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What Polyamory Teaches Us About Jealousy

Jealousy is probable and survivable, and we can learn how to manage it ourselves.

teh dreamers

As Western culture has shifted perspectives on open relationships, perhaps it can also learn how to understand and manage jealousy better.

In the twenty years since we published the first edition of our book The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships, and Other Freedoms in Sex and Love, the word “polyamory” has evolved from a scrap of niche jargon to a headline on the cover of Newsweek; one in five Americans reports having participated in an open relationship; consensual non-monogamy has been positively portrayed in many television shows and movies.

Twenty years ago, it was common to hear polyamorous folks accusing each other of jealousy as if it were a deadly sin ­– whereas today, a “jelly moment,” or attack of jealousy, may be understood as inevitable and even as a potential source of personal growth.

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"Surmounting jealousy is made more difficult by a culture that treats it as an overwhelming emotion, possibly the worst emotion a human can have." 

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Surmounting jealousy is, however, made more difficult by a culture that treats it as an overwhelming emotion, possibly the worst emotion a human can have. (It is within our lifetimes that some states classified “cheating,” and thus jealousy, as justification for killing a spouse.) If you believe your jealousy is unsurvivable, learning to survive it can be impossible. However, our experience as polyamorists is that jealousy is like any other challenging emotion such as grief, anger, sadness or fear: it is not pleasant or fun, but it is manageable, and the tools for managing it can be learned.

It is for this reason that we believe the world of polyamory, open relationships, and other forms of consensual nonmonogamy has a great deal to teach the world of conventional relationships about this important topic. The last time we looked, monogamous people were not impervious to jealousy. So what’s different about how polyamorists approach this common and difficult emotion?

To answer that question, let’s start by defining our terms. “Jealousy” is not a monolithic experience: it may mean anything from territorial rage to profound grief to paralysing insecurity, with intensities ranging from barely-there to nearly overwhelming. This fluidity can make jealousy very difficult to tease apart, as one person’s feelings may be entirely different from another’s. In fact, the only quality that all experiences of jealousy have in common is that they are projected onto someone else, which may mean that the sufferer’s first instinct is to try to resolve the emotion by changing another person’s behavior.

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"Jealousy is not a monolithic experience: it may mean anything from territorial rage to profound grief to paralysing insecurity, with intensities ranging from barely-there to nearly overwhelming." 

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And that’s where polyamorists have something to teach the rest of the world about jealousy. Because we start from an assumption that we do not wish to control our partners’ behaviors, we polyfolk must take on the task of managing our own jealousy. This is not to say that we never ask our partners to change anything: we are only human, and as humans we sometimes need the help of our beloveds to conquer a challenge. But, unlike monogamists, we tend to approach jealousy first as a personal problem and, only if that fails, by asking for a change. Along our jealousy journeys, most of us learn that asking our partners to change their behaviors does not actually work very well, because it robs us of our chance to understand, tackle and heal the underlying personal issues that drive the jealousy in the first place. Polyamorists, perforce, become expert in self-soothing during a spasm of jealousy, and thus also develop a skill set that can stand us in good stead during other experiences of difficult emotions.

There is science behind this approach. As we wrote in the third edition of The Ethical Slut:

New research into brain functioning has given us a lot of very useful information about how triggering works on the physiological level. We have an organ called the amygdala that does the job of remembering situations associated with strong emotions, both pleasurable and terrifying, and setting us into action. The most familiar form of this phenomenon is its greatest extreme, the flashbacks experienced by abuse survivors and combat veterans.

The amygdala has a direct line to the pituitary gland and can set off our emergency response systems before our intellects can catch up. Adrenaline pours into our bloodstream, norepinephrine floods our synapses, our cells release all their sugars into our veins to give us energy to fight or to run away from tigers. Our entire system gets hijacked by chemical reactions, and everything instantly feels terribly, terribly urgent…

But two things happen during this physiological stress response that we can learn to use. The first is that if we can occupy ourselves for 15 or 20 minutes without restimulating the stress reflex, our physiology will return to normal and we will return to sanity…. Better yet, every time we succeed in spending that 15 minutes taking care of ourselves in the kindest way we can muster, we actually physically heal our amygdalas – by growing more integrating fibers that deliver soothing neurotransmitters – and thus we increase our capacity to soothe ourselves in a crisis every time we manage it.

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"If we pretend that we are not feeling jealous, blame our partner for our feelings, or chide ourselves for being inadequate or bad, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to practice this important self-care." 

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If we pretend that we are not feeling jealous, blame our partner for our feelings, and/or chide ourselves for being inadequate or bad – all very tempting strategies when our emotions rise up to overwhelm us – we rob ourselves of the opportunity to practice this important self-care, and thus leave ourselves with no tools the next time we feel jealous (or sad, or angry, or any of the other emotions that arise in the course of even the most harmonious relationship).

Our own experience, and that of our many polyamorous friends, partners, students and clients, is that this mindful approach to jealousy makes each subsequent “jelly moment” a bit less intense and overwhelming, so that jealousy moves from an overwhelming thunderstorm of rage, guilt, insecurity or competitiveness to a relatively mild and survivable rainshower.

Whether or not you feel an interest in approaching alternatives to long-term monogamy, you may find that “being jealous like a polyamorist” offers a toolkit that will stand you in good stead in your romantic life as well as your life as a whole.


Image Credit: The Dreamers (Recorded Picture Company, 2003).

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