Relationship Jealousy: What Can We Learn From Non-Monogamous Relationships?
Most people have experienced that overwhelming feeling of relationship jealousy that seems to creep up on you and take control of your body. Whether it’s over a stranger in a bar or your partner’s gaze as someone walks by – no matter how much you may hate it, jealousy in a relationship is common regardless of your age, sexuality, or gender.
But what about people in non-monogamous relationships? They’re regularly in situations that have the opportunity to ignite jealousy and yet they choose not to close their relationships. Do they not feel jealousy at all?
Luke, who is non-monogamous and pansexual, explains, “Being in a non-monogamous relationship doesn’t remove the existence of jealousy. It’s not like you need to have personally conquered jealousy to be able to engage in ethical non monogamy.”
So, what can monogamous couples learn from non-monogamous people about jealousy in relationships?
Everyone gets jealous
Everyone gets jealous and it doesn’t necessarily mean anything about your relationship.
In monogamous relationships fidelity is built into the structure of the relationship by default, often without any conversation by the partners involved. Whether it works or not, there is a perceived protection from infidelity which can make it easier for some people to turn a blind eye to jealousy by assuring themselves that their partner would never break the trust of their relationship.
Jealousy then becomes something that is ignored, avoided and not discussed. But if you don’t allow yourself to recognize your feelings as valid, the emotions will keep piling on top of you. Jealousy should be acknowledged, because when you acknowledge it you can find ways to cope with it. It’s natural, it’s going to happen, and you can’t try to fight it by ignoring it.
On the flip side, non-monogamous relationships do not operate under the same structure. They’re not necessarily built with this perceived protection against infidelity. Non-monogamous people, who define the conditions of their relationship themselves, have to pay attention to their feelings and deal with things that arise such as jealousy.
Luke says, “The most important part of being in an ethically non monogamous situation is communication and having a platform to be able to speak about things openly with your partners.”
According to a 2017 study, people in non-monogamous relationships typically experience less jealousy and more trust than people in monogamous ones, but that’s not to say that those people don’t feel jealous at all. It just means that they’re willing to talk about it honestly and manage it.
A quick note on the different types of non-monogamous relationships
Ethical non-monogamy is an umbrella term for relationships that fall outside of typical monogamous situations. An open relationship is when you and your partner have sex with other people, but usually do not form an emotional connection. Polyamory means having intimate relationships with multiple people at the same time. There are different types of polyamorous relationships – hierarchal, solo, and egalitarian. There is also relationship anarchy which rejects all relationship norms and applies anarchist principles to intimate relationships.
How jealousy shows up in poly relationships
If you’re in a monogamous relationship you may be wondering why or how poly people get jealous in the first place. Just like in monogamous relationships, cheating can occur within non-monogamous relationships if the agreed conditions are broken.
This may look like a poly person seeing a new partner without communicating it to their other partner(s). Or someone in an open relationship forming an emotional connection with someone when they have a sex-only rule with their primary partner.
Anna who has been in a non-monogamous relationship for three years explains, “I think some people have an unrealistic idea of a non-monogamous relationship where there is no jealousy. But jealousy is a natural emotion and can actually be helpful to find where your own insecurities are, or where there are issues in the relationship that you need to work on with your partner(s).”
Define cheating in your relationship
An important first step to start communicating with your partner is to define what constitutes cheating in your relationship.
If you’re with a new partner and you find yourself getting jealous over certain behaviors, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are doing something wrong. It may mean that you have different views of what a monogamous relationship is.
“A crucial part of defining a relationship is figuring out the agreements”, Anna says.
“These are the “rules” that all partners decide on that define the relationship. In non-monogamy it can include anything from safer sex precautions to boundaries around the emotional involvement with other partner(s).“
Think about the following situations and discuss them with your partner. What’s off limits? What’s cheating?
- Flirting with someone in a bar
- Dancing with someone in a club
- Kissing someone
- Checking someone out
- Watching porn
- Using dating apps
- Exchanging phone numbers with someone
Some may be an obvious no for both of you, but others – such as watching porn – may require more conversation and compromise.
Think critically about jealousy
Society has a lot to answer for when it comes to jealousy in romantic relationships. We are taught through the media that jealousy is a normal part of loving someone. It’s a sign that we must really like our partner. At the same time we’re told that if someone really loves you, they’ll want to be with you and you only.
How much have you been socialized to feel jealous? When we think critically about relationship jealousy we’re more likely to find ways to learn how to deal with it.
What to do when you feel jealous
OK you’re feeling jealous, now what?
Breathe & self-soothe
If jealousy is manifesting itself in your body, taking some deep breaths into your belly may help soothe your nervous system and slow down your heart rate. Try to locate the jealousy in your body – is it a pit in your stomach or tension in your shoulders? Focus your attention on that area of your body and breathe into it.
Take care of yourself as you would if you were feeling down or anxious. Have a bath, meditate, listen to a podcast you love. This is when your self care tool kit comes into practice.
An important part of managing jealousy is to try and understand where your jealous feelings stem from.
Luke explains, “In non-monogamy, you know when your partner is out with someone else which eliminates a lot of the accompanying stress that monogamous couples may feel alongside jealousy. You no longer have paranoia or anxiety that something might be happening because you know that it is. When this stress is all removed then you’re just left with the feeling of jealousy and you have the time and space to reflect on it.
“You can ask yourself, Why am I feeling this jealousy? Where is it coming from? Then you can either talk about it with your partner or process it yourself.”
Research suggests that underlying causes of jealousy can be possessiveness, shame, insecurity, paranoia, and humiliation. Being able to recognize these in yourself can help you work through feelings of jealousy when they do arise.
Luke adds, “In the past, I’ve felt jealous and in the process of reflection it’s come back to insecurities that had nothing to do with my relationship or the person. Realizing that allowed me to work it all out without impacting my relationship.”
Anna agrees, “If I’m jealous of my partner going on a date with someone, I sit and write down all of my fears that are leading to the jealousy. Is it because I think they will leave me? If so, where does this fear of abandonment come from? Is it because I think that their date is smarter, prettier, or more interesting than me? If so, where have I got this way of thinking from?”.
Once you’re able to pinpoint the root cause of your jealousy, you can start to move on from it. If you realize that you’re jealous because you were cheated on in the past, then sharing that with your current partner can help you work on your trust issues.
This is an important step to start taking personal responsibility for your feelings, rather than blaming it on your partner’s actions.
Don’t let your imagination run wild
As many of us who have felt jealousy will know, when there are gaps in our knowledge or uncertainties, our imagination fills them with negative stories. For example, if your partner is out without you and you’re not sure exactly what they’re doing, you may start creating scenarios in your head of all the people your partner is meeting and flirting with.
Simply notice when you’re doing this and remind yourself that these gap fillers aren’t real.
Talk about it
Communication is the secret to all relationships, non-monogamous or otherwise. Once you have reflected on why you feel jealous, bring it up with your partner.
Anna says, “The best way I’ve found to handle jealous feelings is just by talking it through with my partner. This requires you to have a supportive partner who will listen and reassure you. But once I’ve gotten it all out, I can feel the jealousy leaving my body.”
Try to use “I” statements to talk about your own feelings to tell your partner in a constructive way. Talk about how you felt, how you reacted, and where those feelings came from. Don’t demand that your partner change their behavior to accommodate your jealousy, but simply create an open communication where this is something you can talk about.
Jealousy is not always just in your head. Sometimes your partner may be doing something that is upsetting you and it’s because the boundaries aren’t clear. Sit down and talk about it with them and reestablish the boundaries. Reexamine the conditions you set and be clear what is ok and what is not. Don’t be afraid of having this conversation, it’s one that needs to be revisited as your relationship develops.
Get more help
Incrementally, with lots of self-work, reflection, self-care, and communication with your partner you can get a better grip on jealousy. The solution is to have the tools you need to cope with these feelings as they arise in your relationship.
Watch a beautiful portrayal of non-monogamous relationships in Primary, out now on afterglow.
Primary is an adult series written and directed by Casey Calvert that follows millennials navigating a life of love and lust whilst breaking stereotypes about non-monogamous relationships.