“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt
I’ve been thinking lately about how the first question on everyone’s lips—poly and monogamous alike—when the topic of non-monogamy comes up is, “How do you deal with the jealousy?”
Seriously? I’m so tired of it.
The first reason is because jealousy comes up in every kind of relationship, not just in poly ones. The most incredibly awful jealousy I’ve ever seen has been in my own monogamous relationships. In my experience, poly brings up a whole bunch of stuff for people, and most of it’s not really specific to poly. It’s basically the same stuff that comes up in monogamous relationships, just more intensely and with fewer buffers. If you’re poly, then whatever your particular weakness is, poly will shine an even brighter light on it, and that’s the shape your personal challenge will take; it’s each person’s individual challenge to work through whatever that stuff is. Lots of folks make the mistake of thinking poly is to blame for all that stuff, but really all poly is is a rather unforgiving mirror that causes us to have to face ourselves, and sometimes we don’t like what we see.
At least when you’re non-monogamous you (may) have access to a subculture with tons to say about jealousy management. Jealousy is seen as something to be acknowledged, understood and dealt with – books, websites, conferences and tons of other resources abound. And while I applaud those people who create those resources, and further applaud the people who take advantage of them, I think it makes for a bit of an unfortunate situation: because poly folks actually tackle jealousy head-on by talking about it a lot, it makes it look as though jealousy were the province of the polyamorous, when in fact it’s rampant all over the place. The only difference is that the rest of the world thinks that’s okay.
Which leads me to the second reason I’m so tired of the jealousy question. This one takes a bit more explanation.
Our culture gives enormous weight to jealousy, as though it were both inescapable and agonizing. We attribute such all-reigning power to jealousy that we use it as justification, however contested, for a range of incredibly poor behaviour, including some that’s truly horrific—everything from the cold shoulder to murder.
The stuff that most often comes up in any relationship is around fear of loss or fear of pain and how we each respond to that. Clamp down and try to control? Pull back and try to escape? Lash out and try to hurt first, or worse, or in revenge? Feel inadequate and try to get reassurance?
That whole package—which is basically a whole lot of variations on “fear”—we call jealousy. That’s one problem. Even the name we use for that package of emotion acts as a mask that tries to protect what’s underneath it. “I’m jealous” is somehow easier or more acceptable to say than “I’m terrified.” Sort of like how “I’m angry” is seen as somehow more powerful than “I’m vulnerable.” This is the product of a messed-up patriarchal culture and messed-up ideas about what’s really powerful, cuz trust me, vulnerability is incredibly strong.
Then we make it worse. We decide that jealousy must be avoided at all costs. Pull out “jealousy” and all of a sudden you have a nicely packaged reason to make your partner do anything you want. Don’t see him more than twice a week or I’ll be jealous. Don’t touch her in front of me or I’ll be jealous. Don’t wear that dress, other men will look at you and that makes me jealous. In short: don’t do anything that triggers my jealousy, and then I won’t be jealous, and then everything will be fine. We will have successfully avoided jealousy.
But if we drop the protective mantle called “jealousy” and we simply talk about “fear” the picture changes. If we instantly saw a demonstration of “jealousy” as simply a high-stress manifestation of fear, it would all of a sudden be a lot less powerful and a lot more vulnerable.
Most people know, in our self-help-truism-loving culture, that confronting one’s fears makes a lot more sense than avoiding them. Avoidance means you let the world go on without you because you aren’t participating. If you fear venomous snakes and therefore avoid pet stores, you might manage all right. But if you fear a car accident and so avoid being anywhere near cars, well, okay, but that severely limits your options in the world. So it is with relationships.
The only way to avoid the fear of being hurt within relationships is to not build new relationships. In theory this can be accomplished in three ways:
1. Remaining eternally single. Although then you’ve got a whole new set of consequences to deal with. Hey, a happy chosen single life can bring with it many advantages, but when you make that choice not from happiness but from fear, you’re probably not enjoying many of those advantages.
2. Monogamy, which most of the world does, although this option is about as reliable as the “I promise I’ll pull out” method of birth control. Why? Because for starters, even if you’re only ever with one person in your entire life, it’s a helluva gamble to think you’ll manage to pick one who will never hurt you. News flash: we’re human. We all fuck up. Fuck-ups sometimes hurt the people we love. The end. Beyond that, the vast majority of the people out there who understand themselves as monogamous are in fact practicing serial monogamy, as in, multiple partners sequentially rather than simultaneously (though many people do this with some degree of overlap between partners, above-board or otherwise). Have you ever met someone who does serial monogamy and who has never been hurt? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Have you ever met someone who does serial monogamy because they’re convinced that the next one is always the one that won’t hurt them like the last one did? Mmm-hmm. See the above comment re: being human.
3. Super-strictly-controlled types of non-monogamy. By this I mean the kind that usually involve only ever having sex with an outside person once, no exchanging names or numbers, only doing it out of town, and the like. That is awfully cold, and to be honest it usually doesn’t work too well, though I’ve known some people who can do it. They are usually the type who like lots of variety in sexual partners but who don’t get very emotional about sex, and who keep things pretty compartmentalized in life as a whole. Often not the healthiest paradigm to begin with, but it can be done, especially if you travel a lot and/or have access to a sexual culture (swinging, gay bathhouses, etc.) that provides conducive social parameters. Problem is, waaay more people think they can do this than can actually do it. This takes two forms. First, either the people doing it are not compartmentalizing per se, but rather simply shutting down emotionally, and meaningless sex is just one more example of that. Or second, most people are not nearly as good at compartmentalizing as they’d like to think they are, which means that all they’re in fact doing is trying really hard not to acknowledge what’s actually going on, which typically involves those scary things called feelings and all the risks that come with them.
People who opt for polyamory often attempt to add a fourth one to this list:
4. The veto. This is most common in couple-based poly, in which an existing pair decides to open their relationship to romantic involvement with others. The veto usually looks like the partners making a whole bunch of decisions about what they’ll do and not do, coming up with a list of rules, and then agreeing that if anyone their partner hooks up with is not to the other partner’s liking, they each have veto power over the new person’s involvement. As in, “If Sam starts to make me feel threatened, then you’ll just have to break it off.” Other, somewhat milder forms of the veto include power to veto specific sexual acts (“I just realized that thinking about you going down on Sam freaks me out, so you can’t do that anymore”), activities (“Sorry, I need you to be my date to the work party on Thursday, you’ll have to cancel with Sam”) or specific ways of spending time (“I wanted to see that movie with you, so you’ll have to pick another one to see with Sam”).
The veto is, not surprisingly, yet another form of fear avoidance. It’s essentially saying, “When this thing gets too scary for me, you will alter your behaviour so I don’t have to deal with my fear.” But it comes with serious consequences—not only for the jilted new partner, who has suddenly found themselves dumped in the flush of NRE, or possibly sans blow job or Thursday-night date, or settling for Yet Another Stupid Teenage Horror Film instead of the latest Oscar nominee. No, the veto also has consequences on the existing relationship too.
Why? Because no matter what your partner says now, if they and a new lover get involved and something about that becomes too painful for you to handle, and you play your “veto” card, there will be resentment. Or if not resentment, then pain, or sadness, or disappointment, or something else of the sort. That’s just what happens when an exciting new relationship gets cut off before its time. It’s only human. If your partner has no negative feelings about pulling out, then they weren’t really in; or the new relationship wasn’t going well in the first place and needed to end anyway. But if they really do pull out just to make you feel better, it will cause relationship problems between you, guaranteed. The veto is a safety valve that dumps you out of one hard situation and into another: from the challenge of openness into the challenge of closing a door now that you know exactly how good it is on the other side.
There is no such thing as consequence-free when it comes to poly. Everyone has feelings, and all those feelings are valid. I personally would feel very leery about getting involved with a couple whose baseline agreement was that I could be dropped at any time if they were having a hard time with things. That’s not the most respectful stance to take toward the additional person, and it sets up a really unpleasant hierarchy regarding whose feelings are important and whose aren’t. It essentially avoids the foundational element of relationship-building: the trust part. I mean, poly or no, would you get involved with anyone who might concievably ditch you at any moment at another person’s say-so? Talk about a skewed power dynamic.
And what if “the worst” happens? What if your partner leaves you “for” their other partner?
Well, one thing I can say for sure: if your partner leaves you and continues a relationship with their other lover, it’s almost never because of that other lover, properly speaking. There’s a very strong chance they didn’t leave you “for” the other one at all, but simply ended things with you and kept them up with someone else. Even if the circumstances make the “they left me for Sam” story an easier story to tell, and one that most (mono) people will believe and cluck in sympathy toward, your relationship will either last or not last based on its own strength, flexibility, resilience and overall health and quality, not based on the presence or absence of another person.
I have plenty of thoughts about how to get to a good place within yourself and enjoy happy non-monogamy. But what I’m aiming to do here (and there) is not so much to advocate for a specific form of non-monogamy that’s supposed to fit everyone. Rather I’m trying to provide a reality check. So many of the strategies we use to try and protect ourselves are essentially just defense tactics, whereas strong poly comes from having a good offense: building relationship strength, working on our own shit, being radically honest, admitting to our fears, developing really solid communication skills and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. We need to confront fears, work through them and get stronger rather than avoiding fears, letting them fester and allowing ourselves to be shored up by protective barriers we set up.
Is that easy? Hell no. It’s a ton of hard work. But believe me, holding up barriers to keep ourselves protected is also a lot of hard work. They may protect us but they also box us in. And they can get too tight and crampy and they make it awfully hard to breathe. And when your arms get shaky and the barriers start to fall, or if someone makes it over them despite your best efforts, then you’ve invested a ton of effort into protection and none into getting stronger from the inside out, so you’re all the more unprepared to deal with whatever does come up.
Just for fun, I’ll quote a recent short essay, “What Is Polyamory Really All About?” by Deborah Anapol, author of the well-known polyamory manual Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits and of the forthcoming Polyamory in the 21st Century:
“While many people define polyamory as the practice of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with everyone’s full knowledge and consent, I see it differently. To me polyamory is a philosophy of loving that asks us to surrender to love. Polyamory leads us to ask, ‘What is the most loving and authentic way I can be present with these people and with myself at this time?’
“The answer to this question may not always be obvious, and it may change over time, but the asking of it, and the willingness to consider answers we may not want to hear, is the whole point of polyamory. Most of us would rather surrender to our cultural conditioning, to our emotional discomfort, peer pressure, social censure, lust, convenience, or a partner’s demands than to the unvarnished truth about what would contribute the most to the well being of everyone involved.”
Does that mean we shouldn’t have any rules or limits or deal-breakers? Does it mean we’re not allowed to have fears or ask people to be gentle with us as we work on them? Of course not. I think it’s just absolutely crucial to make the distinction between creating situations in which you can actively and honestly work on taming your fears (i.e. challenging your “jealousy” and other forms of fear), and creating situations that allow those fears to continue merrily existing behind protective walls. Whether it’s unquestioned faith in a traditional monogamous paradigm, veto power that attempts to neutralize the scariness of polyamory, or avoidance of all intimate connection, the fear underlying those choices—whether it manifests as “jealousy” or anything else—needs to be faced head-on.