Little Monsters: On Jealousy

From an illuminated manuscript, (c. 1400)

Illuminated manuscript, (c. 1400)

Last week, I posted this on Tumblr:

“Jealousy isn’t a failure to transcend. It’s a persistent human reality. It requires acknowledgment and compassion and the gentle refusal to let it rule you developed through practice and patience – patience with the situation and, most especially, patience with yourself.”

This was not a random, theoretical musing on my part. It was a reminder, one I wrote to myself years ago – the last time I had a really good, serious bout with jealousy; because while I’m not fantastically prone to it, I still get jealous like anyone else. It’s just rare enough that, when I do, it really gets my attention.

So, why did it flare up? Something innocuous caught me off guard and I found myself slammed by an irrational, makes-no-sense case of the green-eyed monster. But here’s what really fucked me up (far more than the jealousy itself did): the fact that it happened.

I’ve written about non-monogamy before and, after being non-monogamous for a good fifteen years, I’m fairly practiced at dissecting my feelings. Very often, in the case of jealousy, there’s a territorial impulse at the heart of it (I get so impatient with myself over this). Other times it’s envy regarding time and proximity. Sometimes, it’s just old-fashioned insecurity (often stemming from the two things I just mentioned). This time though…this time it was much less clear-cut and, as a result, far more unsettling.

I’ve been sitting with it for a while now and I’ve finally begun to realize that even more than jealousy, frustration and proximal envy (all of which were mixed up in in there too), what really threw me off was the fact that I felt vulnerable quite suddenly, and that’s a frightening thing.

It’s one thing to love someone. It’s another to realize at a deep, cellular level that loving them means they could hurt you, and no one, including my ego-driven self, wants to get hurt. It was realizing how vulnerable I am that rattled me more than anything else.

In a strange confluence of circumstance, this subject has been making the rounds a bit. Rachel Kramer Bussel used a couple of my quotes in her excellent article on polyamory last week, and since then, I’ve had some good conversations with people about non-monogamy, jealousy and how to deal with it in poly relationships. Here’s how I manage, for what it’s worth:

  1. I try not to lash out because I’m having feelings. If possible, I try to understand what’s going on before I express how I feel to anyone else. Unfortunately, this time I dropped the ball and vented, which rattled me even more because it indicated how totally consumed by my feelings I was.
  1. I try to look at the source of my jealousy and figure out why it triggered me. In this case, it wasn’t the trigger so much as the fact that having tangled, jealous feelings made me realize how vulnerable I am.
  1. I try to reframe the issue in a way that puts me in control of those feelings rather than allowing them to rule me. In this case, I could A. shut down, shove my partner away and not feel vulnerable B. double-down on my initial response and make everyone miserable or C. acknowledge that I feel vulnerable and gradually bring myself to a place where that’s okay. For the record, I chose C. because I’ll be goddamned if I let my emotions own me – they are mine, not the other way around.
  1. Finally, I try to talk to my partner. This can be really fucking hard, because to admit to being jealous is, in fact, to admit to being vulnerable. That takes trust and a leap of faith. I was very lucky in that he was great when I told him, and though I’m still getting comfortable with the vulnerability, I don’t feel nearly so rattled anymore. In the context of our relationship, it’s just a fact and I own that because, at a very basic level, loving someone means you might get hurt. It’s just part of the deal. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to connect those dots, but I’m glad I did.

**Note on #4: It’s important that you communicate your feelings to your partner in a productive way, not in a knee-jerk reaction kind of way. That’s why I try to figure out what’s going on before I get anywhere near discussing it. The point of telling your partner is not to make them to stop doing the thing that makes you jealous. The point is to help them understand what’s going on so you don’t accidentally create a wedge in your relationship. It also has the nice side effect of giving them the opportunity to give you a bit of slack while you’re dealing with it.

And that’s the key – you dealing with it. Because your feelings are your feelings and you’re the one who has to deal with them. As Cunning Minx over at the Polyamory Weekly podcast says, it’s all about owning your own shit.

Here’s the bottom line (or, at least, my bottom line specific to this instance). The fact that I feel vulnerable isn’t bad. It’s not something to fear. It’s just a statement of fact. What I have to do is adjust my self-perception to include that vulnerability. Now, thanks to the discomfort of jealousy, I’ve realized that I am vulnerable and I’ve accepted that as part of being with my partner.

Jealousy is only a monster if you let it be monstrous. Like anything else, you can use it – not to change your partner or your relationship, but to better understand yourself. It’s not easy. In fact, it’s legitimately hard, but the alternative is even harder in the long run. I’d rather keep the little monster firmly on its lead.

**NB: I had a lovely conversation with Molly Moore about communicating and receiving admissions of jealousy, and she very correctly pointed out that this is much easier said than done. I’ll be writing a follow-up post or two soon exploring this in more depth.

**NB 6/1/15: As part of the lovely conversation I mentioned above, Molly Moore invited me onto her podcast, the KissCast to talk about jealousy in more depth. You can listen to that episode HERE.

4 Comments

  1. You’ve written a really wonderful post here.

    I can’t say I suffer from jealousy much but the few times I have, it’s been truly awful. I’ve seen other people suffer from it horribly, painfully and usually their feelings end up triggering self-destructive and relationship-destroying behaviour.

    All I know is that when I have felt jealous, my reaction is to go cold, and make myself scarce. I don’t want to be anywhere near the person who triggered it. I realize that I value my own sense of dignity far above anything else. I’m essentially selfish and isolated. Don’t be me.

    • Thank you. That means a great deal to me. I actually have the same initial response to jealousy – to go cold, withdraw and punish the person who triggered it by making myself scare until I feel secure again. Because jealousy happens so rarely with me, the emotions feel all the more pressured and insistent when it does. I’ve hurt people very badly in service to my ego and the claims at control it makes. The only good thing that came out of it was that I was forced to acknowledge that the reality of my behavior didn’t match my self-image, so one of them had to change. .

      I’ve also been thinking about what you said – the “don’t be like me” – and I understand what you’re saying, though your unflinching assessment of yourself is something I greatly admire, (not just in this comment, but in general). It’s much easier to be dispassionate in one’s assessment of other people. Seeing oneself objectively is a lot harder. Regardless of anything else, that’s a quality worth honest respect.

  2. Fantastic post.

    I tend to turn my jealousy inwards and torture myself with it. Which probably ends up torturing whoever I’m with as well.

    • Thank you, HGG. It’s lovely of you to comment. Jealousy is hard and complicated and it makes you do all kinds of things that are hurtful to other people and, most especially, yourself. At the very least, it’s kind of nice to know that it’s a nearly universal emotion, and that almost everyone wrestles with it at some point. xx

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