This Polyamorous Therapist Thinks Jealousy Is a Wonderful Emotion — Here's Why
"Don't you get jealous?" is often the first question I get after sharing with someone that I'm ethically non-monogamous. "Yes, of course I do," I reply each time. Then, usually, they keep staring at me in confusion until I say something, or they uncomfortably try to change the topic. I usually try to beat the awkward transition with, "don't you get jealous?" which inevitably stops them in their tracks as they realize that being monogamous is not a cure for jealousy.
If you grew up watching romantic comedies or any show that had romantic relationships in it, you probably saw jealousy portrayed as more of an action than a feeling. For example: Boy likes girl but isn't direct about it, girl shows interest in another person, boy is now suddenly very interested in pursuing said girl. Another example: Relationships are often portrayed as an ownership situation. So much so that if another person even looks at their partner in a flirtatious or desirable way, it's valid for the partner to either "get physical" or start a fight. (Related: Is It Illegal to Go Through Your Partner's Phone and Read Their Texts?)
There are even messages in movies and TV telling you that if you don't feel jealous, there must be something wrong with you or your relationship. When, actually, that's backwards. See, the more securely attached you are to yourself and your partners, the less jealous you'll typically be. Which brings us to...
What Is Jealousy, Really?
All this points to jealousy as a social construct: Jealousy isn't experienced equally across different groups of people, rather, it's highly dependent on social norms. A social construct is something that doesn't exist in objective reality but as a result of human interaction. It exists because humans agree that it exists. An excellent example of another one is virginity. Are you any less objectively worthy after you've had sex once? Are you worth more? Than what? Than who? We don't talk about any other milestone as "taking" or "giving" something, so why is it that this milestone is such a to-do? Well, some people decided it would be, and then most people agreed, it became the "norm," and most folks don't question the norm. But back to jealousy: It's a cultural norm to feel jealous when your partner finds someone else attractive.
So, if how we currently view jealousy is really just a social construct, what would it look like if we redefined (and normalized) jealousy altogether?
Here's my definition of jealousy: An uncomfortable mush of emotions typically created by 1) insecurity and/or 2) seeing someone have or get access to something we want.
Everyone experiences jealousy differently because it isn't one simple emotion or chemical reaction. When you care about someone, you're going to have thoughts and feelings about what's going on in their life — and sometimes that feels like jealousy. (Related: This 5-Step Method Will Help You Shift Dysfunctional Emotional Patterns)
How to Deal with Jealousy In Relationships
Since jealousy isn't one singular thing, there isn't a "cure" for it — but if there were, it would be self-awareness and communication. The more self-aware you can be, the more likely you are to be able to name what your jealousy is about, making it easier to communicate, sit with, and eventually resolve. (Related: 6 Things Monogamous People Can Learn from Open Relationships)
Redefining jealousy will take a lot of self-awareness, a lot of communication, and being intentional about not making yourself feel shame when you feel jealous. Jealousy feels so personal, but it's usually just another emotion you need to work through.
I have three partners that I consider all to be my "primary" partners — and just because I'm a therapist doesn't mean I don't feel jealous or get overwhelmed with my feelings. I'm a human that feels jealous (and most emotions) quite profoundly. And, even between the four of us, we have different ideas of what jealousy is and feels like.
When one of us is feeling jealous, we share it with the others. Pro tip: Emotions are far scarier when left alone in your mind than when verbalized with someone you love. So, if I'm feeling jealous, I'll ask myself, "What am I feeling insecure about?" and "What is it I want that I don't feel I have access to?" Then, I identify that thing and communicate my jealous feelings along with what I think may help. (See: How to Have a Healthy Polyamorous Relationship)
Often, when people communicate jealousy or any other feeling, they don't share what they want or the potential next steps. Instead, people tend to just throw a flaming ball of emotions to their partner and hope they know what to do with it. When you identify where the jealous feelings are coming from, you can ask for (and hopefully get) what you want.
Jealousy is a near-inevitable feeling in any relationship, as are most feelings, so why not learn how to investigate your feelings and then get your needs met instead of sitting and quietly suffering? When you communicate your jealousy, you can use my A-E-O framework: acknowledge, explain, and offer. (It's also super helpful when you're setting boundaries.) Here's how.
Step 1: Acknowledge
This first step of this conversation itself is important but usually skipped over. It entails naming the reality or the thing that no one wants to say, right out loud.
It typically starts with "I know…" and can sound something like, "I know it's been challenging navigating this new stuff," or "I know that I feel really deeply and you don't ever intend to hurt me." (Also read: Sex and Relationship Advice from a Licensed Therapist)
Step 2: Explain
It's common to often dive into conversation, tossing the person you're talking to a giant ball of feelings and thoughts, and then look at them like, "so what do we do?" Following this structure can help you communicate your thoughts and feelings and start to make progress on the next steps.
For example: "I feel ___(emotion)____ when/about ____(topic/action contributing to that feeling)___."
Example 1: "I feel jealous when I see you eating steak with John but only veggies with me."
Example 2: "I feel scared and jealous when you leave for dates."
Step 3: Offer
The offer statement gives your partner an idea of what you want (remember: no one can read minds), a baby step towards a more robust solution, or your idea of a fix. (Related: How to Have Healthier Relationship Arguments)
Try: "What I would really like to do is…." or "Something I'd like to do is…." or "I'd really like to…" followed by "how does that sound?" or "what do you think?"
Example 1: "I would love to enjoy a steak meal with you at some point. What do you think?"
Example 2: "It would help me so much if you could text me some reassurances of our relationship before and after your date. Does that sound like something you could do?"
Next time you're feeling jealous, ask yourself if it's insecurity or something you want access to, and then communicate with your partner(s) and take steps to work on the insecurity or get the thing you want. Jealousy doesn't have to be a scary green monster; it can help you get to know yourself and your partners on a deeper level if you allow it.
Rachel Wright, M.A., L.M.F.T., (she/her) is a licensed psychotherapist, sex educator, and relationship expert based in New York City. She's an experienced speaker, group facilitator, and writer. She's worked with thousands of humans worldwide to help them scream less and screw more.