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How Jealousy Affects Open Relationships


How Jealousy Affects Open Relationships

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Jealousy. It’s the one topic that comes up every time anybody has ever tried to talk about open relationships. I’m not even exaggerating: Every. Time. And it’s not without good reason – jealousy is an issue that inevitably develops in any relationship, polyamorous or monogamous. After all, the definition of jealousy – the fear of losing something or somebody that we love – is an obvious (and healthy!) consequence of loving in the first place. The difference is that while jealousy in monogamous relationships is treated as an obstacle that can be overcome, many people view jealousy in polyamorous arrangements as a fatal flaw that will ultimately doom the relationship.

While it’s immediately obvious to poly folk that this is an unfair double standard, there’s an unfortunate (though understandable) tendency for them to respond by pretending that jealousy doesn’t exist in their relationships at all. This can lead to serious neglect of the emotional needs and concerns of those involved, and can even be downright emotionally abusive. I’ve seen a relationship where one person would use the “we don’t get jealous” excuse as a reason to pressure their partners into accepting dishonest and manipulative behavior without complaint. I’ve seen another where one person’s claim that he himself didn’t get jealous led him to engage in all kinds of possessive behavior… when confronted about it, he’d angrily claim that he wasn’t being jealous, just “showing concern” for his partners.

In order to avoid these kinds of situations (which are awkward at best, a total nightmare at worst), it’s best to acknowledge a few things about jealousy and the unique obstacles it poses to those of us who choose an ethical non-monogamous lifestyle:

1. Jealousy is an emotion like any other.

Which is to say that it can be perfectly valid while also being completely irrational. Sometimes we get angry, sad, or even happy when there’s no “legitimate” reason to feel that way, and that’s okay: we’re human beings, filled with goo and hormones and inner 5-year-olds. Our feelings don’t have to make sense in order for them to be valid.

But what that also means is that we can control it like any other emotion. As much as the more free-spirited among us would like to think that we should always express our emotions without inhibition, the pragmatic reality is that we all work hard every day to keep various emotions in check… and we’re generally better people for it.

When I get angry with somebody, for example, I know it probably won’t end well if I express it in that moment. Sure, that anger probably is a sign that there’s something important that I should bring up with the person I’m angry at, but I’ll save it for another time when I’m not blinded by rage. Given time to cool down, I can give myself time to think more clearly about why I was angry and about what can be done about it. Oftentimes I find myself admitting that my anger was misplaced or came from a misunderstanding, in which case I’m very glad I kept it in check!

Jealousy is the same way. But that’s not how jealousy is usually understood by most people. On the contrary…

2. Mainstream culture tells us that jealousy is overwhelming and righteous.

It’s one thing to acknowledge jealousy as a normal, healthy emotion like any other. It’s another thing entirely to treat it as some kind of overwhelming force that cannot be denied. Yet that’s exactly what mainstream culture teaches us about jealousy:

The pure righteousness of jealousy is something that is celebrated in the very roots of our culture: the God of the Bible tells us on no uncertain terms that He is a “jealous” God. A God who is so offended by His worshippers cheating on Him with other faiths that He makes the very first Commandment about not having any other Gods before Him – well before any mention is made of stuff like murder or theft. Some of Yahweh’s worst killing sprees in the Old Testament happen after he catches His Chosen People with some hussy god or golden calf or whatever. Afterwards, when He’s had a chance to calm down, He often goes on to express regret, but still making it abundantly clear that the cheating Israelites are the ones who are fundamentally at fault.

Think about it: if jealousy is such a powerful emotion that it makes even God lose His shit, then who are we mere mortals to question it?

The problem is that this excuses brutal murders as “crimes of passion,” “temporary insanity,” or even “justifiable homicide.” That’s not hyperbole, either – jealousy is frequently cited as an excuse for somebody murdering their partner, and its one that juries all too often accept as valid, to the point that a staggering number of murders have been dismissed entirely on the grounds of jealousy. At best, this sends a message that jealousy is powerful enough to make us do stupid things without fear of consequences. At worst, this is saying that violent acts in the name of jealousy are morally correct. What this means is that we treat jealousy almost like it’s some sort of possession by a greater power, one that is both feral and righteous. It’s beyond our control, but that’s not because we’re too weak to do anything about it – it’s beyond our control because it’s right.

Which means that it’s all too easy for those of us in the poly community to think that jealousy is trying to tell us the truth: that monogamy is the only right form of relationship and that we’ve been living a delusional, hippie-dippy naïve lifestyle. Jealousy is bringing us crashing down into “reality”… where monogamy is the only sane option. Which leads us to the next point….

3. Jealousy can amplify doubts about your lifestyle choice

Let’s face it: polyamory goes against a lot of the “common sense” of our culture, and that makes us all the more likely to question it in moments of stress. No matter how much we may feel like we’re radical individuals who are above the “groupthink”of social norms, we’re still fundamentally social animals (why on earth would we surround ourselves with multiple partners otherwise?). And that means we care about what other people think, even when that thinking goes against who we are and the life choices that we’ve made.

If we fail to recognize that, we make it all the easier for that cultural common sense to rear its (seemingly) sensible head at every opportunity it gets… and jealousy is by far the most consistent – and powerful – opportunity. Friends and family who don’t approve of our lifestyle often see expressions of jealousy within our relationships as a golden moment to say, “Ah-HAH! Told you so!” And if our jealousy is not being dealt with in a healthy fashion, we’re all the more likely to listen and internalize the idea that our relationships are doomed from the start.

This is made all the more complicated by the fact that…

4. Jealousy can be an honest-to-goodness sign that your relationship isn’t working.

I’m not somebody who buys into the idea that polyamory is an inherently “superior” relationship structure to monogamy. It makes much more sense to see polyamory as a relationship alternative that has its own unique advantages and disadvantages, and that those unique dynamics make such relationships better suited for some people than monogamy.

But I’ll say it right now: polyamorous relationships are not inherently more “right” or resilient than monogamous relationships. If anything, they require a lot more work to maintain, and if one or more parties starts to slack off in that department, even the happiest poly triads and moresomes can deteriorate rapidly. As the situation deteriorates, it’s often only a matter of time before somebody in the relationship starts looking for greener pastures and begins to emotionally disengage from their partner(s). So it’s more than understandable that the other parties in such a relationship might start to feel jealous – after all, they actually are in danger of losing somebody that they love!

Finally, while it’s possible that jealous feelings are a sign that this particular relationship is in danger, it can indeed be the case that…

5. Jealousy can be an honest-to-goodness sign that an open relationship isn’t right for you or for your partner(s).

Like I said earlier, I don’t believe that polyamory is inherently superior to monogamy. It works better for some people, worse for others. The unfortunate truth is that folks who are better off being poly can easily fall in love with folks who are better off being monogamous, and vice versa.

This issue comes up particularly often in relationships that have been monogamous for some time until one of the people finds out about open relationships and wants to give it a shot. While I’ve known many formerly monogamous couples who made the transition happily and (relatively) smoothly (yes, even some where one of the partners was initially much less enthusiastic than the other), I’ve known plenty of others where the one person was clearly dragged into this new lifestyle against their wishes. For this person, “feeling jealous” means a lot more than just fear of losing their partner – it’s a way of summing up every negative feeling they have about a relationship structure that just doesn’t work for them.

In such a situation, it really does come down to an awful truth: either the relationship must end, or one of the parties involved will have to remain in a relationship dynamic that they loathe in order to remain with the person that they love. And while my own preferences lean very strongly towards ending such a relationship, it’s not my place to judge somebody who feels that enduring for the sake of a loved one is a worthwhile trade-off.

So that’s the bad news. Never fear, however: there is good news to balance it out.

6. If polyamory is right for you and right for your partner(s), and your relationships are otherwise happy and healthy, then there are practical things you can do to live with jealousy without it harming your relationships.

The key here is to return to the first point in this article: jealousy is an emotion like any other. This means the following:
  • It’s normal and healthy.
    • Therefore, it’s NOT normal and healthy to guilt trip a partner for feeling jealous.
  • It’s a way of expressing our fears that we may lose something (or someone) that we care deeply about.T
    • Therefore, the best way to address a partner’s jealousy is to make sure they know they aren’t in danger of losing us.
  • Once we’ve expressed our fears, we must be open to working through them.
    • Therefore, while we have an obligation to treat jealous feelings as serious and valid, we are equally obliged to talk through those feelings with the eventual goal of coming to terms with them. While we are responsible for helping ease each others’ insecurities, it is unfair to expect anybody to be able to banish another’s jealousy entirely.

Even though jealousy is often a complicated emotion, the way to deal with it is fairly straightforward: Talk it through. Don’t guilt trip. Be supportive. Be forgiving. And above all… be loving.

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About the Author


PolyRick has contributed 8 sexy blogs.

Rick Broider is a popular Open Life Coach specializing in personal growth and healthy sexuality. Rick has many years of experience working with ethically non-monogamous lifestyles (polyamorous, swinger, etc.), and unconventional relationship structures as well as with individuals and couples representing many sexualities. He also has a long history supporting anyone who is in or exploring Open/Kinky/BDSM relationships and is an incredible resource for couples looking to strengthen their primary bond while opening their relationship to new possibilities.

In addition to his success as an O.P.E.N. Relationship Workshop Leader and Educator, you can find Rick presenting at events from Maryland (D.O. Fusion) to Jamaica (KS Week 2016 / 2017). Rick is the former host of the Tampa Bay Area Munch, a monthly event that has provided resources and support for those who are kink-curious in the Tampa Area for over 15 years.

Rick is dedicated to perpetuating healthy and positive messages about sexuality, and offers advice to his clients and the public about issues such as monogamy, open relationships, long term relationship health, and self-compassion. He writes about these and many other sexual/relationship topics on several online blog sites.

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1 comment on "How Jealousy Affects Open Relationships"

  • a

    Great post. And, I'd add that open-hearted conversations about jealousy can be opportunities for deepening intimacy with your partner. I think a lot of jealousy has "fear" as a major ingredient, and it can be a really powerful experience to be able to say, and hear, "I'm feeling afraid." I think just to be in that space, to express & hold "fear" is really huge.

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