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How to Make Jealousy Work For You, Not Against You

When you first tell someone that you’re polyamorous, there’s one question that almost everyone will be asked: “But don’t you get jealous?” The answer to that, for many experienced poly people, is a look of confusion followed by “Of course!”

Polyamorous people are not immune from any emotion, and jealousy is no exception. Just because your relationship is structured a certain way, it doesn’t mean that you will act any differently from any other person. The main difference is that a driving philosophy of polyamory is to use your jealousy for self-growth. Jealousy is not a reason to make your partner stop something, it’s a reason to figure out why you felt this emotion in the first place.

What is Jealousy?

Many people conflate envy and jealousy, often assuming that envy is a type of jealousy. The two words are at odds with this. Before we go any further, I’d like to get some very important definitions out there.

Envy is when you want what someone else has; when you envy someone, you may want their job, their car, their lawnmower… or their partner. Whatever it is, they have it and you want it. Jealousy, on the other hand, is when you’re worried someone wants what you have. You’re afraid that they want your job, your car, your lawnmower, or your partner, and that they will take it from you.

The most common trigger for jealousy, by far, is insecurity. Insecurity could be over any of thousands of things, though commonly the things that trigger jealousy in relationships fall under either physical attractiveness or economic attractiveness. Virtually everyone is insecure about something, and when you feel that you are in competition with someone that you perceive as better than you in whatever you’re insecure about, jealousy often comes knocking.

If you worry about your partner’s love interest having a bigger penis or perkier breasts, you might feel jealous with the worry that your partner will find them so attractive that they’ll leave you. If you worry about your cooking skills or your salary, you may feel threatened if someone cooks your partner a five-course meal, or can buy them expensive gifts that you cannot afford.

Jealousy is different for everyone. Some people never feel jealous about their partners being in other sexual relationships, others can’t even stand to imagine their partner kissing someone else. The important part is knowing what will kick it off for you, and how.

Isn’t Jealousy Love?

Popular culture would like us to believe that jealousy correlates directly with love; the more you love someone, the more jealous you should be, especially when it comes to other people being interested in them. Movies and songs are written around the concept. A prime example of this is the song, unsurprisingly titled Jealous, released in September 2014. It epitomizes the concept that jealousy equals love, and worse, that possessiveness does as well. “It’s my right to be hellish, I still get jealous” is repeated in the chorus, as is “You can call me obsessed.” This paints a picture of a man who feels as though he has every right to cause a scene because another man glances at his partner.

The first verse of the song gets something right – it gives a perfect example of a trigger for his jealousy:

I don’t like the way he’s looking at you
I’m starting to think you want him too
Am I crazy, have I lost ya?
Even though I know you love me, can’t help it

This is jealousy. The feeling that, even know he knows that his partner loves him, that he could lose her simply by the glance of another man. For some unmentioned reason, he is threatened by this guy, and very likely feels insecure about it. Not that I’m an armchair psychologist for song lyrics, but if I had to take a stab in the dark, my guess is that the guy feels either that he’s not good enough for his partner, or that he worries that she doesn’t actually love him (How else would a glance from another man make her leave him, in his imagination?).

Jealousy in Polyamory

There are some people – both monogamous and polyamorous – that say they have never experienced jealousy. For the most part, that’s entirely believable. Some people never have, and some people may make it through life without it. Something you should always be skeptical of, however, is someone saying that they are immune to jealousy, or that they never will feel jealous. You can’t predict any emotion, and even the least jealous person in the world should accept that maybe, one day, they’ll find a trigger for their jealousy they have not come across before.

Many people, especially newly poly people, feel as though they must never feel jealous, and if they do, it either means that they’re doing it wrong, or that their partner is. Neither is necessarily the case. Anything, no matter how innocent it actually is, can trigger jealousy. The reason for the jealousy that is brought up may be something from your childhood, something from an ex, or even something that you’ve seen in popular culture and taken to heart. It may be based on assumptions you made about your relationship before that moment; a common one is people feeling jealous and insecure when their partner brings up polyamory, fearing that it reflects on them and the relationship being in trouble.

So… How the Hell do I Make it Work For Me?

It’s very simple to say, but very difficult to do: Think about it.

Drill down to the reason for the jealousy, and the insecurity, until you can no longer answer the question, “But why?” Every time you have a jealous reaction, take some time as soon as you can to let the gut reaction pass, and then have a conversation like this with yourself:

I’m jealous that my wife is on a date.

But why?

Because I worry that they’ll go back to his home after the date.

But why?

Because I worry that they’ll have sex.

But why?

Because I don’t want her to have sex with another man.

But why?

Because if she has sex with him, she might like it better than sex with me.

Now we’re getting somewhere! This might be the last time: But why?

Because I worry that I’m not good enough in bed.

Now, you have your answer.

That’s a very simplified version of the sort of conversation you’d have with yourself, of course. Take all the time you need to process this, don’t rush it. Take the opportunity to reflect on each answer to each question, and how it makes you feel, both mentally and physically. It can be very difficult, but as you practice this technique, it gets easier each time.

Whatever the reason for your jealousy is, it’s about you and how you feel, it’s not actually about the actions that triggered it. Once you’ve processed the jealousy, you can come back to what brought it up. With the knowledge of your emotions as a tool you can use, it’s no longer a weapon stabbing your in the back. You can discuss what triggered it with your partner, and figure out from there if it was a harmless trigger or a real concern.

A Word of Caution

Accusations of jealousy should not be used as weapons. Just because someone’s jealous and has an unrelated reason for the reaction, doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to be concerned about. “You’re just jealous!” is not a valid argument to use against someone. A person’s emotions stemming from jealousy are perfectly valid, but they need to sort through them, just like any other emotion. Being jealous isn’t the same as being wrong. Making that assumption can disguise perfectly rational red flags, so it’s important to validate your partner’s feelings, including jealousy, and help them work through it so you can have a constructive discussion about what’s going on.

It’s extremely important to figure out what the root of your jealousy is, so that you can separate out that reaction from what is really going on in the moment. Only then can you move forward in making your relationship – and yourself – the best it can be.

Chelsey Dagger

Chelsey is a relationship anarchist, with multiple wonderful partners across the United States. They are in IT during the day, and at night they are currently in school for psychology, and on their way to being a therapist, with focus on polyamorous individuals, couples, and families.