Polyamory 201: Cultivating Jealousy

The idea that jealousy stems from personal insecurities rather than the actions of the person you’re jealous towards is a common introductory polyamory mantra. It’s important because we’re all coming at this from a culture that centers and compels monogamy (and an unhealthy and coercive extreme of it at that). One of the tenets of mononormativity is that in romantic relationships, people “make” each other jealous. You are jealous because I smiled at a cute person at the bar. I’m jealous because you spend almost as much time with a female friend as you do with me.

This mentality allows people to blame each other for their own feelings and, sometimes, pressure each other to change their behavior. I’m jealous because you spend almost as much time with a female friend as you do with me, so you’re not allowed to see her anymore except at social events, and if you do it anyway, then you have “broken a rule” and are obviously in the wrong.

While some people are probably able to make this work, they run a high risk of developing resentment towards their partners and making the issue worse rather than better. Instead of addressing why I have such a problem with you being friends with women, now I’m jealous about another of your female friends. I don’t want you seeing her that much, either.

Because this approach to managing jealousy is so common, it makes sense to encourage people to first look for the roots of jealousy in the fertile soil of their own insecurity. But once we move on from Polyamory 101, we need to acknowledge the fact that others’ actions can cultivate jealousy even in people who otherwise wouldn’t have felt it. Sometimes this is unintentional, and sometimes it isn’t. Some people try to artificially create jealousy as a way to control others.

First, a caveat that jealousy is a loaded and imprecise term that makes it really difficult to communicate effectively. That’s why I wrote this piece about different feelings that are often called jealousy. I’m using “jealousy” as an umbrella term here.

Unclear communication

Say I’m at a bar with my (nonmonogamous) partner, and while I’m off ordering a drink I notice them flirting pretty obviously with someone. After the person leaves, I sidle up to my partner and say, “Soooo, who’s that cutie you were talking to?”

There are basically two types of people at this point. One would say, “Oh, their name is Sam and they came over to compliment my Star Wars t-shirt. Think I should ask for their number?”

The other would say, “What? That was nobody. I don’t know them or anything. Why?”

Yes, even in poly relationships.

If you’ve ever had a partner get weird and cagey at you like that, you know that it’s a magical jealousy-inducing elixir. Sure, not everyone would care, but even I–with my solo poly, no-rules approach to things–would wonder why my partner is dodging the topic as if they have something to hide. Maybe I should feel bad about it.

Sometimes people get cagey like this because they’re still recovering from mononormative contexts in which virtually any interaction with a member of their preferred gender(s) needs to be shrouded in secrecy (not that caginess is effective there either). No matter how friendly or playful my tone, any variation on “Who’s that person you were talking to”/”Are you interested in them” sounds like an accusation and the learned response is to shut down.

Unfortunately, there is probably no way to have a healthy and transparent nonmonogamous relationship without occasionally asking a partner about someone they might be (or are) interested in, so you’ll probably have to work on that.

And, of course, people who have been in abusive relationships in the past may have learned to keep their cards close to the chest. But my argument isn’t that it’s always your fault; it’s that this communication style can cause jealousy even in folks who have worked through their insecurities.

Some people do it on purpose. They know that hedging and obfuscating is a way to create jealousy–which, of course, they can then blame on their partner. “I said it was nothing. You’re acting crazy.” The more subtle ones do it differently: “I’m so sorry. I should’ve been more clear with you. Of course you’d feel that way.” But then they simply do the same thing over and over.

In a healthy nonmonogamous relationship, someone’s desire to know more about their partner’s other interests/partners is treated as healthy and normal. While there are obviously things that you’re entitled to keep to yourself–especially when they involve another person’s privacy–trying to hide crushes or flirtation from a partner is a sign that something’s wrong. And if someone keeps basic information like “I’m interested in dating that person” from their partners and then turns around and blames them for feeling weird about it, that’s a red flag for abuse.

Comparison

Say my partner Alex also dates Sam. During a date with Alex, my chronic illness flares up and I regretfully ask if we can go home early so I can rest. Alex agrees, but sighs and says, “I wish this didn’t keep happening. At least with Sam I get to stay out late and have fun.”

Would you blame me for being a little jealous of Alex and Sam’s relationship?

That example was also horrifyingly ableist, but not all comparisons are so obviously awful. Say Alex likes smoking pot with their partners and finds it a really fun and meaningful way to spend time with someone. They ask if I’d be interested, and I say, “No, I’m not comfortable with pot.” Alex says, “Huh, really? I had no idea. Sam loves it.”

Alex probably didn’t mean anything by it, but saying no is already difficult for many people, and drugs are a difficult subject for a lot of people, and in this context, a lot of people would feel a little slighted. If I said no to something a partner asked me to do with them and they responded by immediately letting me know that another partner likes doing it with them, I’d wonder if they’re trying to pressure me, or subtly let me know that if I don’t do this thing with them, then something’s missing from our relationship.

Of course, in reality, poly people often do different activities with different partners, or admire different traits about them. I really love dancing, and during times when I didn’t have any partners who liked dancing, it was really nice to start dating someone new who does. In fact, it’d get a little boring to date a bunch of people who all like to do the exact same things.

But comparing people to each other, even if you mean no harm by it, is a really tricky area. The fact that Sam likes smoking pot has nothing to do with the fact that I just declined to. The fact that Sam is able to stay out really late has no bearing on whether or not my physical condition allows that.

That particular example is also a good illustration of how comparison can become coercive. If you’re comparing partners in order to make them feel bad about themselves, you’re not just triggering jealousy–you’re also abusing them.

New Relationship Energy

NRE–that feeling when you’ve just started crushing on or dating someone and you’re kind of obsessed with them and want to see them and talk to/about them constantly–is a big driver of jealousy. Long-term relationships eventually settle into a comfortable rhythm where you’re not necessarily desperate to constantly see, talk to, and have sex with each other–even though you’re probably very much in love and an integral part of each other’s lives.

When a new partner comes along, you may suddenly find yourself putting energy and attention into that relationship to a degree that you haven’t been with your preexisting partner(s). Suddenly you’re staying up all night to talk and have sex, telling everyone who will listen about this awesome new person you’re seeing, and responding emotionally to their every text or call in a way that you just wouldn’t when it’s someone you’ve been with for years. (I just can’t imagine myself screaming “OHMYGOD THEY JUST TEXTED ME” to my roommate when I’ve been dating them for two years, you know?)

For many people, NRE is normal and natural. There’s nothing wrong with feeling that way, and it can feel awesome. (Other people, like me, kinda hate that feeling, but that’s a separate issue.)

However, it can also bring up complicated feelings for the non-NRE partner. Maybe I’ve been kind of wishing we had sex more often and trying to find a way to bring it up, but now you’re having sex with someone else more in a week than we do in a month. Maybe I’ve wanted to have an occasional date night at a nice restaurant, but you said it’s not worth the money…but now you’re having those kinds of dates with someone else.

Even if you know your partner doesn’t “owe” you anything, it can still hurt when you’ve been communicating your desire for more/different connection and not getting it–and now your partner is doing that with someone else. It can also make you aware of needs and desires that you didn’t even realize you had. Maybe you’ve always thought of yourself as an introvert and a homebody, but your partner describes an exciting date spent dancing at a club and you realize that you want to try that, too.

Often, the NRE partner has no idea their non-NRE partner is feeling this way, and an honest conversation can go a long way in helping them meet each other’s needs despite the NRE.

Some people, though, really do have a pattern of going “OOH SHINY” and ignoring/neglecting a preexisting partner in favor of a new one. Needless to say, it can be really, really destabilizing when a committed partner suddenly drops off the face of the earth because they’re interested in someone new. If that describes you, you might be better off dating casually or doing serial monogamy rather than polyamory.


In all of these examples, jealousy is a canary in a coal mine. The root of the problem isn’t that someone is feeling jealous. It’s that someone feels like their partner is keeping things from them, comparing them unfavorably to others, or tossing them aside in favor of someone new.

If you’re in one of these situations and you treat jealousy like a personal problem for the jealous person to “work on,” you miss an opportunity to address what’s really going on. You may also miss a major red flag for abuse–as I’ve discussed, some of these behaviors can become abusive if they’re part of a larger pattern of controlling someone else.

If you’re unsure whether or not that’s happening in your relationship, here are some troubling signs to watch out for:

  • Your partner insists that your jealous feelings are entirely your own problem to work on, and refuses to change anything about their behavior or help you through this process. (Even in non-hierarchical contexts where it’s not expected that people will prioritize one partner over another, partners should still support each other emotionally insofar as they have the capacity to. “That’s your problem, deal with it on your own” is, at best, a red flag.
  • Your partner psychoanalyzes you in order to blame you for your jealous feelings. (“If you’d stop comparing everyone to your one ex who cheated on you, maybe you wouldn’t feel this way.)
  • Your partner holds you to a higher standard than they hold themselves. For instance, when they feel jealous, they expect you to change your behavior, but when you feel jealous, they expect you to work through those feelings without any changes from them.
  • The particular things your partner does that trigger jealousy always seem to happen right after an argument–especially an argument that ends with you doing something they don’t want you to do.
  • The particular things your partner does that trigger jealousy always seem to be a way to get you to change your behavior somehow. (For instance, see my first example under “comparison.”
  • Your partner gaslights you–denies your experiences or reality. If you saw them talking to someone at the bar and they literally deny having talked to anyone at the bar, that’s pretty fucked up.
  • Your partner refuses to provide the sort of basic information nonmonogamous people need to know to maintain safety and healthy boundaries. If they won’t tell you how many other folks they’re seeing or what their level of physical involvement is with those people, you can’t make the decisions you need to make about your sexual health. Even if you’re using barriers for all forms of sexual activity, you deserve to have some sense of what your risk level might be. Someone who keeps this information from you is either completely unprepared for any sort of healthy relationship, or is actively trying to control you. This isn’t cool or mysterious or edgy; it’s controlling and dangerous.

Just like everything useful and catchy, the idea that jealousy originates entirely within the jealous person eventually outlives its usefulness. To make an ethical nonmonogamous relationship work–especially if you’re doing it without rules and hierarchies–you’ll have to examine jealousy in a more nuanced way.


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Polyamory 201: Cultivating Jealousy