Jealousy is often the boogeyman of nonmonogamy. It is something that people warn others about in Facebook groups, or state as a reason they could never be nonmonogamous. Jealousy gets a very bad reputation amongst nonmonogamous folks, with some even claiming that you can’t be a “real” nonmonogamous person and feel jealousy. Like any feeling, jealousy is neither good nor bad, it is what you do with or about it that makes the difference. It can be very informative about places that your needs might not be being met, or a place where you may have work to do individually to learn to address your own scarcity mindset. We’ll look at jealousy through several different lenses, including differentiating between jealousy and envy, and the ways that jealousy manifests as insequities, behaviors, and emotions.
Jealousy vs. Envy
Part of understanding yourself is learning to correctly identify complex concepts and differentiating similar concepts from each other. A very helpful place to apply this is in differentiating emotions. The more you can identify the nuances of your emotions, especially when you have conflicting emotions, the better you can get at understanding what your needs are and communicating all of it to others.
Distinguishing between jealousy and envy can help you understand your emotions better. Envy is about wanting what someone else has that you don’t have, usually in attributes or possessions. Envy tends to not have hostile or malicious feelings associated with it. If you are envious of someone else’s attributes, you might admire them while being disappointed you don’t have those attributes. You don’t care that the other person has it as much as you also wanting that thing. This can have an aspect of FOMO or fear of missing out on an experience to it. Such as your partner doing something with another partner that you ALSO want to do with them. It’s not that you don’t want them to do that thing with another person, you just want to be included in the doing of it, either at the same time or a separate time.
Jealousy is about feeling threatened that someone else will take something or someone away from you. You might have a lot of anxiety or fear to go with your insecurities, and you might also have bitterness towards the person you think is threatening you. Although jealousy is most often associated with romantic relationships, it’s possible that you are feeling more envy in a nonmonogamous relationship. This manifests as you not wanting them to do something with anyone BUT you. It often contains an aspect of ownership of the behavior, activity, or persons time/energy/attention.
A long time ago, I was in a triad that included someone who got a lot of attention and had a career that seemed really cool. I did not care much for my career path at that time (I hadn’t found my true path yet). I was envious of their life, beauty, and career. But I didn’t want them to not have those things, especially since I got some of the benefits from their reflected glory. However, I was also a bit insecure in my relationship at that time, and saw that my partner was showing greater signs of interest in them than in me. In those moments, jealousy reared its head. If I could have understood the difference between these two emotions, I could have done better at communicating with both of them, and discovering more about what I wanted. Instead, I lumped all the emotions together, and made things worse by approaching the situation as if I was jealous of their hold on my partner AND their life and beauty.
Jealousy as Insecurity
When jealousy is showing up as insecurity, it usually revolves around a lack of trust, either in yourself, in your partnership, in your partner, or in the other person.
Not trusting yourself looks like constantly comparing yourself to others and always judging yourself negatively against them. You might only see their best traits while you only look at your most negative traits. You might also not understand what your partner sees in the other person and wonder if you are lacking something they’ve been searching for all along. This is often helped by addressing your negative self-talk and learning to look at everyone as ants on the same ball hurtling through space.
Not trusting in your partnership can look like you are losing connection to your partner. This can be especially intense if your partner is in the NRE stage with someone else, and spends a lot of time texting the other person while ignoring you. Other times, you may be going through a rough spot in your relationship, and feel that the bonds between you aren’t as strong as they used to be. You don’t compare yourself to others, but you do feel a distance in the relationship, and you may fear that any upset might dismantle the relationship completely. Increasing the intimacy and smoothing out communication can do wonders to shrink the gap.
Not trusting in your partner is just what it says. Maybe they cheated, or maybe you struggle to trust people in general. Maybe you don’t like the people they choose as partners, or trust the partner to not get lost in NRE. Addressing the source of the lack of trust helps this the most. If there has been infidelity, breaking agreements, or difficulty with metamours, you’ll need to come to an understanding with your partner. If you struggle to trust others in general, you might need to do work around your general lack of trust.
Not trusting your metamour is one of the harder things to address. You may have some evidence of them being manipulative, or engaging in other cowpersoning behaviors. They might periodically create an “emergency” when you are on a date with your shared partner. The problem arises most when your partner is in the NRE stage and can’t see the red flags. If you confront them about your concerns, you could drive a wedge further between the two of you. Sometimes, the only thing you can do is ignore the metamour as best as possible, put up the boundaries you need to protect yourself, and let your partner figure out the problems on their own.
This can also be tricky, because one of the most problematic things we see in the therapy chair is people who don’t recognize that their jealousy is coming from one of the first three places, but the anger and blame gets diverted to the metamour. Your partner might be enabling bad behavior from your metamour by not having good boundaries, for instance. Or, you might have a general distrust of people, but don’t realize how deeply that influences your interpretation of others behaviors. It’s often easier to blame the person we know the least about, and who we can do the least with, than it is to work on problems core to the relationship. The best way to discover if this is happening involves a lot of mindfulness, self-reflection, and communication with everyone involved.
Jealousy as Behaviors
Behaviors are anything we do to get our needs met. Often, when we are confronted with emotions we don’t like feeling, we will engage in a behavior that alleviates the anger, anxiety, insecurity, or loneliness. Nonmonogamy isn’t always easy for people when they first open up, and many of these emotions are normal as we adjust to new situations. The problem with many of these behaviors is that they are temporary fixes that keep you in a hypervigilant state when you aren’t addressing the core problem.
What do we mean by behaviors used to ease the pain? These come in two categories – anxious behaviors and avoidant behaviors. Anxious behaviors might be anything that feels like a fight or flight response. Usually, they are attempts to reconnect and confirm that your partner is still interested in being with you. They might help in the moment, but in the long run, they are quite damaging to the trust of the relationship. They look like:
- Texting your partner repeatedly, or outside the scope of agreements, when they are on a date with someone else.
- Creating an emergency when your partner is going on a date.
- Giving your partner the cold shoulder when they come back from a date.
- Picking fights before or after dates about nearly anything, but especially mundane things, or things that have already been resolved.
Avoidant behaviors are anything that dissociate you from the problem – they keep you from feeling unpleasant emotions. These look great to begin with because they often keep you from engaging your partner in ways that are damaging to the relationship in the long run. Temporarily enacting an avoidant behavior isn’t always the worst way to handle things, especially if you know you’ll eventually get used to the new normal. However, you might also find that you aren’t addressing a root problem or you are damaging yourself through addiction if they are over-utilized. These look like:
- Getting drunk, stoned, or otherwise blitzed.
- Playing video games endlessly.
- Finding dates to go on with other people, even though you aren’t all that interested in going on more dates with people you aren’t excited about.
- Binge watching TV.
We’ll cover more about these behaviors and how to know when you are slipping into not dealing with your jealousy in future blog posts.
Jealousy as Emotions
We often think that jealousy is an emotion in itself, but it’s really an emotion mixed with a narrative. That narrative is usually relating to some insecurity or lack of trust. You might have several emotions coming up at the same time that are fueling the narratives – anger, fear, sadness. Teasing your emotions apart from the common narratives is the first step towards getting a hold of your jealousy.
Your jealousy is likely to be anxiety (fear) mixed with anger or sadness. The fear is obvious – you might fear either a loss or a change. Anxiety often manifests as fear of the unknown, especially when you are prone to catastrophizing. If your partner is going out on dates, you may struggle with not knowing if they will come home, come home late, still love you, or leave you hanging. To handle the fear, you either need to figure out how to stop catastrophizing, or you need to experience the event enough in a non-catastrophic way (which is what’s normally going to happen) enough times to learn the worst thing is unlikely to happen.
The secondary emotion of Anger or Sadness is often there based on your narrative of what your anxiety is telling you will happen, plus nurture factors based on how you were raised. People perceived to be boys growing up often were told their tears were unacceptable, and the only “reasonable” emotion is anger. Our society glorifies male anger from hazing or bullying rituals in school to movies and television. Comic book heroes are often shown to be invulnerable, their anger justified, and violence as the only form of resolution: just beat your enemies into a pulp. If you identified more with boys, you may have had some of this anger glorification rub off on you. I don’t want to disparage anger itself – it’s an extremely useful emotion for telling you that something isn’t right. The problem is when you use your anger to hurt the people you love. This may show up in picking fights either with the metamour or your partner. It is possible to express anger without being mean or beating people up, emotionally or physically.
Sadness and tears are often how those who were perceived as girls were taught to experience their emotions. Anger is “unladylike”. Even if you are feeling angry, your emotions might come out as tears because that’s a more acceptable presentation. Whereas anger tends to turn outwards, towards a target, sadness often points inwards, a version of anger towards the self. It comes in terms of self-criticism: “I’m not good enough,” or “I’ve done something wrong, and I deserve this pain.” You might often put the blame on yourself, or decide it’s on you to fix the problem because you ARE the problem. For those who tend towards sadness, your jealous behaviors might look more like seeking external validation for your self-worth or turning towards anything that will distract you from your sadness.
Hopefully this post has helped you begin to better understand jealousy, how it might show up in your life, and ways to begin being able to separate the different behaviors you might engage in when it does show up. Jealousy isn’t inevitable, though there are people who do not experience it or understand it. Learning what to do when jealousy does show up can be the difference between something drawing your attention to a new place to learn about yourself, and something being a traumatic experience that creates resentment and fear.
This is the first in our blog series about jealousy. We hope you continue to join us on this journey.