© Todd Veros, MSW, MEd
One of the most common questions that people in ethically non-monogamous relationships hear is “But don’t you get jealous?” Fortunately, it’s actually not a problem. They’re always highly mature, loving, secure, and emotionally evolved people who never get jealous because they’re busy riding dragons and farting sunshine.
I’m lying. They totally do get jealous – even if they’re mature, loving, and all those other things.
They don’t have dragons either (most of them can’t even find a unicorn). The sunshine part is true though.
Jealousy is a natural emotion. It happens to monogamous people, and it happens to non-monogamous people – even if they’ve been doing non-monogamy for a long time. It might be easier for the non-mons because having their partners see other people is understood as part of the relationship; it also might be harder for them for the very same reason. That much depends on the individuals. (If you read my last column, you might be sensing a pattern here.)
Worrying that jealousy could become a problem is one of the most common reasons for people considering non-monogamy to decide against it. It makes sense; jealousy isn’t any fun. Our culture treats it as a sign that something is wrong, both with the relationship and with ourselves. It also treats jealousy as an understandable excuse to be nasty to our partners (which it’s not, ever: just in case I had to tell you). The message we get is clear: jealousy should be avoided whenever possible.
There are several ways people in non-monogamous relationships try to accomplish this. One is the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy about other partners. This one is especially popular for exclusive couples who agree to have casual flings or one-night stands on the side. “Out of sight, out of mind” can help to avoid feelings of competition with these other folks, especially when they’re only superficially involved with your partner; add this to the fact that you’re the one your love always comes back to, and it can feel pretty validating. That said, it feels uncomfortably close to keeping a secret for some; thoughts of “but seriously, one of those other people might give him better orgasms than I do” creep up a little too easily for a lot of people.
Another strategy is to negotiate certain things that you and your partner(s) only do with each other, which can help people feel special. For example, maybe Frank is into BDSM and identifies as a switch, but his boyfriend Larry is the only one who gets to dominate him. Sally and Abigail date and have sex with other women, but they won’t fist anyone but each other. Brian likes being pegged but only lets Kianna do it to him, and Kianna doesn’t peg anyone else that she dates. Even something as simple as reserving a specific sex position might be enough to emphasize that this person is special to you.
A big help, especially for people who are just getting into non-monogamy after being monogamous with each other, is to take it slow when they start new relationships. One of the challenges with having new partners is that it’s easy to get excited about them and accidentally neglect your established ones, leaving them feeling abandoned. It can be painful to see a partner jumping into bed with new people immediately or getting emotionally infatuated right away, especially if you’re not finding as many dates as quickly. Agreeing to try only kissing people at the club for the first few weeks or to go on a certain number of dates before sleeping with a new romantic partner can help stave off feelings of being left in the dust. Added bonus: if you’re just starting to explore non-monogamy with your partner, starting slow with others is also a good way to make sure that you’re both feeling stable in the relationship and address any insecurities or hang-ups that arise before they become problematic.
Another tactic is to reserve time with your partner (or each of them) on a regular basis. If you’ve recently made a bunch of new friends and you’re going on dates all the time, it can be easy for your already-partners to get left behind. Making Thursday night or every other Saturday or whenever specifically for them alone can be a strong gesture of love and consideration. It really shows that this person is a priority for you when you make sure to have set-in-stone time to spend together. Not only that, but making sure you take time to focus on just each other on a regular basis is great for maintaining closeness in any relationship.
The best thing to avoid jealousy is open, direct, and frequent communication. (News flash: you should be doing this anyway.) Uncertainty plays a major role in jealousy, and talking things out plays a major role in avoiding it. You don’t have to get into the gory details of every date and hookup, but keeping your other partners up to date on how things are going lets them see you’re not hiding anything and gives them a chance to voice any concerns they have; it also helps keep our imaginations from running wild and setting anxiety-fires in our minds. Even small concerns should be brought up – but not treated as catastrophes – because then you can address them before they get big.
Gertrude: “I’ll be seeing Igor again this weekend. We’re going swimming and hot tubbing.”
Magnus: “So you’ll be in your bathing suits together? On a second date?”
Gertrude: “Is that a problem?”
Magnus: “I just feel kind of weird about that. I guess the bathing suit seems kind of sexual, and it feels a little soon for that.”
Gertrude: “Hmm. I didn’t see it that way, but I see where you’re coming from.”
From there, these two people would do their best to figure out a way for them both to feel secure without sacrificing the date with Igor. Maybe Gertrude would wear a one-piece instead of a bikini. Maybe Gertrude and Igor would both talk to Magnus and assure him that they won’t do anything sexual on their second date. If need be, Gertrude and Igor might change plans and play laser tag instead (and hopefully Igor will be understanding about it).
Here’s one thing I’ve learned about jealousy in my own life, whether you’re monogamous or not: just telling people that they don’t have anything to worry about doesn’t work. Involve the other person in the discussion instead of dismissing their concerns. Instead of “I told you, I’m not doing anything that we didn’t agree on,” try asking “What would help you feel more comfortable?” It lets the defenses come down and allows partners to work for a solution together. Just showing that kind of concern and acceptance of someone’s feelings might help ease the jealousy and worry right there. After all, jealousy is rooted in the fear that we’ll be disregarded and tossed aside, and you’re showing that their concerns and happiness are too important for you to do that.
But here’s a thought that doesn’t get much consideration in our culture: maybe jealousy isn’t the Big Bad Wolf that we think it is.
I’ll explain it all in Jealousy: Part Two.
The Ethical Slut, by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy
Opening Up, by Tristan Taormino
The New Love Without Limits, by Deborah M. Anapol
More Than Two and morethantwo.com, by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert
Exercising Sexual Restraint, by Holger Dixon