“To feel any of your emotions, you have to feel all of them. You can’t just feel the good ones.” – Nina Hartley, porn star
Once upon a time there was a beautiful Princess named Polly and she was married to the very handsome Prince Paul. They had been married about 6 years and, feeling a bit restless, they decided to explore the kingdom a bit and see if they could find anyone who wanted to engage in some royal playtime with them. In no time at all, Princess Polly was having a drink in the local pub when a strapping lad approached her and asked her to dance. Prince Paul, who had been having a jolly good time courting a giggling young maiden across the room, saw his fair wife swooning in the arms of this new chap and became filled with rage. When they got home that night, he was huffing and puffing. In a fury, he put his royal foot down and decreed from that day forward Princess Polly was only allowed to date mistresses, matrons, and maidens fair. Polly was heartbroken. She did love the ladies, but had plans to play with the fella from the pub tomorrow and would surely be disappointed to cancel them. She tried to appeal to her husband, but his mind was made up. He simply couldn’t bear the thought of her sheath wrapped around anyone’s sword but his own.
It’s a tale as old as time. Relationships are risky. When we get involved with someone we expose ourselves. We are vulnerable to being affected by this new human. When that affect is positive, we shout it from the rooftops. Our partner is lovely and loving. Our partner is amazing in bed. It was so thoughtful the way our partner folded all the laundry while we were at work. Isn’t it cute how they snort a little when they laugh?! We’re in love, we’re in love, and we don’t care who knows it! When that affect is negative, though (and I’m NOT talking about instances of abuse or toxicity), our first instinct is often to look for an exit. Our hard emotions get the best of us and, when those emotions are hurtful or scary, we will do anything in our power to make that pain go away.
That’s problematic, but it’s not entirely our fault. Most of us are socialized from a very early age to manage risk by avoiding it. Conversations about risk are traditionally very prevention focused; a list of things to do or don’t do to circumvent adverse consequences. From the time we are small we are taught what not to do. Don’t touch the stove, don’t play in the street, don’t drive too fast, don’t swim for an hour after eating, don’t do drugs, don’t cheat, don’t eat red meat, don’t spend it all one place, don’t count chickens, don’t wear white after Labor Day, don’t have sex before marriage, don’t smoke, don’t sit too close to the TV, don’t go shopping when you’re hungry (is that last one just me?) …. This all comes from people who love us and are trying to protect us from bumps and boo-boos, broken legs and broken hearts. While it’s important to know that wearing condoms helps prevent against the spread of disease, or calling a cab when you’re drunk helps prevent death via fiery automobile, managing risk from an avoidance-only framework can cause us problems when the consequences are nuanced.
When it comes to relationships, we are taught to look for the fairy tale – we are literally taught that if we do all the things a good little boy or girl does, then one day our prince (or princess) will ride in on a white horse and take us away to live Happily-Ever-After. HAPPILY.FOREVER. That’s the promise. So, when we get to adulthood and the best any of us can find is Happily-Some-of-the-Time, we don’t have the tools for dealing with the times when things aren’t so hot. One way this frequently shows up in otherwise healthy romantic and sexual relationships is that green-eyed monster, Jealousy.
When people learn that I’m polyamorous, one of the first questions they have is, “Don’t you get jealous?!” Often followed with some statement of incredulity, “I don’t know how you do it. I could never share my partner with someone else.” It seems that of all the terrible emotions we have in our lives, we do the most outrageous mental (and physical) gymnastics to avoid feeling jealous. People are terrified of feeling jealous; terrified about what we think it represents…. Risk. Risk that our partners will find someone else, risk that they’ll go have fun without us, risk that they’ll leave us and we’ll die old and alone with 12 cats and three-and-a-half unfinished episodes of Orange is the New Black. Jealousy becomes one of our only emotions that we are allowed and expected to make our loved ones responsible for. We are feeling jealous so they must be doing something wrong. When we are sad, angry, tired, or hungry, we fix it. But when we are jealous it is THEY who will fix it. So, we set guidelines. We insist on promises nobody can ever keep (“Never change.” “Never lie to me.” “Never look at anyone else but me.”). We put our royal foot down. We make rules for our partners because we think that will make us feel safe. The more rules we make the more we want and before we know it we are one missed attempt away from permanently locking the screen on their phone while they’re in the shower, or scrolling through 11 years of Facebook history at two in the morning and sending screenshots to our best friend on the west coast trying to decode that one cute friend who always wishes him a happy birthday with a winky-eye emoji but you’ve never met her so he must be hiding something. Jealousy makes us monsters. It robs us of our joy. And yet, no matter how much you remind yourself of that, when you’re in the throes of it, it seems like that’s all you can feel.
So, what do we do? Is jealousy really some sort of insurmountable monolith that will ultimately kill us all? No. Of course not. It’s an emotion and, like all emotions, it is transient. Emotions – all of them – are fleeting. And, while I am by no means an expert on polyamory, I do have some tricks up my sleeve that have helped me survive this gut-wrenching feeling. Here are some of my personal rules for not letting my emotions (even jealousy) get the better of me.
I don’t let my emotions make decisions for me.
I am committed to remembering that my emotions are not permanent. Because of this, I try really hard not to allow myself to make any major decisions when emotions are high. (This applies to my good emotions, too.) Just after an orgasm is not the best time to get engaged. The day you get a raise is not the best time to buy a car. The day your partner says they love you is not the best day to get their name tattooed over your heart. The day you fail an exam is not the best day to drop out of grad school. The day you find out your lover had coffee with his hot coworker is not the best day to sleep with his best friend. You get the idea. Sometimes we have emotions that we think will never go away and in the heat of that we say or do things that we can’t undo very easily (if at all). If I can remember that I won’t actually feel this way, or any way, forever, I can usually buy myself enough time to calm down and let a cooler head prevail. My personal rule here: wait three days. If a major decision feels like the right one, I sleep on it for a few days. If it is right today it will be right in three days but I will have time to process some of the most intense emotions and make the decision with a clearer head.
I don’t let my emotions speak for me.
I try to be aware of what I’m feeling and check in with myself before I fly off the handle. If I’m incredibly angry or upset, sometimes I will put what I want to say in writing before I confront the person who I think wronged me – especially if I love that person or want to have an ongoing relationship of some kind with them. This lets me think things through, figure out how to say what I really mean, and sometimes it even keeps me from saying things I can’t take back.
I remember that life isn’t a fairy tale.
If I want to feel the good emotions, I have to be willing to risk also feeling the bad ones. So, when I’m feeling the tough stuff, I try to remember what I’m in it for (my graduate degree, my sense of self, my partner whom I love), and weigh the pain against the joy. Then, I can decide if it’s worth it to work through the rough parts. If I decide it is worth it, then working through the bad feelings suddenly becomes bearable because I know what’s waiting for me. If I decide it isn’t, I can walk away in peace and move forward.
I don’t use the word jealous.
I have tried very hard to completely remove that word from my emotional vocabulary. I’ve learned that what we usually call jealousy isn’t jealousy at all. Instead, what we are feeling is something else entirely – FOMO (fear of missing out), insecurity, fear of abandonment, betrayal, deception. Saying “I’m jealous” lazily shifts my emotional burden to my partner, implying that they need to change their behavior to soothe my ruffled feathers. If I refuse to say, “I’m jealous” then I must do the work to figure out what’s really going on. So, if I sit with it long enough, I can say instead, “I’m feeling insecure and I could really use some reassurance. Would you be willing to spend some quality time with me this evening?” That keeps me from vilifying my loved ones and creates space for me to actually get what I want. And, getting what I want is pretty great.
If you have questions about any of this and how it applies to you, or if you want more tips on how to work through difficult emotions or communicate effectively, feel free to reach out to me.
How Do You Handle Jealousy in Polyamorous Relationships?