 years after being monogamously married for more than 20. As someone who has been on both sides of that fence, my take on the situation is that monogamy fosters jealousy. You have one shot at a mate and no-one else better come into your territory. And society feeds the idea that jealousy is a healthy part of love. One woman told me that she thought the opposite of jealousy was indifference. I’ve got to tell you that I am no longer jealous about anyone my husband loves or fucks. And I am also definitely not indifferent to him. I still adore him; I still want him; I still crave his attention and love. And none of that is diminished by whom else he fucks or loves. Plenty of eggs; plenty of baskets.

He still admires and desires me like no-one else in this world. And he also enjoys the variety of other lovers that we experience together. Recently, we had a date with another man — the first guy he has ever had any sexual intimacy with, and although the two of them really like and enjoy each other, they both also really like and enjoy me. It’s a win-win-win!

James is my mate and we still care about and like to have sex with other people too. It’s not a pie to be divided up. I think that jealousy comes primarily from insecurity and from living in a dominance hierarchy. It is shored up by monogamy mind-set that allows you only one chance to find the right “one.” What if someone takes that one right person from you? Instead, how about if you lived in a world where people could share their affection and caring? How about if it wasn’t a zero-sum game even for those who opt for monogamy?

When monogamous people say, “I’m too jealous for polyamory,” I think it’s actually monogamy that is making them feel that way. This is not to say that polyamory is inherently better than monogamy or that it’s right for everyone, but it is to say that a cooperative relationship between two individuals is better than a dominancy hierarchy where partners feel entitlement around each other — and that’s the model that most monogamous relationships are built around. Wives should do this, husbands can never do that, girlfriends better never x,y,z or they are being disloyal.

There’s nothing wrong with boundaries. In fact, I think knowing what your boundaries are is the first step towards freedom, but even if you both agree to never be sexual with anyone else, what’s wrong with having opposite gender friends, or finding someone else attractive? If that feels uncomfortable to you, isn’t that really kind of your issue? Instead of creating chains to hold each other close, what about having real trust and confidence in how you feel about each other? Because if that’s not there, all the chains in the world are not going to give you a good relationship.

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Elle Beau

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Elle Beau

Obsessed with the dominance hierarchy, but also writes about polyamory and the places where sex meets society. Twitter @ElleBeau

Inside of Elle Beau

The collected works