Nobody is immune to jealousy, of course. It’s like being immune to fear or hunger or anger. Some people may be naturally more jealous than others, but anybody can feel jealous. Jealousy, like fear or hunger, is just a feeling.
But jealousy isn’t really a response to seeing your partner with someone else, at least not directly. it says more about your own security or insecurity than it does about the actions of your partner.
Jealousy is most common when somebody feels insecure, mistreated, threatened, or vulnerable in a relationship. If you feel secure in a relationship, you don’t get jealous. Jealousy is not the problem; jealousy is the SYMPTOM of the problem. Address the insecurity or the things underlying the feelings of vulnerability, and you address the jealousy. So the trick to making a poly relationship work is to make everyone involved feel secure, valued, and loved.
A poly relationship depends much more than a traditional relationship on mutual security and trust. Even the smallest amount of insecurity in a poly relationship can quickly be magnified to the point where it can be lethal to the relationship.
The problems are magnified even more if you try not to let your fears and your feelings show. One key to making the relationship work is to talk about your fears, openly and immediately, EVEN IF YOU THINK THEY’RE IRRATIONAL. Often, naming your fears, bringing them into the light, deprives them of their power.
I think it’s natural to assume that people who aren’t monogamous are immune to jealousy, but I don’t think it’s true. Rather, I think that jealousy is a symptom that something else is wrong. Often, jealousy is a symptom that someone is feeling insecure, or threatened. Address the underlying problem, and the jealousy goes away.
Jealousy, like other emotions, doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes from a feeling that someone’s needs aren’t being met, or someone feels threatened. People who don’t feel threatened, don’t feel jealous.
The key to defeating jealousy, in my experience, is to address the underlying causes of jealousy—if possible, before they come up. Make your partner feel special, needed, and loved, and your partner will not feel threatened or afraid.
Personally, I’m a big fan of empiricism. One of my favorite quotes is by Francis Bacon, who said, “Your true self can be known only by systematic experimentation, and controlled only by being known.” I believe that emotions, though they are not rational, do usually have a reason behind them-,-they are the ancient part of your brain, the part that does not have language, trying to communicate with you.
So. The question is, why are you jealous? Jealousy is an unusual emotion, in that it’s a feeling that’s often built out of other feelings, such as fear or anger or insecurity. What is it that triggers the jealousy, and more important,why? When you think about the things that cause you to feel jealous, what’s the first emotional reaction that flashes through your head—fear? Anger? Sadness? Rejection? Loss? What underlies those feelings—fear of losing her? Fear of being insufficient? Anger at someone else moving in on your territory? All of these? None of these?
Since jealousy usually has its roots in some other emotion, such as fear of loss or feelings of rejection or insecurity or whatever, then often the only way to cope with the jealousy is to deal with the underlying emotions. If you find that your jealousy is rooted in fear, for example, the next step is to explore why you are afraid, and what you are afraid of, and if there’s anything you can do to allay that fear. Confronting the jealousy head-on without addressing the things that lie beneath it is often an exercise in frustration.
Once you’ve identified the feelings beneath the jealousy, the next step is to ask yourself: What are these feelings serving? Are they serving a legitimate interest? Are they trying to warn you of a real problem, or are they serving only themselves? This can be very tricky, especially with an emotional response like fear—fear can serve as a legitimate warning of a valid danger, but fear also tends to try to protect itself, and if you’re afraid of something with no reason, your fear will try to persuade you that it’s valid and you have cause to be afraid.
One thing that’s often overlooked, particularly in the poly community, is that there are times when jealousy is a valid and rational response to a situation. If there is a problem in your relationship, or if your partner is using a new relationship as a way to avoid dealing with issues in your relationship, then jealousy is a reasonable response. Separating the jealousy that’s a warning of a real problem from the jealousy that isn’t is not always an easy task, though.
Where you go from there depends on what you discover about the root of the jealousy. Fear, insecurity, and so forth are all feelings that can be overcome, though usually not without confronting them directly and deliberately exposing yourself to the very things that make you afraid or insecure.
For more strategies for practical jealousy management, check out the short e-book I coauthored, Polyamory and Jealousy.
Last updated: Thu May 7, 2020