Ask Polly: how do we deal with jealousy?
Welcome to Ask Polly, the UK’s first poly advice column! We invite readers to send poly-related questions to our resident columnist, Polly, and she’ll do her very best to offer advice. You’re also very much encouraged to join the conversation in the comments. Polly can be contacted by email, on polly at polytical dot org, or via Polytical’s Facebook or twitter. Ask Polly will be published twice a month, and you can read more here.
I’m a bi, female, 23 year old student, in a relationship of over 1 year with my lovely bi male boyfriend. We’ve been talking for a long time about wanting to become polyamorous, with various “rules” evolving over time as we discover how we feel about them – moving from being allowed to kiss other people of the same gender, then to have sex with them, then have sex with the opposite gender but only if the other partner is present and participitating, then not – etc. We’ve rapidly discovered that having sex with strangers is fun, but not quite as enjoyable as sex with an undercurrent of affection and meaningfulness to it.
As it stands, we’ve reached the stage where I am completely happy for him to do whatever he wants, pursue any avenue – and in fact, when he met my ex girlfriend from high school, they rapidly developed a huge crush on each other! They did nothing but kiss, but agreed that they would like to date if distance weren’t an issue. The thing is, they both felt very guilty about their feelings and about the thought of upsetting me, despite my repeated reassurances.
And – what frustrates me the most – is that Boyf is not 100% happy when I meet someone I like. I’ve met a few individuals, male and female, recently who sparked my interest, but I’ve had to turn down further dates with them because he felt jealous. Not angry-jealous; sad-jealous which makes me feel worse Luckily though, he acknowledges that this isn’t fair and is something of a double-standard, and wishes he didn’t feel that way. He says he’s sure his feelings will improve with time.
So really, I just wanted to vent my frustration, and ask you and your readers if this situation seems familiar, and if so how they handled it?
Thanks! Josephine x
Thanks so much for sharing your story, and you’ve actually touched on something I’ve been wanting to talk about for a while: dealing with jealousy. It’s definitely a familiar situation to most poly people, and I’d love to hear from other readers about how they’ve dealt with it!
But first of all, a big well done to you both for moving towards polyamory: it sounds like you’ve both been working really hard, and this stuff isn’t easy, and most people find the idea too challenging to ever try out at all. So, nice one, go you, and you’re doing brilliantly!
Now, I feel like there’s a traditional model of going into polyamory, which is that a monogamous primary couple slowly open up their relationship, talk about everything and are extremely focused on the couple. Success seems to be defined as the couple who go into polyamory ending up staying together, and I’m not sure that’s necessarily a particularly healthy thing to aspire to. We’ve already seen that this can lead to secondaries being screwed over and mistreated, and jealousy in your situation has meant that you’ve had to turn down dates with lovely potential people. That’s a huge shame.
Swathes of advice has been written on keeping primary relationships solid and safe when moving towards poly. You can read The Ethical Slut and the essays on Xeromag as a start: moving really slowly, talking about every single step, not moving further until a partner is fully comfortable, has all been talked about a great deal. So, I’m going to suggest an alternative: you could consider this, and the traditional model, as forming ends of a spectrum – take elements from each to form your own ideas.
I think it’s really easy to develop a huge sense of responsibility for one’s partner’s jealousy, and to try and solve it through doing things like cancelling dates, rather than leaving the jealousy with the partner to deal with themselves. The alternative to the primary couple focused view of starting in non-monogamy is that you think in terms of your partner being completely their own person. What they do when you’re not around has nothing to do with you, and you can’t control it. They’re not necessarily going to check in with you loads, or to ask permission for every small step, or even have long conversations with you about safer sex. Instead, you’re going to have to trust them.
That’s it. Trust them. Trust that, when they say they love you and would like to be with you, they mean that. Trust that you don’t need to know the details of every person they’re considering dating to know they’re committed to you and would like to stay with you, because those things aren’t connected. Trust too that they’ll use safer sex practices without your grilling them on all the details, and instead consider sharing the amount of information you’d ask of any other person you would shag.
This jealousy? It might never go away. You can help him deal with it, you can be supportive because you’re his friend, but please remember that it’s not your responsibility to alleviate his jealousy, and it’s not something you can do for him. However many dates you cancel, however much you tell him you love him, it won’t help unless he takes responsibility for it. So set boundaries: support him more as a friend than a partner, and reassure him that you love him but don’t change your behaviour towards other dates.
Bear in mind that of course, you might break up. Yes, your partner might meet someone else with whom they’d like to be primaries, and this may or may not include their not wanting to be primaries with you any more.
Essentially, I’m talking about loosening your grip on your relationship: holding it lightly and letting it change if it needs to. Relationships will change whatever you do: whether you’re monogamous or polyamorous or something else entirely, there will be changes, and some might involve de-escalation or imbalance, or pain. None of this means failure, and all this happens in monogamous situations as well. I think many people think that going into poly may either result in this (and that can cause jealousy and fear), or prevent this as an outcome – in reality, there’s not much difference between polyamory and monogamy, and poly can’t really prevent your partner leaving if they want to.
Ultimately, you don’t have as much control as you think. Try to acknowledge that: don’t fall into the trap of thinking that asking permission for every step, drawing ladders of comfort level, banning certain sexual positions and vetoing new partners (remember, vetoes aren’t real) can help you keep control over your relationship. Don’t try to force your relationships to stay intact, happy and no different to how it was before: you’ve changed it by becoming polyamorous, so even more change is pretty likely to come from that.
This is a hard line I’m taking – essentially, I’m suggesting that he suck it up and deal; that he needs to take responsibility for his feelings; that you can be supportive but that you shouldn’t be cancelling dates. None of this means that you can’t proceed with kindness and compassion. Here are some ways in which you could help out while he is working on his jealousy.
- Be kind – you care about this person and like him a whole lot. Do what you can to help, and think of it as a friend helping a friend through a problem: you can be supportive, but you can’t solve it for them. Encourage them to be kind to themselves as well: if they’re feeling rough, they’ll feel better pampering themselves than beating themselves up.
- List some concrete, practical things that are useful for helping him feel better, and do them: for example, you could set aside time to debrief and reconnect after one of you returns from a date.
- Go on dates with different people at the same time, so you’re both too distracted and having too much fun to brood over what the other person is doing. If not a date, arrange to hang out with friends, or go and do a cool thing independently.
- Don’t mess your secondaries around. It’s okay to talk with them about one of you struggling with jealousy – being open and honest is good, but forcing your dates to deal with your primary relationship’s problems is very different and is not on. Don’t cancel dates as soon as your primary has a wibble. Don’t go on at them about how you feel guilty and as though you’re cheating (unload on a friend instead). Don’t text your primary throughout your date, focus on the person you’re dating.
- Talk with other poly people about how they deal with jealousy – remember that most poly people experience it, and for some it never goes away: they just learn to live with it. Simply hearing that other people experience this can be helpful, and also meeting people who have been practicing poly for years, and haven’t crashed and burned, can be really encouraging. Share your experiences and your coping strategies over tea and cake, and you’ll make new friends too.
- Use rules if you must, but use them really carefully, and bear in mind that they’re temporary; they’re tools, and they’re not the thing that’s going to be supporting your relationship here. What keeps your relationship awesome and supports it is your mutual trust and love: without that, all rules are useless. Think of them as scaffolding; temporary, and not the actual structure, but a means towards building it. Renegotiate them often, and remove them when you can.
- Keep going. You’ll learn by experience that one of you can go off on a date, and have a wonderful time, and feel really excited about a new lover, and that they’ll come back. They’ll come back, they’ll continue to like you, to love you and to want to hang out. The very best way to learn this is through experience. It’ll be hard, but keep on: keep putting one foot in front of the other. Keep going.
I wish you all the very best of luck – you’re already doing absolutely brilliantly for even starting to consider this. Congratulate yourselves, look after yourselves and each other and your new dates, and keep at it. I’d love to hear from some other readers as well!
Liked thispiece? Why not check out the previous Ask Polly column?