Why, darling, what green eyes you have! Five tips for supporting a partner who is feeling jealous.

Why, darling, what green eyes you have! Five tips for supporting a partner who is feeling jealous.

By on January 5, 2018

One of the most common pieces of advice you’ll hear from folks in polyamorous communities is this: A key to successful polyamorous relationships is not “never being jealous,” but rather owning your emotions, taking responsibility for them, and being committed to working through them. We spend a lot of time, and rightly so, talking about emotional maturity, clear communication skills, and constructively managing the way we handle tough emotions so they don’t become toxic to our partnerships. Of all the emotions that we must learn to experience in a constructive way, jealousy seems to present some of the biggest and most interesting challenges.

There are a ton of great resources out there for learning to tame our own green-eyed-monsters, but what do we do when one of our partners is experiencing jealousy? Sure, it’s important for your partners to be doing their own emotional work to get through the rough patches, but, odds are, you love this person and want to support them. How can we support our partners as they work through messy emotions in ways that are healthy and constructive for us and our relationships?

Here are five tips for supporting a jealous partner.

One: Don’t make promises you can’t keep (and don’t apologize for wrongs that haven’t been committed).

It can be very tempting to do or say ANYTHING to get your partner feeling better (or assuage feelings of guilt you might be having when your partner is sad). If your partner is feeling jealous because you’re spending time with someone new, it can seem like an easy fix to start making promises that aren’t ethical, or that you have no intention of keeping.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Promising to spend less time with Partner A because Partner B is having a hard time.
    This is not particularly fair to any of you, and it’s only a very temporary fix. Eventually, you and Partner A may want the opportunity to be a bigger part of each other’s lives. Then you’ll be right back where you started.
  • Promising not to fall “more” in love with Partner B to spare another Partner C’s feelings.
    Good luck with that. Seriously, though, how can you expect to control what your heart does?
  • Promising to only ever date people who want to date you both.
    This is complicated for another host of reasons. Please see this piece on Unicorn Hunting for more discussion of this.
  • Promising to show Partner C all the messages Partner A sends you so they never feel left out.
    This is not only a cumbersome task that will promote, rather than inhibit, insecurity, it is also a huge violation of Partner A’s privacy.

Why won’t these kinds of things work? Firstly, they aren’t very ethical to the “other” partner. If you’re making rules or promises about your relationship with another person and they aren’t part of the negotiation process, you’ve stripped them of their agency and autonomy. Secondly, these promises will do more harm than good in the long term. This kind of thing fails to get at the real problem: whatever is Partner B is actually feeling. Instead of creating a compassionate space for Partner B to work through their emotions, you’ve instead put an unsustainable Band-Aid over an emotional bullet wound.

This brings us to….

Two: Talk about what’s actually going on.

One piece of wisdom that I share with my clients (which has also been very successful in my own relationships) is to remove the word jealousy from your vocabulary. Inevitably, when we say we are feeling jealous, what we are actually feeling is something else entirely – or, maybe something more specific. If you take the word jealousy off the table it forces you to think and talk about what’s really going on so you can be specific, clear, and direct.

Perhaps what you are feeling is a Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). Maybe your new metamour is really good at something you enjoy and you’re feeling insecure. Maybe your partner is so caught up in New Relationship Energy that they’ve been breaking commitments or being less attentive with you. Simply saying “I feel jealous” doesn’t give you or your partner enough information to do anything about those feelings. Taking time to identify what’s really going on for you is a valuable skill to practice and it is the only way you’ll be able to work through it and find a solution.

Now that you have this skill, you can put this into practice when your partners come to you with their own feelings of jealousy. Remember, emotions can make it very difficult to speak calmly or gather our thoughts. If your partner is confronting you with their jealousy, remember that they love you and try responding to them with compassion.

Jealousy is really shitty feeling. I’m sorry you’re hurting and I appreciate your honesty, I know it must be really hard to talk about this. Can we talk about where that jealousy is coming from? … If you had to explain it me, and you couldn’t use the word “jealous,” what would you say you’re feeling?

This kind of discussion is not only going to help you diffuse your partner’s hurt feelings, it carries the added bonus of making your partner feel validated and heard. For this to be successful you have to work hard at your active listening skills. Remember the first point and listen to how they’re feeling without making promises that are unreasonable, unrealistic, or unethical. Don’t rush to apologize or start jumping into “fixer” mode. Just listen. Repeat back what they’ve said to you in your own language to make sure you understand what them clearly. Be patient. Stay calm. If you need to take a break and come back to the table later with a clear head, do that.

Three: Practice compassion and reassurance.

“Compassionate” and “Nice” are two entirely different things. In Buddhist philosophy, the practice of compassion is about doing the right thing in the right moment. Doing all of your partner’s emotional work for them, making wild promises, or becoming their punching bag might make them stop crying and it might even make you seem “nice,” but it’s not compassionate. If you and your partner are committed to ethical non-monogamy then the compassionate response considers what is right for everyone involved. It is not healthy or fair (or compassionate) for you to, for example, break up with your new girlfriend because your wife is feeling hurt. After all, your new girlfriend is not a video game you can return to Game Stop, she’s a human being with thoughts and needs. If you’re not ready to respect the agency and autonomy (and wants and needs) of your new partners, then you’re not ready for ethical non-monogamy.

What would be compassionate instead? Asking your wife why she feels hurt (see point two).

  • Is she concerned that she’ll lose you?
    This is an excellent time to talk about your love languages and how you can best be reassuring about your love and commitment to her.
  • Is she concerned about risks you’re taking by sleeping with new people?
    Negotiate your boundaries around fluid bonding, STI testing, and safer sex barriers (for more specific guidance on this, consider hiring a sex coach).
  • Is she feeling left out?
    This could be a number of things. Maybe you’ve been together for a while and you’ve settled into a more mundane day-to-day routine. Now she’s watching your new girlfriend go out on lots of dates with you, where you get all dressed up and come home glowing. If that’s the case, try scheduling regular date nights with your wife to help reassure her that the magic is still very much alive. Maybe she wants to meet this awesome new person you’ve told her so much about so she can share your joy with you. If so, talk to them both about a time you can all connect for coffee, or maybe even meet up with a group of friends to take some pressure off the situation.
  • Is she feeling deceived or betrayed?
    Sometimes, even with our best intentions, we act in ways that make our partners feel like we aren’t be very forthcoming. We spare them important details because we don’t want to make them sad (this is “nice” but not “compassionate”), or we are “waiting for the right time” to tell them something only to realize that time has long passed. Sometimes, especially when we are new to polyamory, telling existing partners about new partners can be scary. If your wife found out about your girlfriend after you’d been seeing her for a while, or in a way that wasn’t very straightforward, she might feel like you deceived her (because, you kinda did, babe). If you told your wife that you and your girlfriend aren’t sleeping together and later she finds out that you are, she’s probably going to feel cheated or betrayed. Doing the “nice” thing by omitting information or avoiding conversations to spare her feelings is likely to result in behavior this unethical, messy, and hurtful. Better to be compassionate, honest, and forthcoming; those are challenging conversations but much easier than cleaning up the pieces after someone feels lied to.If this happens, own it. Listen to your partner (see above) and, after they know you’ve heard what they have to say, apologize with sincerity. Then collaborate with her on a plan to restore the trust that has been damaged.

Four: Be patient.

None of us is Spock. Emotions (even messy ones) are an unavoidable part of life and intimate relationships. There’s no such thing as a bad or good emotion. They just… are. Your partner can’t help that they’re feeling this way, but they can help what actions they take in the midst of their feelings. You may will need to have conversations like this a lot (Spoiler: Polyamory is, like, 80% talking about each other’s feelings). As long as your partner remains committed to doing the work they need to do to be their best self, even in the midst of hard emotions, I encourage you to be patient with them – this will also promote an environment where they are, in turn, patient with you. Hear their heart without passing judgement and remember that this is someone who cares about you and desires to have a relationship with you. This does not mean you need to be a doormat for physical or emotional abuse at the hands of a partner who is unwilling to control their behavior, or who lets their emotions get the best of them. If you feel that what you are enduring is manipulative, say so (compassion is for you as well as for your loved ones). If what’s happening becomes excessive or abusive, get help from a professional or consider walking away – you are not obligated to remain in any relationship ever, let alone one where abuse exists.

Five: Use your lifelines.

As much as we want to be, we aren’t always going to be the best source of support for our loved ones. Maybe it just tears you up to know that your partner is home crying while you’re on a date. Your partner’s sadness is not necessarily an indication that you’re doing anything wrong; it could just be part of the journey they’re on. Sadness is a valid emotion and it’s okay to feel it. It’s even ok to hold your partner while they cry it out. But if you find that you’re checking your phone every five minutes while you’re on your date, or that you’re so weighed down with unnecessary guilt that it’s becoming toxic to you and others around you, phone a friend. Or, rather, encourage your partner to.

If you’re polyamorous, then odds are you don’t expect to meet every one of your partners’ needs. Working through jealousy is no different. Create a community of loved ones and chosen family, then support each other. Having a community of people who understand and support you is going to be a huge asset to all of you as you move through your polyamorous journey. Find the right people who will love and encourage you (this is not the time to call your Aunt Sally who thinks this is just a phase and you haven’t met the right man yet). If you can’t find those people in your city or town, try an online community like the one here at FindPoly.com or on a social media message board. Or, consider hiring a sex and relationship coach, counselor, or therapist who can provide you with tools for working through these things. Also use resources like books and worksheets (I recommend More than Two by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert or The Jealousy Survival Guide by Kitty Chambliss as great starting points) to help you actively take steps to move through your tough emotions.

Jealousy is tough, but you and your partner are tougher. You’re on an amazing and rewarding journey. It is scary, but most of us will agree that it is totally worth it. And, if you have any questions about any of this, or need any support, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me directly.

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About Author

author

Professor Sex, aka Angel Kalafatis (they/them; she/her) is a queer, kinky, polyamorous, sex-positive educator, research scientist, academic, and activist. They are currently an MSPS (Master of Science in Psychological Science) graduate student and sexologist at the University of North Florida. Angel is deeply passionate about sex-positive, inclusive, medically accurate, scientifically informed, pleasure based sex education. Angel is a certified yoga instructor, avid coffee drinker, and uber-geek (Slytherin). They can be found in a number of places online, so it's best to start at www.ProfessorSex.com and go from there.

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