Is Love Infinite? A Polyamorous Roundtable On Jealousy

flickr / Twanda Baker
‘I’m happiest when my support networks are as wide and tribe-like as possible, and a lack of jealousy makes that easier to sustain.’

I s monogamy a choice or a societal steeping? Is it romantic, a sacrifice, an expression of devotion, glorified claustrophobia, Puritanical backwash, or some good old-fashioned cultural evolution? Or…something different altogether?

I think many folks (myself included) intellectually understand how fraught monogamy is — one person satiating every sexual desire for 50+ years?! — but in the more reptilian facets of our brains we can’t handle the sickening jealously of even thinking about sharing the person we love.

It feels too messy, too complicated, as society tells us that desiring more than one person is greedy or predicated on that person not being “enough.”

While it would seem that poly folks have banished the green-eyed monster — after all, who would voluntarily subject themselves to that sensation? — it’s actually, like so many theories in life, exponentially more complicated than that. Poly folks aren’t impervious to jealousy, but instead engage with it as yet another emotion to wrangle, another salient data point in how they’re relating to the world, themselves, and intimacy in their lives.

The Establishment asked four poly folks to talk about their relationship with jealousy, the beauty of shared romantic love, and what they’ve learned along the way.

Holly Francis on the fostering of implicit trust:

T o love and be loved: This is the fundamental state most yearn for. Humanity has long been looking to prophecy, divination, and the essence of the human experience to figure out how to live the very best life. For some, the answer comes in the form of polyamory and the practice of ethical non-monogamy; but how do we approach the seemingly inherent jealousy of human relationships in a way that is nurturing, rather than destructive?

A common theme in polyamory — especially for those newly embracing the lifestyle — is how to quash seemingly rebellious feelings of anger at betrayal and fear of being cast aside. Trying to hide insecurities works most effectively in settings where those insecurities are never challenged, but the dynamic interplay between jealousy and successfully navigating polyamory isn’t one of those settings. Challenging the status quo handed down in the form of monogamy and navigating the emotional upheaval of a standard way of life requires immense trust, communication, ownership, and respect.

The secret? Polyamorous people can, and do, get jealous. Rather than being a negative trait, though, it can be the impetus for introspection and the critical examination of how to more effectively deal with challenges. Jealousy lets us know when something needs to be addressed, and it rather frequently seems to come back to a fear of neglect or abandonment. As with any relationship, learning and growing with one partner can be difficult — in a relationship with multiple partners and multiple considerations it can feel impossible.

Trusting your partners have your best interests at heart, fostering effective communication that addresses concerns before they spiral out of control, taking ownership of one’s own feelings and actions, and respecting the choices and limitations of others are among the standards of success in polyamory.

“Well, it’s just not for me. I could never do that.”

And that’s fine. One of the best parts of poly, for me, is that no one is trying to force their approach to relationships on others — it’s a matter of basic respect. Exploring the reason why you “could never do that,” however, is vital to the idea of personal ownership. In the searching for an answer to the question of why jealousy is so uncomfortable and the idea of sharing is so abhorrent, many people start finding the idea of polyamory more relatable. These questions don’t have to be asked within the confines of a monogamous relationship, but in any search for love and how to be loved.

How do we approach the seemingly inherent jealousy of human relationships in a way that is nurturing, rather than destructive?

Jealousy is indeed an often green-eyed monster that turns some into a nervous or even aggressive wreck. It’s uncomfortable and it brings up feelings we’d rather not deal with. If you don’t trust your partner around others, but you posit that you trust them, the reality is that you don’t actually trust them to be in control of themselves when presented with opportunity. Perhaps you’ve been hurt in the past, and can’t tolerate your significant other speaking with exes and thus try and limit their autonomy — you become sick to the core at the thought of sharing your partner with others and so you do not. You tell yourself you can’t. But what happens to your relationship when you remove the limitations you never even created to begin with and place real, implicit trust in your partner?

Allison Elliot on odious comparisons:

Having multiple relationships means navigating a host of feelings — feeling both good and bad. For me the link between compersion — the feeling of happiness for your partner’s relationship with another person — and jealousy, is all about comparison.

Compersion happens naturally for me at the beginning of my relationship with a new partner. I admire the love that that person has with their other partner (or partners) and feel genuinely happy that that love exists in their life.

As the relationship progresses, however, I begin to compare my relationship with my partner to their relationship with their other partner. What once made me happy suddenly makes me feel like my partner and I don’t go to the movies enough, they don’t text me enough, or they text too much during ourdates — every difference I perceive in my relationship versus their other relationships becomes a potential problem, and I grow jealous.

“Enough” becomes this inexact measuring stick I begin using to gauge my emotions in an effort to make the good in my relationship equal to the good of the other relationships that I’m perceiving.

While comparisons can be odious, I’ve realized that these comparisons can lead to positive outcomes; for example, feeling jealous after my partner goes to the movies with their other partner has lead to me simply realizing that I just want to go to the movies with my partner. The feeling doesn’t actually extend beyond that.

Comparison-caused jealousy grows particularly difficult when my self-esteem isn’t as intact as I’d like it to be or my relationship with my partner is struggling. If my partner wasn’t feeling up for sex during our last date, but they had sex with another partner days later, my brain makes leaps — it makes connections and conclusions before I can take a breath.

My brain tells me my partner had sex with someone else because of my flaws, because our relationship is rocky or not as good as the others in their life. I force myself to reiterate, again and again — “their sex is not about me” — to try and dispel all the dangerous and damaging conclusions my brain is trying to draw from that sequence of events. I remind myself of the bottom line: Comparison is unfair, unhelpful, and unhealthy. It’s also bullshit, obviously, because “their sex is not about me” is absolutely true.

Also, their relationship isn’t about me either, which makes even a seemingly positive concept like compersion exponentially more complicated. Because compersion allows an individual to mentally insert themselves into a dynamic they are actually not a part of, good feelings can quickly give way to bad ones. And at that point, thinking about yourself in the context of other peoples’ relationships becomes unreasonably self-centered.

While not all polyamorous people experience these emotions, I think the trick to all of this is conceiving of your relationship with your partner as though it were on its own — is it good alone, without comparison?

Zephyr Schott on undermining the patriarchy:

Eight years ago I told one of my closest friends I felt a tremendous amount of bottled-up affection for the people in my life who wanted to be closer to me; I told them I wished I could clone myself so that I could give all of them the care and appreciation they wanted from me. I was in the middle of a four-year monogamous relationship at the time and the thought of anything outside of that familiar and exclusive relationship structure had not even occurred to me.

Monogamy was so assumed, ingrained, and automatic that the thought of cloning myself occurred to me before any notion of dating more than one person. I was steadfastly loyal to all my monogamous partners for years and felt pangs of jealousy when my ex-girlfriend flirted with other people, when my high school ex-boyfriend went to prom with someone else while I was sick and stuck at home. I also felt that my jealousy was unwarranted and never brought it up with either partner. But looking back my real mistake was not discussing those feelings openly with them and stewing in my insecurities instead.

A couple of years later I found myself in a new relationship with someone incredibly jealous. He would check my text messages and even my receipts to make sure that my conversations were not too friendly and to check that I was being honest about my location at any given time. Yet the main feedback I got about this relationship from my friends and family was that they were so happy to see me with someone who cared about me so much. I was miserable, confused — I felt trapped and isolated.

After we broke up I joined a Rocky Horror Picture Show cast and started to date someone I liked and trusted a lot — they were also poly and preparing to move to the other side of the country after graduating from university. I’ll admit that having felt trapped in my last relationship, having the upcoming physical distance gave me a sense of safety.

Knowing that I was new to a nonmonogamous relationship structure, this partner was extremely caring and conscientious about checking in with my feelings. At first I did feel uncomfortable and jealous, but I largely tend to approach even the most personal experiences from an anthropological and rational perspective. Rationally, the philosophy behind ethical non-monogamy made a lot of sense to me and I recognized monogamy as being the kind of authoritative and hierarchical construct that I am generally opposed to.

When my emotions did not match up with my thoughts I started asking myself what I was afraid of and why exactly I was feeling these pangs of jealousy. What were those feelings grounded in and were my assumptions based on empirical evidence or enculturation? I talked to my partner about my feelings and slowly became friends with some of the people he was involved with, which was really helpful. I started to realize that going on dates with and sleeping with other people did not reduce his feelings for me; I began to realize that jealousy was an unnecessary and even a counterproductive emotion. I realized I could just feel happy that someone I cared for was happy.

Monogamy was so assumed, ingrained, and automatic that the thought of cloning myself occurred to me before any notion of dating more than one person.

I started to experience a paradigm shift and my emotions started to align with my rational thoughts. He seemed surprised at how content I was to just sleep with him and let him have multiple partners of different genders as long as he was safe about it. He was a bit concerned that I wasn’t dating or sleeping with anyone else, but I explained this was just due to the simple fact that there weren’t other people who I felt like dating at the time.

And while I’m not impervious to pangs of jealousy, every time I feel it, I ask myself why and it almost always results from some kind of internalized insecurity. But the more I communicate openly and critically reflect on my emotions, the more natural poly relationship dynamics have become for me, the more I feel that I am living in alignment with my values of autonomy, consent, open and honest communication, and in opposition to property or hierarchy.

Molly Stratton on the dangers of the lizard brain:

I don’t get blindsided by jealousy very often, but one of my most intense pangs to date was in response to one of my partners telling me he’d been reading science-fiction short stories aloud to his primary. But even then, the sensation was pretty short-lived — I couldn’t help laughing at myself: This is what sets me off?

I used to think practicing polyamory would somehow make me a more empathetic person, but experience has shown me again and again that I can still be just as confused and anxious while poly as I am in any other relationship configuration. I just happen to be unbothered about “normal” relationship jealousies — like who sleeps with who and how often — and honestly? I still don’t have a good theory as to why.

Perhaps it’s because I was lucky enough to fall into a close-knit group of friends before we started boinking each other, and watching two people I’ve already known for six years engage in PDA is as jealousy-inducing as knowing that they snore or that they’re allergic to apricots. Or maybe it’s simply that my personality is so intensely nerdy that it isn’t sex but the (in my experience) much rarer shared interest in Golden Age sci-fi which trips my jealousy meter.

Other times, I think of my lack of jealousy as a sort of queer survival mechanism. I’m an only child from a tiny family, with no desire to marry or have children of my own. But I’m happiest when my support networks are as wide and tribe-like as possible, and a lack of jealousy makes that easier to sustain. Poly people don’t actually all sleep with each other all the time, but the fact that it’s a possibility can ironically help us relax and see each other as people, rather than competition for affection. (I knew I had “made it”, relationship-wise, when I found myself not only having regular dates with my partner, but regularly playing Zelda with his wife.)

Interestingly enough, when people talk about jealously creeping in, I find myself thinking not of my romantic relationships, but of my friendships. When my longest-running fandom friend confirmed that she had, in fact, been talking to a Tumblr mutual longer than she had me, my lizard brain immediately wondered if the other person was somehow “better.” When my best friend moved an hour away, I felt as intensely about it as I had as a lonely grade-schooler. And every time I plan a party, I have to stop myself from speculating on how the number of guests reflects my likeability as a person.

Maybe it’s because (irrationally), I see romantic relationships as something people will move mountains for, whereas a friendship can be derailed by a busy schedule, a new job, or simply discovering you don’t have the same fandoms in common anymore.

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