I’m what many people call ethically non-monogamous, which means I have agreements with everyone with whom I’m romantically involved that they are not the only person in my life in a sexual sense, and vice versa. Put another way, I take many lovers. (Which I'm pleased sounds like something your fabulous grandmother who lives in LA with a boyfriend half her age might say.)
When I tell people this is how I live my romantic life, the first question is usually “Don’t you get jealous?”. Indeed, that single feeling comes up in pretty much every conversation I have about non-monogamy, and I’m by no means alone — a huge percentage of the writing done about non-monogamy, polyamory, or however you want to call setting up your life to be with more than one persona romantically, is about jealousy; where it fits into these types of relationships, how to deal with it, what to do about it.
Jealousy is not an emotion reserved for non-monogamous people, but if you’re going to live this way, you have to figure out how you’re going to meet this strong emotion out in the open. Everyone does it differently, which is awesome, but here’s what I’ve learned from my personal experiences.
1. Almost Everyone Gets Jealous — And That's OK
That heavy feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you think about your partner getting freaky with or emotionally connected to someone who’s not you? Yeah, that’s something that happens to most people (I know a guy who says he doesn’t experience jealousy, to which I say ... good for him). But for most of us, jealousy is simply one of the emotions in our range. It’s good to recognize and admit that in advance, so it doesn’t sneak up on you.
2. Jealousy Often Has Deep Psychological Roots
It’s also good to do some soul-searching about your personal roots of jealousy — researchers have found that underlying causes include possessiveness, shame, insecurity, paranoia, and humiliation. Being able to recognize these in yourself can help you work through feelings of jealousy when they do arise. Open relationship counselor Kathy Labriola's The Jealousy Workbook and Love in Abundance are particularly good guides for this.
3. Compersion Is Real
You might think that the opposite of jealousy is just not feeling jealous, but it’s actually another emotion called compersion. Compersion is when you feel a positive, loving, or turned-on emotion in response to what would usually be a jealousy-inducing situation — like hearing about your boyfriend’s sex with another person last night. It may seem impossible, but it's not; in fact, it's often quite pleasurable.
That said, most people don’t automatically feel compersion. We’re just not conditioned for it in our current society, where we are so often taught that jealousy equals love and that possession denotes passion. (I mean, just look at Twilight or Fifty Shades of Gray to see what I’m talking about here.) But compersion is a real feeling worth experiencing.
4. You Can Work Toward Feeling Compersion
So how do we get from jealousy to compersion? Incrementally, with lots of self-work, self-care, and communication with your partners. The self-work is about identifying why you feel jealous. What are the root causes? What triggers you the most? Once you identify the reasons, you can work on them to stop them from taking you over with such power. (Here's where doing some reading on nonmonogamy can really come in handy.)
Self-care is about being able to protect yourself and love yourself. Think about what helps you feel better. This can include things you can ask your lover(s) to do for you, such as telling you about other dates in advance so you don’t get blindsided, or making sure you have a bottle of wine and a sexy book in hand before they head out the door to meet someone else. But it’s also extremely important for you to identify things you can do to take care of yourself when you feel the jealous feelings winning over the compersive ones.
Finally, communication: we’ll get into this a bit later in more detail, but it’s important to talk to your partner about how you’re feeling — whatever you’re feeling. No one’s a mindreader, and they might otherwise not know that they are making you feel jealous!
5. You Can't Just Will Away Your Emotions
When I started being non-monogamous, I decided I was going to do my absolute best to just not feel jealous, because it seemed incongruous with how I wanted to live my life and be treated by those I was inviting to join it. And guess what — I found that it doesn’t really work that way. The reality is that most people who live non-monogamous lives still get jealous sometimes. Their feelings still get hurt when they want to see one of their lovers and that person already has plans with someone else. They still get into group sex situations that they think they’re OK with, see their partner with someone else, and have an emotional reaction.
Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), you can’t just will away your emotions. So knowing that you’re not always going to be your supremely perfect emotional self at all times is critical —because if you don’t allow yourself to recognize what you’re actually feeling, it just makes it worse.
6. You Might Go Through Jealousy And Compersion Cycles
Most people don’t feel compersion once and then have all their feelings of jealousy just melt away. Emotions are tied to so many external factors, as anyone with a female reproductive system is acutely aware. On some days or points in your life, you might be feeling more tender and therefore prone to jealousy, whereas other times, when you’re feeling more confident or energetic, you could experience more feelings of compersion. For instance, I’m much more excited for my partners to tell me about their other connections when I’m feeling confident in my relationship with them. Their display of security and affection allows me to share my excitement about their other partners and feel compersion, instead of the fear or uncertainty that drives jealousy.
It can be frustrating to realize that the journey from jealousy to compersion often isn’t a linear one; to believe you’re making headway on something like feeling compersion and then suddenly to feel like you’ve “backslid” into jealous habits again. It’s important to remember that this isn’t a race, and it’s not even a particular goal.
7. Even Illogical Feelings Are Valid
Often, people in non-monogamous relationships think they aren’t allowed to feel jealous, because it’s antithetical to the project of being able to be with whoever you want. I think that’s bullsh*t.
If you’re feeling something, that means it’s real. It doesn’t mean you’re allowed to act however you want (flying into a jealous rage, smashing wine bottles, slashing someone’s tires, or whatever happens on daytime reality television), because action is different than emotion. The fact that your feelings are valid also doesn't mean that your jealousy is logically sound. But if you don’t allow yourself to feel what you are actually already feeling and recognize those feelings as valid, those emotions are just going to keep piling up until they explode.
8. Communication Is Jealousy's Kryptonite
Communication is a hallmark of non-monogamous living, in great part because those of us who live this way are constantly encountering the strong emotions of those they love (or just like a lot). I’ve learned that keeping emotions to yourself instead of sharing them with your lover(s) is often immensely corrosive. This is true for all strong emotions, but particularly so of jealousy.
If you start feeling jealous, communicate this to your partner so that you don’t keep it inside and let it fester. But (and this is extremely important) try to tell them in a way that is useful. Best practices in communication can be super helpful here: using I-statements to describe your feelings (because they are yours) will help you share what’s going on with you without starting to blame your partner. For instance, saying, “I felt jealous when you made plans to go out with Lizzie on my one free night this week” is much less aggressive than, “How could you make plans to have a Lizzie date night?! You know this is my only free night this week!"
Remember that perhaps the most critical tool in your communication toolbox is listening, actively and openly, without interrupting or jumping down the other person’s throat to get your next angry retaliation in.
9. It's OK To Need Help Managing Jealousy
If jealousy is a problem for you, consider working through it — but know that your friends and partners can help, books on jealousy and non-monogamy can help, and if you’re really struggling, that trained professionals like therapists and counselors are a spectacular resource.
If you are trying to feel compersion but just aren’t getting there, don’t fret. You can’t make yourself feel an emotion any more than you can make yourself not feel one. Work on building strong, supportive, sexy relationships with those you love, and chances are, you just might notice one day that you’re actually excited to help your partner pick out her outfit for a date with someone else.
Of course, if the jealousy is too overwhelming and painful for you, especially after months of really working on it, there's also a chance that non-monogamy might not be for you. And that's totally valid too! What matters most is that you're honest with yourself and with the ones you love.
Images: Bustle; Giphy