When I tell people that I am not monogamous or I try to explain polyamory, the first question they tend to ask is, “Don’t you get jealous?”
For some people, the thought of their partner being interested in, let alone dating someone else creates so much pain for them that they not only will express how impossible they think it is for them, but they also cast a shadow of doubt over any and all open, non-monogamous or polyamorous relationships, claiming they don’t “work”.
I’ve been in polyamorous or non-monogamous relationships for close to a decade now and the way I answer that question now is, “Yes, I get jealous. But it’s not jealousy that hurts the most.” And that is an answer that surprises people.
Polyamory is simply the act of engaging in multiple romantic relationships (with all parties knowing, of course). It doesn’t require one to pass a test, to attain a degree, to get a license or even do anything but say one is ‘polyamorous’. Contrary to the way some polyamorous people behave, it is not inherently a more egalitarian or liberating lifestyle and it does not necessarily require you to do any deep introspection, employ critical thinking or even communicate particularly well. All you have to do to be polyamorous is say you are, which is, in fairness, true for some of the other labels we put on ourselves.
But because monogamy is the social norm within the communities I operate in and is socially encouraged, participating in non-monogamy can make one more aware of the toxic behaviours that our society attributes to monogamy. Sometimes, existing on the outside can give you a better vantage point to look in. While some people make the mistake of assuming that these behaviours are inherent to monogamy, when someone asks me if I get jealous, what I see is a cultural value that has been encouraged that no more has to be part of monogamy than polyamory.
The society that I live in is capitalist and encourages consumerism. To make good consumers, you have to create, if not actual scarcity, the feeling of scarcity. Anyone with experience in sales or fundraising knows that it’s better to have a regular, reliable source of income through repeat customers or donors than it is to try and attract new customers or donors. Regular consumers keep those companies on top and the more you can make a consumer dependent upon your product, the better it is for the capitalist.
Many of the social systems and ‘norms’ which we take for granted as ‘natural’ or ‘traditional’ within our society were created by or encouraged due to how it benefits capitalism as well as white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, ableism, and other oppressions. The concept of ‘pink’ for girls and ‘blue’ for boys wasn’t born out of any psychological understanding of what those colours actually represented but for a desire to overturn the common practice of using the same long white dress for all children regardless of sex that was both easily washed and could be used for multiple children and instead create a system where parents needed to consume more and couldn’t re-use the same resources.
The now cultural ‘norm’ of leg hair only being acceptable for certain kinds of people was not created, contrary to popular myth, for any hygienic or logical reason but because razor companies were able to capitalise on a nylon shortage, change shaving from the masculine to the feminine.
What does this all mean for relationships? It means that no one earns a profit off people who live in an environment where they are not in competition. As the old advertising adage goes, ‘Sex sells’, but it’s not just that sex sells in and of itself but that the promise of having sex or gaining a partner is one of the predominate goals that we’re consistently told we need to attain and, in order to do so, we need to consume the right products. That creates an atmosphere where people begin to believe that relationships with a partner are ‘won’ by outmaneuvering others and that, even when you are partnered, one must always be wary of losing that partner to someone who is ‘better’ than you.
I cannot effectively sell you deodorant by saying, “This will make you smell good although some people like others’ natural scents”. I’m going to sell it by saying, “You need this deodorant to get laid”. A consumer that is contented with themselves and has confidence in themselves has no need to consume more. And a consumer that is afraid is more likely to buy into these messages and make emotional purchases, which is a key reason why so much of our media encourages jealousy.
We’re not only living in an environment that wants us to compete against one another, but we’re also living an environment that thrives due to social oppression — which can be seen as an extension of interpersonal abuse. That means that it further behooves people who benefit from oppression to create a system where you see abuse as normal. As Assata Shakur said, “No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them.”
In various forms of media we are inundated with the idea that a partner expressing jealousy over you being with someone else is a sign of love. People are encouraged to draw out passion and attention from their partner by making them jealous. With the endorsement of the idea that jealousy is not only inherent but that it is also connected to the level of passion and love that people feel, is it any wonder why, when people in relationships begin to get ‘jealous’ and possessive that we assume it is done out of love? This quite often ends up overwhelmingly benefiting abusive men who are already socially validated and encouraged to express anger and rage.
This tacit acceptance of not only the feeling of jealousy but the inclination to control someone as a response to it, leads to an environment where it is easier for abusive people to manipulate and isolate someone. And it creates with it the false expectation that you don’t actually love someone unless you get jealous. This environment isn’t good for any type of relationship style. Although jealousy as an emotion isn’t inherently a problem, what I think, by asking me about jealousy, most people are afraid of is losing their partner or being ‘beaten’ by a competitor.
People define a relationship’s ‘success’ by how long it lasts and their insistence that polyamory or open relationships don’t ‘last’ and therefore don’t ‘work’ is symptomatic of both an understandable desire to avoid pain but also the assumption that drawing out a relationship that has long since expired doesn’t come with its own ‘pain’. People ask about jealousy because it reflects not only something which they think is a measure of the depth of love that they feel for someone but also because they fear the pain of breakup and loss. Which isn’t altogether unwise. It’s simple mathematics. The more relationships you have, the more breakups you could potentially have.
When I say that jealousy is not the most painful thing to experience to them, what I mean is that any breakup I have been through in my life, whether monogamous or non-monogamous, has not been nearly as painful as the slow realisation that the relationships I started out having put me on a trajectory of accepting crumbs when I deserved a cake. I have had a lot of ‘breakups’ in my life. I have lost friends and family both, and not through death. One of the things that non-monogamy has brought to me is the challenge of the assumption that romantic relationships are the most important or even the most painful to lose.
Not only has it been painful to lose friends and family, but it’s been painful to realise what little I expected from anyone who benefited from how much I was willing to give them. Jealousy is nothing compared to trying to re-learn how to demand more for yourself and to stop tolerating mistreatment or neglect. No relationship I have ever had has been more challenging than the relationship I have with myself. And no amount of jealousy has ever been more painful than realising what I have tolerated in the name of ‘love’. Jealousy is really the least of my problems.
To be honest though, when people ask me if I get jealous, rather than having this long nuanced conversation about capitalism, consumerism, oppression, social norms and self love, I usually just get frustrated and walk away.
But hey, now I’ve got a link I can give them now.
If you liked this article…
I have written The Anxious Person’s Guide to Non-Monogamy designed as a starter book for someone who is new to non-monogamy and/or people struggling with anxiety in polyamory. You don’t have to be anxious for the book to help, especially as it comes with not just a bit of advice but activities for you to try on your own or with partners to help ground you.
The book is now available from Jessica Kingsley Publishers and most major bookstores.