Rethinking Jealousy

© Todd Veros, MSW, MEd

Remember when I said that jealousy might not be as bad as we think it is? That wasn’t just a cheap teaser for the next column. I meant it: jealousy doesn’t automatically mean trouble for your relationship.

Bear with me here. No one actually enjoys being jealous, and some people react badly when they feel it (which is not okay). But look at it like trying to bake a cake and ending up with a burned, soupy mess. Instead of wearing sackcloth and tearing your hair, acknowledge that it sucks but also try learning from it; as long as you didn’t burn the kitchen down, you can figure out where you hit a snag. Like Magnus in the last column, if we take a while to reflect, we might see what exactly is bringing the on jealousy. That’s important because it gives us the opportunity to talk with our partner(s) about it and see what we can do to make sure everyone’s needs and desires are being met, or where we need negotiation and compromise.

Grunge people

credit: DollarPhotoClub

Accepting that jealousy is something that happens naturally and doesn’t have to hurt a relationship just because you feel it makes it less threatening. If you acknowledge that jealousy doesn’t mean you’re a bad partner or that your relationship is falling apart, it’s easier to not panic or feel guilty when you start feeling it. You won’t have to try to avoid it or take your mind off it, which is good because jealousy crops up whether we like it or not. When everyone involved sees jealousy this way, it also helps us feel safer when we talk to our partners about it since we won’t be judging each other – and it’s important that we do talk to our partners about it, because hiding jealousy is a great way to make it worse.

Oh, and it’s fine to have a jealousy-flavored wallow in self pity too, as long as you don’t lash out at people. It’s healthy to let yourself grieve when a relationship ends, and it’s healthy to sit with the jealousy and let yourself feel the feels. Like the kid who gets into trouble at school every day, it helps to acknowledge jealousy and listen to it like it matters, instead of yelling at it or ignoring it and making it worse. Just like that kid’s bad behavior, jealousy is a sign that something needs your attention and care.

Jealousy is usually rooted in the fear that our partners are going to leave us, often with a sense of competition with their other partners. Imagine that your partner Gandalf has started seeing their partner Dumbledore twice as often as they’ve seen you lately. Plenty of people would feel jealous about that, and understandably so. For a lot of people, there would be a fear that Gandalf is going to continue seeing Dumbledore even more and seeing you even less, until you’ve effectively lost Gandalf altogether. You might also worry that Gandalf likes Dumbledore more than they like you, making you feel devalued or even cast aside.

So what can you do? Well, start by thinking about what other reasons there could be for Gandalf’s behavior. Maybe the two of them just started dating and they’re still in that super-exciting goo-goo-eyed part of a relationship where they want to be around each other all the time. Maybe you’ve been super busy with work or school and you just haven’t been around as often as Dumbledore. Maybe Dumbledore lost their job, their mother died, and they just found out there’s only one season of Firefly, so Gandalf is being there as an emotional support rather than a hot date. Letting yourself see other options besides “oh shit” can really ease up the stress and worry.


Talk it over with a good friend or a therapist if you can. Try to look at all the known facts and the could-be’s, and see if you’re still worried about losing Gandalf. If you are – and even if you aren’t – then talk to Gandalf about how you’ve been feeling. Gandalf’s reaction could be a big help in reassuring you and helping you feel loved.

Keep in mind that love is not a competition. Gandalf loving Dumbledore more does not mean Gandalf loves you less. If you keep that in mind, it’s much easier to feel at ease when your partners develop deeper feelings for someone else. There isn’t a trophy for Favorite Partner that gets traded around whenever someone pulls ahead in the rankings. If you feel icky about the idea of your partner loving someone else as much as they love you, take some time to see why it bothers you and talk to your partner about how you can feel safe in the relationship. (Are you noticing a theme?)

Also, Jenny McCarthy is full of crap: vaccination is a good idea. Try it with jealousy. Seriously. When you’re considering taking on new partners – especially for the first time – it can be helpful to do things together that might deliberately provoke jealousy. That way, you can learn what does and doesn’t bring on jealousy, discover what the fear stems from, and get used to both the idea and the feeling of jealousy together as partners.

You’ll want to start slow: don’t begin by going to a crazy orgy and watching each other have depraved sex with dozens of strangers. Maybe start by sharing sexual fantasies, talking about what kinds of relationships you’d like to have with other people, or discussing the kinds of safer sex you’d have with hypothetical partners. Once you feel you can handle the kinds of jealousy that come with those discussions, try pointing out attractive people to each other in public or watching porn and imagining each other on the screen. This way, you can get used to the idea of each other being with other people before it becomes reality. You can see what specific things make you jealous (“Intercourse doesn’t, but oral does – who knew?”), and you can see whether you – and your relationship – can handle the jealousy. If you can’t, you can decide together how to help reassure each other, or whether you might rather just stick with the partner(s) you already have.

Even when you do everything right, sometimes shit still happens. You might decide that you really do have more interest in one partner than another, even if you’re not hierarchical in your non-monogamy; people who do use the hierarchy model might feel that they want to shift a partner from primary to secondary or vice versa. Relationships change, whether they’re non-monogamous or monogamous. And when that happens, it can really suck ass (and not in the fun way). It’s harder to see it happen in monogamous relationships because we don’t have our partner’s other partners to compare ourselves and our own relationships to, but the ebb and flow is universal. It’s just how relationships work. You’ve probably experienced similar things with non-romantic friendships.

When the shit does come down, take care of yourself. Remember that it isn’t necessarily because you’ve done anything wrong. Vent your feelings in your journal, stress-bake so many cookies that your neighbors get cavities, take your dog for extra walks. Do what works for you. Reach out to friends and family who will listen and understand. If you have other partners besides the one whose relationship with you is slipping, they can be a huge source of support and validation – including helping you feel desired; it’s extremely helpful to remember that specific partner isn’t the only one you love, and isn’t the only one who loves you. You’ll get through it.




Along with helping you through the tough times, relying on other people for support – both romantic partners and otherwise – can help you build those relationships. Maybe even more importantly, it can help build your own self-esteem; after all, you lived through it, and just look at all the folks who love you enough to have helped. Jealousy and loss are natural in non-monogamy, just as love and happiness are. None of those define who you are as a person. Be good to yourself, be good to your partners, and be prepared to work with and through the jealousy. It will make you – and your relationships – stronger.

(Editor’s note: this isn’t what all poly relationships look like. They’re made up of all sexualities, races, etc. They also aren’t just a male fantasy of a single hetero male surrounded by women. However, searching for pictures showing a woman with multiple male partners, or a mix of genders {let alone trying to find those of other races} is very difficult. Photos that were found that fit usually ended up being on someone’s blog or major news sites.)




Recommended reading:

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 by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert
Getting What You Want from Relationships by Connie Lingus and Amanda Pegg