“But how do you deal with jealousy?”
This is the commonest question I’ve had in all my years living as an out non-monogamous person, and in my work as an intimacy and sex coach. I hear questions about jealousy more than I do questions about managing time, resources or maintaining sexual and emotional safety in non-monogamy. Clearly, jealousy is a big deal and a great concern for many people, and I think it has a lot to do with how we have been socialized to feel about this emotion. I know from experience, the feeling can be excruciating for the person experiencing it, and I have seen the devastating consequences of jealousy in all my favorite ‘crimes of passion’ documentaries, in extreme cases. Jealousy can be a big, big emotion and there is no denying that.
I don’t think, however, we have afforded ourselves the chance to demystify jealousy and really understand it. Before we unpack it in the context of non-monogamy, it may be worth unpacking what jealousy actually is, how it differs from envy, and how these two emotions can manifest themselves.
According to languagetool.org, envy is the feeling you get when you see someone experiencing or having something you would like for yourself. We are conditioned to perceive this to be a negative feeling and we are taught to be ashamed to admit it when we are feeling envious. Envy is an experience that is often confined to two parties: you and the person enjoying the things you so very much desire for yourself. So in the context of non-monogamy, if your crush or partner is enjoying a romantic getaway with their new love interest, you could be feeling envious of this new person in their life.
Jealousy differs from envy in the sense that jealousy carries an element of feeling threatened. There is a fear attached to it. There could be layers of insecurity or feelings of protectiveness that heighten this feeling. It is also a feeling we are raised to perceive negatively. While envy only requires two parties to manifest itself, jealousy is often felt in relation to someone else, a third person. So, using the same example, you could feel envy towards your partner’s new love interest being on a baecation with your partner without feeling threatened, necessarily. But feeling jealous about their new connection reveals fears and worries that you could potentially be replaced, or get less from your partner, because of this new connection.
Got it? OK.
For the sake of this article, the difference in these two words matters very little, but it is valuable to know the difference so you are able to really suss out what is going on with you when you are experiencing these emotions. Are you just feeling a little tender because you’re at home alone while your lover and their partner are out having a good time? Or is it really the fact that they have gone out more times than you have in the last month, and you’re worried your partner may be losing interest in you and gravitating more towards her enough to want to leave you? Similar emotion, different causes with different remedies.
This brings us to the next part of the conversation. In earlier years, resources, blogs and popular influencers often made it sound like people who enjoy and do well at non-monogamy are people who are not jealous or envious at all. Coupled with the general societal conditioning, in any context, we are made to think and feel like people who experience or struggle with jealousy don’t have as high an EQ, and to be the well-rounded, confident individual we all aspire to be, you don’t worry about silly things like jealousy and envy. This feeds into the myth that people in non-monogamy are wiser, super humans and that you cannot explore non-monogamy unless you also possess the ability to avoid these very normal and human emotions. I could not disagree more.
I do think it helps you to navigate non-monogamy, relationships, and life in general if you are not prone to being negatively affected when you see people have or enjoy the things you don’t have. I don’t, however, believe that jealousy or envy are inherently bad or unhealthy emotions, or that we are any less emotionally mature human beings when we experience these emotions. Personally, what you do with these emotions is more important than actually feeling them. If you really must put a value and judgment to jealousy and envy, I would say the gold is more in the ‘how’ you deal with these feelings.
There are many schools of thought that recommend how to approach feelings of jealousy, envy and non-monogamy but I wanted to share my experiences on a very basic, human level that you could apply in your general life, and in your relationships, monogamous or not.
Like in our definitions above, feelings of jealousy and envy expose a deep desire and want within us. For me, that is useful insightful information! It shows that something is important to us. When I feel envious that my partner is spending money buying expensive gifts for their other partner, for example, what it tells me is that, maybe, I want my partner to buy me expensive gifts. When I allow myself to sit longer with the feeling, I then realize that, in fact, I have never expressed to my partner that I enjoy receiving gifts, and that actually, I am always moaning about saving money in the relationship, so they may in fact think I would not appreciate an expensive gesture. Instead of judging the envy, by allowing myself to sit with it, I have gained valuable information about what is going on inside me, and have come up with a potential ‘way forward’ on how to feel better about the situation: tell my partner I also like expensive gifts and I would like one once in a while. A previous version of me may have spiraled and come up with very irrelevant hypotheses why the other girl is getting expensive gifts and why I am not, but by pausing and daring to be honest with myself, I have quickly been able to identify the place where this feeling really emits. This of course requires a lot of vulnerability and trust to work effectively, but we’ll talk about communication in the next article.
What if the feeling is in fact jealousy? What if those diamond earrings do make me feel threatened, and make me feel like my partner loves their other partner more than they love me, enough to leave me for them? Again, before judging the feeling, I sit with it.
Is it the fact that my partner is buying her gifts that shows that they love her more?
Surely not, because my partner buys me gifts all the time, although small and sentimental. By that evaluation alone, my partner loves me ‘equally’.
Is it the fact that her gifts are more expensive than mine? Perhaps.
What is it about the price that makes me feel like she matters to my partner more than I do? Is it because I exist in a society that often equates monetary value to importance and appreciation? Absolutely!
Do I inherently believe in or subscribe to this way of thinking? No, not really.
So what my mind has essentially done in this example is project my conditioning into my relationship in a way that I don’t actually even believe is true. This happens to us as people all the time, because no matter how much we unlearn, grow and evolve, those underlying societal messages we absorb, especially in our formative years, will follow us and creep up in some of the most unsuspecting moments. So now that I have figured out how my mind has interpreted this whole gifting situation, the important question is:
Does my partner buying her more expensive gifts prove that the other partner is more valuable and important? No, it actually doesn’t.
Does her getting expensive gifts threaten my place in my partner’s life? Honestly, it doesn’t.
Am I allowed to still feel some type of way about it? Yes.
Understanding the root of the jealousy doesn’t mean I have to dismiss the feelings of envy that may still linger. (See how the two can exist simultaneously?) Unpacking the feeling and adopting a healthier approach in resolving it doesn’t mean denying it or playing stoic. I can have all this insight and still say, “I think I may feel better if Baby bought me an expensive gift too, once in a while.”
Are you feeling exhausted yet? I understand.
These exercises of interrogating where your feelings stem from can feel like a lot of emotional and psychological labor. I can even admit to you that it is easier to sulk or throw a tantrum than to sum up the courage to be vulnerable and admit to a partner that you are feeling a semblance of insecurity, or that you are now expressing that you need more than what you initially let on. But at what cost? The good news is, this is like a muscle you can exercise: it gets better and easier after each time. Personally, I have gotten to a place where there is a small, small feeling of anticipation and excitement when I feel envious or jealous. I know I am about to learn something really valuable about myself in a way that no other feeling or experience could have exposed. I know that, if I give myself the time, I will be left with an opportunity to experience myself, my partner and this relationship differently and positively.
A few words of caution though. Sometimes our feelings of jealousy and envy have little to do with what is happening in the situation and everything to do with our own “stuff”. If I have underlying insecurities about how valuable I am to a partner, there is no amount of expensive gifts that my partner can buy me to make that feeling go away. I will always struggle with seeing them buy gifts for their other partners. So when you sit with these feelings and you’re interrogating your jealousy and envy, be brutally honest with yourself about where the feeling is coming from. In the next article, we’ll talk about how to communicate these feelings to your partner, so it’s very important to try your best to understand what the real cause of these feelings are before you open up about them.