On Jealousy

Occasionally, I’ll invite a thinker or writer whom I respect to come on and do a guest post on a particular topic. This guest post on jealousy, by @modern_apostacy, comes with the perspective and clarity of a considered mind, and the experience of a person who understands non-monogamy from a practical point of view. Enjoy…

I remember sitting in bed once, with a woman’s head resting on my left shoulder.  She was not my primary lover.  As I was gently brushing her hair back from her face with my fingertips, she was listening, lazily, to the sound of my primary lover having sex with her primary lover on the sofa across the room.  About the time I’d finished tucking her hair behind her ear, this other man was just burying his hand up to the wrist inside the woman I cared for more than anything else in the world, who cried out “Oh, God!” and proceeded to buck & scream loudly.  Almost a minute(!) later, she finally collapsed into the sofa, breathing raggedly.  Afterwards, I watched her clutch onto him tightly for a long time, watched her rest, quaking, in this other man’s arms.

Pretty interesting, so far as memories go.  One of the things that’s really interesting, in retrospect, is that neither of us on the bed were at all disturbed by the intense moment that had just transpired between our lovers.  On seeing one’s lover ravished by another, most people would have felt anguish, rage or humiliation.  We felt none of that, which is actually pretty typical for the polyamorous.  One might wonder how that might be, and the answer, more than anything else, is that polyamorous people are connoisseurs of jealousy.  Some polyamorous people feel a twinge of jealousy every now and then, and others are vexed by it constantly, as if jealousy were a wayward mosquito one wished would go away.  Irrespective of the particulars, jealousy is something poly folks deeply understand.

Envy, the condition of seeing that someone has something that one lacks, and feeling pained by the lack, can be a highly productive emotion.  Musicians, athletes, writers, and other people of all stripes find themselves driven to achieve what they see others enjoying.  Envy by itself is value-neutral, not the green eyed monster that it’s often made out to be.  Combine envy with hope, and you get aspiration.  Combine envy with humility and you get admiration.  This sort of combinatorics holds true on the negative side of our emotional ledgers as well: envy and despair produce bitterness, for example.

At first blush, it would seem that jealousy, especially in a sexual context, doesn’t quite fit this analysis: if I have difficulty with the notion of my lover having sex with someone else, it can’t be that this someone else has something I lack — the woman in question is already my lover.  In this hypothetical situation, I’m not reacting to witnessing something I lack, I’m putatively unhappy with someone else also having what I have — not wanting to share.  As any parent can attest, love is not a sandwich: sharing love doesn’t diminish it, it strengthens and deepens it.  So, something deeper is clearly going on with jealousy.

If one attends sufficiently to the feelings inherent in jealousy, one finds that the emotional cloud comprising jealousy has a sense of risk, of danger.  It’s terribly unsettling.  The reason for this is that jealousy isn’t rooted in the present, but in the future.  Relationship jealousy is an extrapolation of present feelings and circumstances to the anticipation of envy and loss — it’s primarily a present anticipation of future grief.

At its core, jealousy is caused by insecurity.  Very often, this insecurity is illusory, and is simply a lack of confidence in one’s self.  Other times, the insecurity inherent in jealousy is based on known but unacknowledged instability within one’s main relationship.

For example, in many cases, marriages end not when one of the married folks starts having sex with another person, but long before that, when a spouse who is lacking emotional intimacy with his or her mate starts to find this need readily met in another person.  As time goes by, the cheating person’s emotional focus drifts until the marriage becomes not much more than a background technicality — by the time sexual “cheating” occurs, the core of the marriage has long since become dry rot.  A person with such a dessicated marriage might be quite prone to jealousy, and would be wise to heed the warning that his or her jealousy provides.  Perhaps the relationship can be fixed; perhaps it cannot.  Regardless of the particulars, in this kind of situation, the warning of jealousy is serving a valid and useful role.

This scenario, by the way, is not solely the province of the monogamous.  Open relationships, should they be taken for granted, are equally susceptible to this sort of emotional drift, and a poly person who neglects his or her primary relationship in favor of his or her secondary relationships isn’t going to be happy with the long-term results.

Mostly, though, for the polyamorous and monogamous alike, jealousy is not a warning sign flashing “Hey buddy, your relationships out of whack!”.  Most of the time, jealousy results from more garden-variety insecurities.  Sometimes, a jealous person might be willing to let his or her current lover go, except for lack of confidence that they might be able to find a replacement.  Other times, one might feel that one’s lover is more desirable than one’s self, whether due to clinically realistic analysis or having put one’s lover up on a pedestal.

In most of these situations, the jealousy that one feels isn’t signalling that a real problem exists, but rather that one has more personal growth to undergo.  The more that one understands one’s own emotional landscape and is able to rectify unreasonable insecurities, or, at least to recognize them as present but undesirable aspects of one’s self, the more that one is freed from jealousy’s sting.  For many, jealousy completely disappears; for others, it remains, but loses its power to disrupt, like a mild headache when the barometer falls.

In the polyamorous community, jealousy is very much disrespected.  Poly folks instead advocate an emotion they call “compersion”, which can essentially be summed up as joy resulting from witnessing one’s lover in a happy relationship, generally in a sexual context, but not exclusively so.  If the thought of one’s lover being pleased (or pleasured) by another fills one’s heart with warm fuzzies, that’s a great thing.  But just because an opposite of jealousy is espoused in the poly community doesn’t mean that jealousy deserves the disrespect that it gets.

The problem isn’t that jealousy arises: the problem lies in how jealousy is handled.  Jealousy is a great indicator that something, either small or large, isn’t right.  One should never blindly obey a negative emotion, especially a socially destructive one, but nor should one bury one’s head in the sand, either.  Consider jealousy to be like a car’s “check engine” light — safe to ignore if you know the situation’s trivial, unsafe to ignore otherwise.  The upside of doing the hard work of understanding one’s jealousy is that one can become completely liberated from it.  By heeding jealousy, we grow free of it, and are able to adore our lovers passions purely, without fretting over where we fit in.


  1. Great post – but one also needs to remember that we’re all hot-wired for sexual jealousy from a primal mating perspective – if your lover has sex with someone else that might result in children, damaging your own chances to have children – the selfish gene. So even if you don’t want to feel jealous at an intellectual level, it can be hard to overcome the natural instinct.

    1. Absolutely, Tamsin. That’s an excellent point. In fact, you could almost say that jealousy serves (and has served) an evolutionary purpose, which is why it might be dangerous to dismiss or deride it. Rather, I think jealousy is something to be aware of – a hot-wired response that in and of itself is value-neutral. I suppose the real thing is to understand jealousy and how it works in oneself, and then manage it, rather than letting it manage you 🙂

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