Jealousy impacts all of us at some time. How can we deal with the green-eyed monster in a way that empowers us and supports our relationship choices?
The green-eyed monster
If you’re breathing then you’ve probably experienced jealousy in some form during your life. We’re all familiar with the stereotypical romantic jealousy; rom-coms wouldn’t exist without it. But the green-eyed monster can be triggered by more than just a potential romantic rival. Any time someone else appears to be getting what we think we need for our security or happiness, jealousy may pop up. It’s common for a parent to be jealous of their co-parent’s relationship with a child, for example, or one work colleague to be jealous of another. One of my strongest bouts of jealousy occurred when an interstate partner came to town for a conference and didn’t make extra time for me. I found myself jealous of the conference!
Romantic/sexual jealousy seems to carry a particular sting for many of us
Thinking about or watching the person we adore flirting with someone else can for some of us generate an overwhelming ball of pain. I have often heard people say of polyamory or multiple relationships, “I couldn’t do that – I get jealous”. It’s as though jealousy is a trait that is part of someone in the same way that olive skin or brown eyes are; we imply that it’s something that can’t be changed and has to be avoided.
People in multiple relationships may have more reason to learn to deal with jealousy than people in monogamous relationships. However monogamy doesn’t save you from jealousy, as most monogamous people know. Learning to manage it is a key skill for any intimate relationship.
Owning my jealousy
My first step in managing my jealousy is to start by owning it. It’s mine and no-one else’s to deal with. Traditionally jealousy has been seen as ‘caused’ by someone else’s behaviour, and the solution is for that person to change their behaviour. However this approach leaves us at the mercy of someone else. It can fuel paranoia rather than generating trust. For me it has been far more empowering to acknowledge my feelings as my responsibility to deal with – and that I have the power to do so.
Jealousy can be complex and threatening. It can crop up unexpectedly for anyone. For people who don’t normally experience it, suddenly finding yourself overwhelmed with consuming anxiety can be confusing and demoralising. I’ve known people who thought they never got jealous until over a decade into their non-monogamous life. Polyamorous people in particular can often feel ashamed of jealousy, as though it’s immature or ‘bad poly’ to feel it at all. Then there are people who try to trigger jealousy in others as a proof of love.
I find it helpful to see my jealousy as trying to communicate something. Personally I find that trying to ignore, overcome, or squash my feelings just increases my anxiety around them, compounding the problem. I find it more useful to thank my feelings for trying to keep me safe, and to ask myself honestly what I’m afraid of.
Break it down
The next step is to break the feelings down into component strands. The bigger the feeling, the more likely it is that more than one fear is being triggered.
What we call jealousy can be made up of many smaller sub-threads. In the book Unmasking The Green-Eyed Monster, Kathy Labriola states, “Jealousy can manifest as anger, fear, hurt, betrayal, anxiety, agitation, sadness, paranoia, depression, loneliness, envy, coveting, feeling powerless, feeling inadequate, feeling excluded.” And there are others.
A common fear is of loss is that I will lose a relationship I value deeply. Another is that someone will steal my partner away from me and I won’t be able to prevent it. I may have a bunch of unmet needs I wasn’t aware of. I may not know what to do with myself when my partner is away, or I may be simply envious of the fun they’re having when I’m at home with the kids. There can also be genuine grief over change in a relationship structure, loss, or failure of the fairytale monogamous ideal, the requirement to become more independent, or less time with my partner as they spend more time elsewhere. There’s what I think of as classic possessive jealousy – “You’re mine and no-one else can have you.”
These things hurt. They do. But they hurt far more when I’m avoiding them than when I’m facing them.
The need underneath
I find that when I face my feelings and can break them into their component parts, they appear far more manageable. Naming the underlying need often reduces the intensity of the feelings and points to a way forward. Do I have low self-esteem? Maybe I can invite my partner to tell me what they love about me, or I might need to look myself in the mirror and remind myself why I’m awesome. Do I feel like my partner’s having more fun than me? Perhaps I can schedule in more ‘me’ time for things my partner doesn’t like sharing with me, or catching up with my own friends.
Am I grieving that I’m not enough for my partner? I can remind myself that no-one can ever meet another person’s entire needs; it’s exhausting trying to, and it’s OK not to. Am I afraid that someone else will steal my partner, or worried they’ll leave? That’s a fear I need to share with my partner, and check that they still value our relationship. Do I struggle to trust my partner’s commitment to me? I may need to listen to my feelings, explore what makes me think that, and talk it through with my partner.
In my earlier example with my interstate partner, I realised I wasn’t getting enough time with them. I was able to verbalise it, and feel heard, and my jealous feelings melted. Sometimes it’s that simple; communicating the feelings and needs is enough.
What I primarily need is to feel heard
Sometimes it’s significantly more challenging. A common difficult experience is feeling triggered into crushing pain and near-panic at the thought of a partner connecting with another person. I have heard people describe how utterly impossible it feels to ‘get over’ that image.
My longest-term partner Pete really struggled with jealousy early on in our polyamory. It almost broke us up. For him it was a life-sucking, whole-body-and-soul anguish. For me it felt like he was controlling, unfair, unreasonable, and angry a lot of the time.
To begin with, I was not supportive of Pete when he was experiencing jealousy.
I expected him to grow up and get over it
This did not help our situation at all; in fact it fuelled the jealousy because it seemed to confirm to him that I didn’t really care about him. It helped him much more when I started to express compassion and understanding of his pain. He felt heard and accepted, it supported my assertion that I loved him and wasn’t leaving, and it helped rebuild our trust. The combination of my learning empathy, and his accepting responsibility for his feelings, was the key for us. These days jealousy almost never pops up for either of us, in part because we have communicated all our difficult feelings over the years and we know that we love each other and can work through anything.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
Sometimes I’ve been afraid that I’m losing a relationship, and it has just taken communication to re-establish the trust. Sometimes I’ve been afraid that I’m losing a relationship and I turn out to be right. Often the feelings of jealousy are identical; I can’t tell from my feelings alone what’s going on. Whatever the case, I usually need to listen to and understand my feelings and then communicate them and find out where my partner stands. I have found that a key underlying element that triggers jealousy is not knowing exactly where I stand with the relevant partner. I find I usually don’t experience jealousy in relationships I’m sure of.
There are plenty of resources to assist with working through jealousy
It’s really worth the work. Jealousy can be exhausting and painful, and freedom from it can be empowering.
There’s a delightful experience known in ethical non-monogamy which is the opposite of jealousy, and it’s called ‘compersion’. Wiktionary defines it as, “The feeling of joy associated with seeing a loved one love another.” It’s a glorious reward for working through my insecurities: being able to watch a beloved loving someone else, and genuinely feeling only delight. It may have taken some work, but I am happy that having done that work, these days I experience far more delicious compersion than jealousy.
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