Out On The Couch
Stephanie M. Sullivan, MS, LLMFT
When people are first introduced to the idea of polyamory, one of the first questions they ask is often about jealousy. How do people in polyamorous relationships manage jealousy? Are they ever jealous? In the vast majority of polyamorous relationships, jealousy does come up at some point. However, jealousy can be broken down to determine what your real concerns are. When you recognize what is bothering you, it is possible to manage this challenging feeling. You may even reach a point of compersion, in which you feel joy when your partner is with another partner. You may feel this because you are happy that your metamour is making your partner happy. This article will provide some tips if you are attempting to navigate jealousy within a polyamorous relationship. Therapists who work with polyamorous clients may find this article to be a helpful guide as well.
A step that is often missed or overlooked when moving away from jealousy and into compersion is the feeling of neutrality about something. If you have been jealous about something often, it may be more realistic to strive toward a feeling of neutrality before attempting to feel compersion. Feeling neutral or even a little less jealous is always a step forward! If you notice that you only feel some anxiety when your partner is on a date with someone else, rather than having a panic attack, that is still progress! Moving forward by recognizing those small steps is essential in the process of managing jealousy in polyamory.
When thinking about your own jealousy, it is important to explore where this feeling is coming from. There are three different parts of jealousy to consider. First, there are the worries and doubts that occur based on a person’s suspicions and perceived threats to the relationship. Second, there is an emotional component to these thoughts and worries. You may feel anxious, uncomfortable, angry, fearful, or insecure about yourself or your relationship. Third, you choose how to respond to your thoughts and emotions, which becomes the behavioral component of jealousy (Knobloch, Solomon, & Kruz, 2001). Your reaction could be to ignore the jealousy, to be angry, to have a conversation with your partner, or many other reactions and behaviors.
Jealousy may be triggered in a number of ways. You may witness an interaction between your partner and your metamour that triggers your jealousy. You may also feel jealousy even at the idea of what could be occurring between your partner and metamour. Regardless of how the jealousy is triggered, if you find yourself experiencing it, you may need to think about where that feeling is coming from and tune in to yourself. What thoughts are you having, what emotions are you feeling, and how are you reacting? Are you comparing yourself to someone else, feeling competitive with another person, fearing the loss of your partner, or feeling a loss of control in your relationship or in your life? Are you feeling neglected by a partner? Do you have a fear of missing out on the activities they are doing with someone else? All of these thoughts and feelings can lead to jealousy (Sheff, 2014; Winston, 2017).
Journaling is an excellent way to do some self-reflection and allows you to explore and take responsibility for your own feelings, rather than blaming outside influences. Once you have an idea of where your jealousy is coming from, you will be better equipped to discuss it with your partner and manage that jealousy! If you have trouble identifying where your jealousy is coming from or managing jealousy, it may be helpful for you to find a polyamory-affirmative therapist to help you explore these things. A good polyamory-affirmative therapist will also be able to help you identify and practice tools for managing jealousy.
Constructive communication is one tool you can use when you are feeling jealous. Constructive communication focuses on maintaining your relationship and engaging in open discussions with your partner(s). It also facilitates good feelings about yourself and your partner(s). Research studies have shown that people who use constructive communication about jealousy are more likely to be satisfied in their relationships than people who use destructive communication techniques (Guerrero, 2014). However, destructive communication techniques (such as yelling and blaming a partner) are used most often in our media, especially in popular romantic comedies (Frampton & Linvill, 2017). Therefore, this is what we are often exposed to and “taught” to use when we are feeling jealous; because we are certainly not taught how to communicate constructively in school.
So, how can you engage in more constructive communication when you are experiencing jealousy in a polyamorous relationship? Constructive communication can be achieved by engaging in positive behaviors toward yourself or your partner. Some examples of constructive communication may include getting dressed up for yourself to feel good about yourself or being extra nice to your partner and focusing on the things you appreciate in your partner, rather than your jealousy (Guerrero, 2014). Another example of constructive communication is simply telling your partner that you are feeling jealous and engaging in an open discussion with them about that jealousy and where it is coming from. It is important to approach these conversations with care and consideration for how your partner is feeling, as well. You may approach this conversation by stating something like, “I have been feeling jealous lately, and I would like to talk about where this is coming from for me.” This sentence allows you to take responsibility for your own emotions without placing blame on your partner or causing them to feel defensive.
Another way to communicate when you are experiencing jealousy is a technique put forth by Dedeker Winston (2017). She calls it the “Pay it Forward” technique. This is a type of constructive communication that facilitates positive feelings in yourself, rather than jealousy. Winston recommends sending texts of gratitude to friends, family, or other partners to tell them what you love and appreciate about them. Using this technique may help you feel more thankful for all of the good that you have in your life, rather than remaining stuck in cycles of jealous thoughts.
It is important for your partner(s) to remain open to hearing about your feelings of jealousy, and to respond to your requests, if they are reasonable for your relationship. For example, if you are feeling jealous that your partner took their other partner to a new restaurant that you want to try, it is perfectly reasonable to ask your partner to take you the following weekend. In addition, if your partner is experiencing New Relationship Energy (NRE) and spending a lot of time with a new partner, causing you to feel neglected, it is not unreasonable to let them know, and to request more quality time with your partner. However, if you are feeling jealous and make a request that limits your partner’s time with a new partner to once a month, that may be seen as unreasonable and unfair to the other relationship.
Beyond addressing things directly with the partner with whom you are feeling jealous, you may reach out to a friend or another partner so that you are involved in your own life or with other people, rather than focusing only on what your partner is doing (Sheff, 2014; Veaux & Rickert, 2014; Winston, 2017). This will help to reduce the intrusive thoughts you are having about what your partner is doing, and will help you create a more positive emotional state. Mindfulness techniques work well for this too, so that you are engaged in your own present moment, rather than anguishing about your partner’s activities and whereabouts.
How you react when you are feeling jealousy is important to consider when you are exploring the possibility of a polyamorous relationship. Do you yell at your partner, act rude, argue, or forbid them from seeing the person that triggers jealousy for you? Do you engage in violence, and hit, shove, or threaten to harm your partner or the person you are jealous of? Or, do you try to also make your partner feel jealous? If any of the above are true for you, you may be engaging in destructive communication patterns (Guerrero, 2014). Not only is this destructive to your relationship, but it is also harmful to your partner, as many of these behaviors are abusive. If you find yourself engaging in violence or threats of violence toward your partner, it is important that you seek help from a mental health clinician or take a break from your current relationship, as you may not be ready to be in a relationship. If you are in a relationship with someone who is engaging in these behaviors against you, it may be time to seek support from a mental health clinician, family and friends, or the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233). Seeking support to maintain your own emotional and physical safety is crucial when leaving an abusive relationship.
In a polyamorous relationship, it is important to remember that placing restrictions on your partner generally does not help you to work through jealousy. Unless these restrictions are temporary, while you actively work to figure out what is triggering your jealousy and how to manage it, the restrictions may end up only leading to even more distrust and higher levels of jealousy. Controlling your partner or the things that trigger your jealousy will generally not be helpful in a polyamorous relationship. Placing these restrictions on your partner long-term may only facilitate mistrust, as you are then caught up in thoughts about whether your partner is following the rules or lying to you about what they are doing. Likewise, snooping through your partner’s belongings, phone, or email will also not be helpful to control jealousy or to facilitate more trust within your relationship (Veaux & Rickert, 2014; Winston, 2017).
The above behaviors are also invasive and abusive. Jealousy is not an excuse for abusive or controlling behaviors. Trust is important in any romantic relationship, and may predict relationship satisfaction (Campbell, Simpson, Boldry, & Rubin, 2010; Wieselquist, 2009). Therefore, it is important to ensure that you can trust your partner and to respect your partner’s autonomy, privacy, and boundaries, both before opening up a relationship or before entering into a relationship with a new partner. Sometimes, this may mean healing old wounds before getting into a relationship with a new partner, if you feel that you will not have the ability to trust anyone. Especially in this case, you may want to seek support from a polyamory-affirmative mental health clinician, so as not to carry baggage from an old (or current) relationship into a new one.
Many people may also try to keep score in their relationships, thinking that as long as their partner is spending more time or money on them than on anyone else, they will not feel jealous of their partner’s other partners. However, keeping score like this will often lead to even more distress, as it is simply another way of controlling what your partner is doing. It does not allow your partner the opportunity to show that they are actively making an effort to see you if you are telling them that they have to see you a certain amount. This strategy may actually end up having the opposite effect that you want to achieve, because your partner may begin to feel resentful or controlled about how much time they must spend with you. When you stop keeping score, you can be sure that your partner is reaching out simply because they want to see you and prioritize you in their life.
Once you feel you have identified where your jealousy is coming from, your needs are being met, and you are actively managing jealous feelings, you may be able to start feeling compersion. Compersion can be facilitated through the understanding that your partner is not there only for your own gratification. You may need to change your perspective on what you can reasonably expect from a partner, and recognize that you want them to be happy just as much as you want yourself to be happy. You can ask yourself what brings your partner joy, and if you want them to experience that joy. If you do not want them experiencing that joy, it may be helpful to ask yourself why you do not want this. Compersion can occur through the knowledge that you do want your partner to be genuinely happy, whether that happiness is caused by you or someone else (Hypatia, 2018).
No matter what stage your relationship is in, it is natural to feel jealousy! If you have a difficult time managing jealousy, or feel that your partner is being unfair to you, it may be beneficial to seek either individual therapy or relationship therapy from a polyamory-affirmative therapist. This therapist should be equipped to help you with these struggles and help you and your partner(s) navigate your relationship agreements, communication, jealousy, and much more. Check out Finding a Polyamory-Affirmative Therapist for more info!
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Frampton, J. R., & Linvill, D. L. (2017). Green on the screen: Types of jealousy and communicative responses to jealousy in romantic comedies. Southern Communication Journal, 85(5), 298-311. doi:10.1080/1041794X.2017.1347701
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Hypatia. (2018). Compersion: Polyamory beyond jealousy. Middletown, DE: Author.
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Veaux, F., & Rickert, E. (2014). More than two: A practical guide to polyamory. Portland, OR: Thorntree Press.
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Winston, D. (2017). The smart girl’s guide to polyamory: Everything you need to know about open relationships, non-monogamy, and alternative love. New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing.