This is the second post in a series of blogs about the most common advice offered to polyamorous people, specifically newbies, why it’s useless and what you can do instead.
“Feel bad? You must be jealous.”
I’ve written a bit about this in “Thirteen things I wish I’d learnt before choosing non-monogamy”. When you’re first starting out reading everything you can about polyamory, jealousy and how bad it is can be so reinforced in you, that I see a lot of beginner polyamorous people not only thinking that fear or worry is automatically jealousy but assuming the appropriate response to it is to “deal with it” on their own or, sometimes, ask a partner for help — but the problem is always assumed to be lying within the constraints that monogamy has put on someone’s mind.
Jealousy vs. fear vs. envy
I get into the semantic argument constantly — and it might seem merely semantic, but it’s actually very important. Pulling out the dictionary really just ends up in splitting hairs so I want to get down to why the meaning behind the words is different. The meaning is important because how you approach jealousy and how you approach fear are both very different.
Jealousy, specifically, is about wanting something someone else has. This could be accompanied with a fear that you won’t get it, but primarily it is about seeing something and wanting it for yourself. So, when I’m upset about a partner going to a party, it isn’t jealousy unless I want to go to that party as well. If I actually hate parties and wouldn’t go if given the option, then the reasons behind being upset aren’t jealousy. Whereas, before I got surgery, I used to be very jealous when I heard other trans people were getting surgery — because I wanted it for myself. Envy, I feel, is roughly the same thing and is approached in the same way.
But fear is very different. My fear around a partner going to a party isn’t about wanting to go — it’s about being afraid that I am not ‘fun enough’. Fear is something that a lot of people new to polyamory will experience because fear is part of life and trying new things. When you’re trying non-monogamy for the first time, you’re going into a new relationship structure that doesn’t have all of the cultural scripts which can provide reassurance.
The Relationship Escalator provides a good explanation for one of the cultural scripts that monogamous people often have to ensure they feel secure in their relationships. Without this, added to trying something new, you’re going to experience a lot of fear. You may experience no jealousy at all, but a lot of fear instead. And being very jealous could make you afraid.
The historical context of jealousy and fear
“Does it really matter?” a lot of people might say. When it comes to how you approach them for a solution, it’s very different.
Jealousy exists within our society where it is encouraged and tolerated in very unhealthy ways, for one. Your partner being upset, angry and territorial over you when someone else flirts with you is, in many areas, considered a sign of love. Aggressive, dangerous entitlement and jealousy is encouraged among men specifically and in many cases where men have murdered their women partners when caught cheating, jealousy is seen as not only valid but a good excuse for murdering.
Women are way more likely to spend a longer time in prison for defending themselves and killing an abusive partner than a male partner who murders someone he abuses. In fact, legally, men can use ‘loss of control’ as a legitimate legal excuse for murdering a cheating partner.
We can’t ignore those contexts of what ‘jealousy’ means within our society because, for as much as the dictionary may define the annotation of the word, the connotation within this culture is coupled with themes of violence, entitlement and controlling behaviour. And those who have experienced controlling and abusive behaviour first hand are going to be even more concerned that they could perpetuate the cycles of abuse that have happened to them.
So when we talk about ‘jealousy’ within intimate partner relationships, it is especially those who have been through abuse who will be worried about being the abuse they’ve seen, who will question their every action, who will be more likely to believe an unhappy feeling they have is inherently a problem with them and their thought process and not a legitimate feeling or even a red flag.
Fear doesn’t have these same connotations within a relationship — except in how it relates to being ‘clingy’ and specifically when that is associated with women or individuals read as women. Some fear is legitimised, even while it’s coupled with jealousy or entitlement, while others are not. Men who fear and react in aggressive ways are rewarded and sympathised with (think the ‘gay panic’ defence, Trayvon Martin’s murderer, etc.) whereas fearing the loss of something and general anxiousness are seen as ‘weak’.
Women who experience anxiousness and fear of losing something can struggle with the societal implications of being labelled as ‘clingy’ (although some types of fear by some women are validated — see Emmett Till). Overall, our capitalist society encourages a ‘bootstraps’ mentality where we’re all supposed to be ‘independent’, despite the fact that we are a species that literally begins to suffer mental health problems when we are solitarily confined. All of this compounds to encourage people to not want to accept that fear is normal and natural.
Talking about ‘jealousy’ and ‘fear’ within the polyamorous community still has with it all of the implications that come with the society we’re raised in. And we carry these implications and thought processes into our relationships.
We assume not only that bad feelings are all jealousy because fear is not considered normal or even desirable and then we assume that jealousy comes with all of the entitlement, aggression and controlling behaviour that is so often excused by the society we live in — when you can be jealous without all of that. We can’t divorce ourselves from those contexts, even as we try something new.
How to ‘get rid’ of jealousy and fear
Aside from the historical contexts, how you approach ‘treating’ jealousy and fear are not the same. But one common thing about them both? You can’t just ‘get rid’ of them.
So many polyamorous newbies believe that by reading enough literature and practising enough, they can purge themselves of jealousy and fear. And, while gaining knowledge and experience does most certainly help in a lot of cases, it’s not always guaranteed. When I began trying to treat my anxiety, one of the best things I learned wasn’t some magical technique for stopping a panic attack in its tracks — it was embracing the fact that I had panic attacks and that was just part of my life.
Rather than beating myself up every single time I experienced a shortness of breath or a quickening of my heart, I was able to love myself, sympathise with myself, and that made overcoming panic attacks much easier. I haven’t had one in a long time — but I might have one tomorrow. And that does not make me a failure.
Trying to purge yourself of either of these emotions may work in the short-term while you’re in a good mental place, can grapple with new thought processes, while you’re feeling secure in your relationship. But the second instability comes along, it is natural and healthy to feel afraid.
If you’re in a relationship where your needs aren’t being met but you’re watching that same partner meet that need with other people, jealousy is going to happen. By assuming you’re somehow above these emotions, that not experiencing them says something about your capabilities as a human to ‘do polyamory’, you’re essentially setting yourself up for failure, in the same way, I set myself up for failure when I assumed a panic attack represented my inability to manage my anxiety effectively.
The first and best way to address jealousy and fear is to understand that they aren’t always coupled with entitlement, controlling behaviour and aggression — and that they can be perfectly reasonable responses to different situations.
In the situation I described before where I was jealous of other trans people who got their surgeries or whose fundraisers were successful (I’ve even been jealous of anyone running a fundraiser that reached it’s goal), the reasoning for feeling jealous there was perfectly valid. It’s very understandable when you are not getting something you desperately need, to feel jealous of other people who are getting the things you need.
What matters is how you choose to act on it. If I chose to insult and deride friends who got their surgeries, claiming they didn’t need it as much as I did, that would be completely different.
In terms of relationships, you can feel jealous of a metamour who is getting something you’re not getting and that is a totally valid feeling. It’s not something you need to ‘get over’ on your own nor is it baggage from a monogamous relationship necessarily. A very common scenario with polyamorous newbies is when two people find that they receive an imbalance in the amount of interest shown to them on dating sites.
Typically those read as men do not get as much ‘attention’ on dating sites as those read as women (although obviously, your mileage may vary). This can lead to a lot of understandable jealousy which is okay to feel, but not necessarily to act on. Restricting your partner’s ability to have dates in response to this feeling isn’t the right way to go.
How you address jealousy has everything to do with what it’s about and sometimes it has no solution. If you’re jealous because your domestic partner never gives you a back massage but happily gives them to metamours, you can just ask for more back massages. But if you’re jealous that more people are flirting with your partner than you, that isn’t something that’s actually within the realms of anyone’s control.
I can be jealous all I want regarding successful fundraisers other people have, but there isn’t much I can do to control it. Often, when it’s something out of your control, you can do what you can to try and address the need that isn’t being met. I try and find new ways of pushing my fundraiser. In the flirting example, you might try and flirt more with other people and see if they reciprocate.
The best way is to ask yourself if this is really something you can control or if it’s just part and parcel of the way life is going to work. Specifically, in the case of one partner getting more ‘attention’, it might also be worth recontextualising your understanding of what ‘attention’ means. Getting more attention may not actually result in anything significant or fruitful and even if you received over 100 messages on dating sites every day, that doesn’t mean any of those are actually from anyone you’re interested in — and some of them might be quite disgusting or rude.
In the case of my surgery fundraiser, I try to remember that getting my surgery did make me happier and getting it completely funded would make me even happier, but there are also other things in my life I can be grateful for. I try and rethink all of the ways that I have been lucky and that helps me cope with those feelings.
How to deal with fear
When it comes to dealing with fear, one of the most harmful things I learned from beginner polyamory advice was the reinforcement of lessons abuse had taught me long ago: my emotions were not valid or reasonable and that I needed to cope with them on my own. While a lot of beginner polyamory advice encourages communication, it fails to really address the fear of over communicating and burdening a partner.
Many of us have been treated as if our basic needs are burdens to others and when this concept is reinforced by the misunderstanding that bad feelings are jealousy you ought to deal with on your own, this maladaptive way of thinking is compounded.
The problem specifically with mixing an understanding of jealousy and fear is that, because rules are so often used to address fear, it’s assumed that creating rules in response to fear is an example of how you’re ‘controlling’ because you’re ‘jealous’ and it brings up all of the cultural contexts of jealousy when the issue is more the fear than anything. For example, let’s say you have a long distance partner who you may or may not have lived with at a certain point. Let say this partner meets someone new and in the process of being caught up in NRE, begins to neglect you.
While they once had time to have private phone calls with you, now all of their calls are with the metamour present. This partner changes their mind about promises that they’ve made to you and all of a sudden begins to disregard the boundaries that were set in place long ago.
A lot of people in this situation would begin to experience both jealousy and fear. They may be jealous that the metamour is capable of having an in-person physical relationship with their partner while they can’t. Additionally, having a partner neglect them and break boundaries that had been in place may leave them feeling afraid.
They may not have any overt desire to control their partner and may not want them to end the relationship with their metamour — but they want to stop being neglected and ignored. So what do you do? Many people might try re-enforcing those boundaries and rules, maybe even adding more rules on to try and regain a sense of stability that has been lost.
That might not be the ‘right’ thing to do because the partner may respond with resentment, anger and frustration. The focus becomes less on how neglect and a disrespect of boundaries is happening and more on the rules and who has the right to enforce them.
When someone breaks your stability in a relationship, whether intentionally or not, you’re going to be afraid of losing that relationship. When someone begins to neglect you and show signs of disinterest, your mind may go into Defcon 5 mode, tell you to get to the lifeboats and put on your life jacket. The rules in this situation are the equivalent of strapping on a life vest and inflating it before the ship sinks rather than trying to investigate the hole in the ship and plug it up.
But easily in this situation, the partner who responded to fear by enforcing a bunch of new rules could easily be seen as being jealous and controlling — despite very real experiences of being neglected and feeling frustrated.
Fear is sometimes very inevitable. And in cases where you’re regaining stability in a relationship, you’re going to feel fear for awhile until that stability is brought back. Many people find that fear so difficult to live with that they try and force stability into existence when it just can’t happen. If we embraced the idea that we feel fear, paid attention to it, listened to it and tried to understand it instead of pushing it down and assuming it’s a sign of our monogamously programmed brains attempting to sabotage us, we might be able to identify problems at their start or address them as they’re happening rather than charging towards the lifeboats.
The overall lesson is: don’t be afraid to be afraid. Don’t assume it’s always jealousy or something bad that you have to cope with on your own. Fear is a symptom, so try and treat the disease. If I’m having a panic attack, rather than kicking myself for being so weak and berating myself to just stop feeling anxious, I try and look at what might be increasing my anxiety in life and embrace the fact that I have it. That makes coping easier.
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 for pre-order from Jessica Kingsley Publishers and will be released late June 2022.