jealousy is to possessiveness as erotica is to porn?

possessiveness
Kitten is very possessive.

In response to this Twitter thread from Melissa A. Fabello, I have some thoughts on jealousy vs possessiveness to share. Attache ta tuque, as they say!

I appreciate how the writer normalizes jealousy. I agree that jealousy truly is not a polyamory thing, it’s a human thing, and it’s at least as common, if not far more so, in monogamous relationships. But we part ways philosophically after that baseline agreement.

Fabello writes:

Jealousy is the feeling of envy, suspicion, protectiveness, or vigilance regarding another person’s behavior. It’s the feeling of “Oh, I didn’t like that – it made me feel insecure.”

Possessiveness is the demanding of someone’s attention or love in totality. It’s “You’re mine.”

Possessiveness is unequivocally unhealthy.

The belief that someone owes you all of their love or attention is harmful. You do not own your partner; your partner does not belong to you. Your partner can only offer you so much, as they have other relationships to nurture, too.

In contrast to these definitions, I think people use the terms “jealous” and “possessive” quite interchangeably, and their meanings and experiences entwine. So this super clear distinction being drawn here sounds, to me, a lot like the endless debate on porn vs erotica. Basically, people use the word that has negative connotations for them to mean a thing they don’t like, and the less personally loaded one to indicate things they’re okay with or see as more (potentially) benign.

For instance I’ve often described myself as “possessive but not jealous,” in that I’m drawn to ownership-based D/s dynamics, but they’re fully consensual and desired—I don’t just assume I’m entitled to possess a person, they have to want me to! We can have a great deal of fun coming up with ways to express and cultivate that dynamic, but it’s never automatic. In fact the figuring out of its limits, manifestations, ramifications, etc. provides a great deal of its pleasures—mutually.

So I don’t at all agree that “possessiveness” is an unequivocal bad. It’s bad when it’s non-consensual, it’s bad when it’s abusive—but the same is true of many other things. Context matters. Consent matters.

possessiveness2
Kitten is especially possessive of fingers, it seems.

And “possessiveness” also doesn’t necessarily imply totality. It is quite possible to feel very possessive of an aspect of a person—their ring finger, their Saturday mornings, a certain sex act—without thinking you’re entitled to all of the person.

At the same time, (back to me), I don’t tend to feel much jealousy; I’m not really wired that way. I’m very happy to share, enough so that past partners have sometimes experienced it as distressing, like I should be more upset at their interest in people other than me. I dunno… to me other people’s attractiveness to my partner(s) is not really about me, and does not reflect on me or my worth; it’s as legit as a career or a creative pursuit. So it doesn’t make me feel bad. If it leads to unkind or inconsiderate behaviour, sure, but the same would be true if that behaviour occurred without there being another person in the picture. Basically, I’m way more concerned with how a partner treats me than with all the other things or people they might want to do with or without me.

As well, I’ve suffered a great deal under past partners’ behaviours which I would have called “jealous” but which match up a great deal with what this writer calls “possessive.” Or maybe it was possessiveness, but that’s just what it looks like when someone’s sense of ownership is not consensual? In any case, how do you tell the difference between the negative sense of “possessive” and poorly managed jealousy? It starts to sound awfully like a semantics game. I’m much more interested in behaviours, harms, possible solutions, than in labeling one thing unequivocally bad and another normal and good and manageable.

Fabello writes:

So, HOW do you handle jealousy in polyamory? We talk. A lot. About the same things over and over again sometimes. We have conversations with all partners involved. We explore compromises so that everyone’s needs are met. We take responsibility for our own feelings.

Which is great, of course. But is jealousy really as controllable as Fabello seems to think? In my experience, for some folks it is so deeply hardwired that no matter what emotional work they do, it keeps happening. You can’t just render it abstract or make it disappear because it’s not logical. As person eternally drawn to optimism about human beings’ ability to change, I have been forced to admit that sometimes it is just not gonna happen. Or by the time it does, my trust would be so profoundly broken that it wouldn’t matter.

possessiveness3
Not sure if she’s laying claim to my thumb, my attention or the book, here.

All this to say, I think in discussions of jealousy/possessiveness/whatever you wanna call it, we need to focus on people’s sense of entitlement. Who has it? To what or who? Why? Is it welcome or not? If not, how does a person learn to let it go? If yes, what are its limits? How do we manage the pain of being told we are not entitled to X? How do we manage the responsibility of being told we are? What if we don’t want to be entitled to X?

For some of us, we have the capacity to find flexibility here—to let go or claim as appropriate. For others, or in some contexts, we might not be able to get there. This is when a consent framework becomes most urgent. Because unmanaged disagreements about entitlements, I think, can cause terrible pain and harm. If Person A can’t be happy without being entitled to Aspect X and Person B can’t be happy giving Person A any entitlement over Aspect X, this may be a fundamental incompatibility. The lengths to which Person A is willing to go to try and claim that entitlement anyway may go from relatively benign to murderous, but if it’s clearly discussed and the answer is a firm “no,” all of them cross the line of consent.

On the far end of this spectrum, the validity of any apparent consent is questionable, because it’s likely heavily coerced. But great harm can be done well before we get to that point. And we (the collective we) need to get better at sussing out our “entitlement compatibility” in order to prevent those harms. I believe this is true WAY outside D/s and M/s relationships, just to be clear.

I’m all for people doing the management work around feelings of jealousy/possessiveness/whatever. I have great hope for humanity here. But there’s a vast spectrum in which all the management in the world won’t change someone’s feeling of entitlement. Even when it causes them great pain to have it denied, they may not simply be able to stop feeling or wanting it. And this may be true even if they never cross a behaviour line! One’s own inner feelings are, unfortunately, not a matter of consent. (Wouldn’t that be nice.)

I don’t have brilliant solutions here. Just a reflection that we do not gain insight if we oversimplify this question through binary framing. We need to be having complicated conversations about our own baseline entitlement desires and how they intersect with others’ consent.

On which note, thanks for reading tonight’s random eruption of thinkythink. You may now remove your tuques. 😉 Or read the first entry here if you’re not from Quebec.

 


6 thoughts on “jealousy is to possessiveness as erotica is to porn?

  1. Thank you for these insightful thoughts.

    I think all the emotions have their place, including jealousy. Keeping a difficult emotion secret or pretending it doesn’t exist is a recipe for disaster. But “talking about” an emotion, as a process to disarm the difficult feeling, can also lead to trouble, because it presupposes that the emotion should be disarmed. That’s not very respectful tbh.

    One thing I have found helpful is to ask myself what the purpose of the emotion is. Why is it there? What truth would we be missing if we hadn’t felt it? What part of us is the emotion protecting or developing? Is it a part of us that we really wish to protect or develop?

    Or if we say we never feel an emotion, what part of us might be missing such that that part never needs protection or development? Or what might we not be noticing about ourselves or our world, that people who do feel that emotion would naturally understand and experience?

    1. Thank you, and agreed. All emotions tell us things we need to know. I often say emotions are data. Discount them at your own risk.

  2. Hi! I think the conflation of jealousy with possessiveness simply means that the speaker tends to experience their jealousy as possessiveness. But that is far from the only way to experience jealousy. Mine tends to present itself as competitiveness (“why would you want *that* when you have *this*?”). Other folks’ jealousy may present as insecurity (“if you love them, you’ll leave me”) or inadequacy (“why am I not enough for you?”) or grief (“we had something special together and now it’s gone”) or any other difficult emotion. In fact, I think the only true meaning of the word “jealousy” is “any difficult emotion that we try to fix by changing someone else’s behavior.”

    1. Agreed, and thank you for all those useful counter-examples!

      However, I think that definition is maybe a little too broad. For instance, abusive behaviours will of course cause difficult emotions to arise, but they also very much are behaviours that need to change. But it doesn’t need to get all the way to abuse to be valid. Like if I’m annoyed because my partner keeps leaving dirty dishes on the counter, it’s reasonable to ask them to change that behaviour. Or if my partner feels sad when I forget to kiss them goodnight, it’s a legit request that I remember to do that. And so forth.

      I think the trick is in figuring out where the line is, in each instance, between asking someone else to change so that you don’t have to do your own healing or emotional work versus asking them to change because what they’re doing is actively harmful (in the broadest sense). I think it’s a discernment job, and not always an easy one. And it depends a lot on what any two (or more) people think is reasonable. Like I’ve been asked to change behaviours that wouldn’t have occurred to me were unreasonable, but weren’t hard to change (want my shoes in the hall and not in the bedroom? sure, no problem). And I’ve also been asked to change in ways that I’m sure felt like reasonable asks to the person asking, but to me were out of the question (if you yell at me, I will walk out of the conversation even though I know you don’t like it, because that’s a hard limit for me even if to you it feels like a comfortable or normal way to do conflict).

  3. Jealousy is fear based. It is not unusual in humans, as most of what we do is fear based.
    However, in a polyamorous mindset, a person strives to overcome his/her base responses in order to grow himself/herself. If we allow jealousy to be our normal norm, how can we ever attain the enlightenment that we seek thru poly?
    Look at your feelings, and the beliefs that underpin them, and get your own life. If you are jealous of another’s happiness, maybe you want to take up a hobby by which you enrich yourself.

    Jealousy is dumb and non-productive on all fronts.

    Says I,
    Dandelion in KY

  4. I agree with you wholeheartedly about all these things. They align with my thoughts or I liked the way you worded/think about the issues. One thing you didn’t bring up much that I’ve felt is a major part of “jealousy” (negative sort….inner and outer) is that it’s mainly about self esteem. I find that those with a more solid sense of self and a more positive self worth don’t have any or minor issues with “jealousy”. Conversely, those like me with green monster issues, are helped with them by doing self care and inner work. I’d also like to bring to your attention some of the studies that have been done on how we get physically addicted to people. It can lead us to obsession and the negative fallouts from that.

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