This entry started out as a reply to a comment elsewhere in my journal in this thread, and expanded until it touched on some of the things I was saying in this entry in the polyamory community, and grew too big to be posted as a comment anyway, so I’ll probably just end up putting this whole thing in my journal and in polyamory.
One of the central fixtures in most polyamorous relationships, especially polyamorous relationships between an existing couple who begin with a monogamous relationship and then expand the relationship to include polyamory, is a set of rules or covenants designed to protect the existing relationship and to make the people in the relationship feel secure–in other words, to deal with issues like jealousy, insecurity, and threat. I’m going to borrow peristaltor‘s metaphor of the refrigerator and bend it to my own ends.
Let’s assume your relationship is a refrigerator. One day, a problem arises in your relationship–the refrigerator quits working. You walk into your kitchen, there’s a puddle on the floor, and all your frozen pizzas and ice cream are a gooey mass in the bottom of the freezer. There are a few things you can do at this point, once you’ve mopped up the mess and scraped the remains of last night’s lunch out of the fridge. One solution is to fix the refrigerator; another is to replace it. A third solution is to leave the refrigerator exactly where it is and change your life around the problem–“From this day forward, I will bring no frozen or refrigerated foods into this house.” In the poly community, the last option is the one most people choose.
I’ll get back to the fridge in a bit, though, because first, I think it’s important to address something that peristaltor said, which is that sometimes, fears have a purpose. I’m going to spend a good deal of the rest of this entry talking about fear and threat, and it’s important to keep in mind that not all fear is irrational. Fear of snakes? Positive and healthy. fear of spiders, or falling, or drowning? Positive and healthy. A lot of our distant ancestors had to die to bequeath us with these instinctual fears, and they’ve served us well. There’s a difference between a rational fear and an irrational fear, a difference between a fear that genuinely keeps you safe and a fear that makes you contort your life (and the lives of the people around you) for no good reason. The latter kind of fear seeks only to protect itself, not to protect you–and ironically, sometimes it creates the very thing you’re afraid of!
In a relationship, a fear or an insecurity is a symptom of a problem. In some cases, the fear is perfectly rational and justified. An abused child lives in fear of his abusive parent for good reason; he has tangible reason to fear. In a healthy relationship, though, these fears are almost always irrational and unfounded.
Jealousy itself is an interesting emotion, because jealousy is a composite emotion, that is based on other emotions. It’s a second-order emotional response–something happens, that thing causes you to feel threatened or to feel insecure or to feel something negative about yourself, and then that fear or insecurity makes you feel jealous. For that reason, the root of jealousy is often surprisingly difficult to pin down and understand.
Instead, what happens is that people look at the event which is the proximal cause of the jealousy and assume that that event is the source of the problem. “My partner kisses another person, I feel jealous; therefore, it’s the kiss that makes me jealous. The way to deal with the jealousy is to address his habit of kissing people.”
Back about thirteen or fourteen years ago, I was dating a woman I’d met at college, R. During the course of our relationship, R started dating another close friend of mine, T. And for the first time in my life, for the first time in my history (at the time) of a half-dozen successful long-term poly relationships, I was jealous.
I don’t mean “You know, this makes me uncomfortable” jealous. I mean “completely overwhelmed, smashed to pieces beneath a tidal wave of feelings I could not anticipate or predict or control, gut-wrenching, wanting-to-puke” jealous. I mean the kind of jealous that consumes every other feeling and leaves nothing but ashes behind. I’d never felt those things before, and when I was in the middle of those feelings the only thing–the ONLY thing–I could think about was making the feelings stop, however I could. Because it happened when she was with T, and didn’t happen at other times, I made the logical, reasonable, and totally stupid assumption that the cause of the feelings was her relationship with T. From there, I reached the equally stupid conclusion that the thing which would make the jealousy go away was if she changed something about her behavior or her relationship with T. (I also didn’t really recognize the jealousy for what it was, powerful as it was, because I’d never felt it before, which only reinforced the notion that it was “caused by” her relationship with him.)
I behaved pretty reprehensibly, playing passive-aggressive games and just generally acting like…well, like a lot of people dealing with their first crisis in a poly relationship act. predictably, it destroyed my relationship with her. She went on to marry T and cut me out of her life completely; the very thing I was afraid of came to pass because of my jealousy. Had I not behaved the way I did, we’d probably still be close, almost fifteen years later.
In hindsight, now that I have a lot more experience and a bit more emotional wisdom under my belt, I can see where I went wrong. When a person feels jealous, and attributes the jealousy to the things which trigger the jealousy, he doesn’t actually understand the jealousy. It’s a bit like a person who has never seen a rabbit except when it’s being pursued by a dog believing that the dog is the cause of the rabbit. In reality, jealousy is built of other emotions; jealousy is not “caused” in any direct sense by the action which triggers it, but rather by a different emotional response to the act which triggers it.
In my case, R and I had never really discussed her relationship with T; nor had we talked about, in any capacity at all, what her intentions with T were or what effect, if any, that would have on her intentions with and her relationship with me. Put most simply, I saw her and T together, I had no idea what that meant for her and I, so I became afraid of being replaced. The fear of being replaced, in turn, led to the jealousy.
Now, had I actually taken the time to examine the jealousy and really try to understand it, I probably would’ve figured that out. And, once I understood that the jealousy was caused by a fear of being replaced…well, a fear of being replaced is a fear that you can work with. A fear of being replaced, all things considered, is really not that difficult to address. All it requires is conversation about intentions, perhaps a bit of reassurance, and time enough to demonstrate that the conversations and reassurance are genuine, and hey, there you go.
Getting back to the refrigerator:
Fixing the refrigerator means doing exactly that. It means saying “I know that I am feeling jealous. I know that the jealousy is brought about by some other emotion–some emotion which is triggered by the action that makes me jealous. I need to figure out what that other emotion is, and I need to figure out why that action triggers that emotion.”
Until you do that, you are helpless in the face of the jealousy. If you don’t understand it, there is nothing you can do to address it. Trying to understand it isn’t easy; when you’re ass-deep in alligators, it’s easy to forget that the initial goal was to drain the swamp, and when you’re entirely overwhelmed by gut-wrenching emotions that are tearing you to pieces, it’s easy to forget that these emotions are grounded in some other emotions. In the middle of jealousy, all you want is for the jealousy to stop, and you don’t care how.
So, you confuse the trigger with the cause. You believe, erroneously, that the source of the jealousy is the action that triggers it. You see your partner kiss someone, you feel jealous, you want the jealousy to stop, you pass a rule: “No more kissing.”
This is the equivalent of saying “No more frozen food in the house.” The problem is still there. The root has not been touched. The broken refrigerator is still sitting in the corner, dripping water. You haven’t actually dealt with the underlying causes at all; you haven’t addressed the insecurity or fear of loss or fear of being replaced; you’ve just “solved” the problem by shielding yourself from situations that might make you address it. You’ve “solved” the broken refrigerator by passing a rule against bringing refrigerated food into the house.
And then you do the same thing to anyone else who comes in to your relationship. You tell anyone coming into the house, “Look, here’s how it is. You can come over, you can have dinner with us, you can spend time here. but under no circumstances are you to bring any frozen food into these premises.” And if anyone asks ‘why’–well, secondary partners don’t get to ask ‘why,’ do they? Those are the rules, take ’em or leave ’em. We Just Don’t Talk About the giant, leaky, broken refrigerator in the corner. We don’t talk about it and we don’t allow anything that might make us confront the fact that the damn fridge is busted. No frozen foods. No kissing, no saying “I love you,” no doing anything that might make us actually have to deal with the fucking refrigerator.
Take it or leave it.
Not to pick on leotheseadragon, but I’ve spent a lot of time over the last several days thinking about what he said here in the polyamory community, and my response. My response to the situation he talks about now is a lot different than my response would have been thirteen years ago.
The situation leotheseadragon is an excellent example to use when talking about jealousy, because it happens so often. I’ve seen similar situations no fewer than a dozen times in the past three years; it’s a microcosm of the kinds of emotional responses people can have to a situation, and the kinds of rules and covenants they put into place to deal with those responses.
Abstracting from his exact situation a bit, the general idea is this: A person has an existing, primary relationship. He, or they, then begin sexual or romantic relationships with others. One of the people in the primary relationship has a jealousy response, such as “I don’t care when you are with a partner of the same sex, but when you are with a partner of the opposite sex I feel insecure.”
This happens amazingly often. (Sometimes it works the other way: “I don’t mind if you have partners of the same sex, because I know what they can offer you and I know I can compete with them, but I get insecure when you have partners of the opposite sex because they can provide an experience I can’t.” Whatever. The emotional process is pretty much the same.)
Now, put yourself in that position: you are jealous when your partner has some sort of relationship with some other person under some particular circumstance, such as when your partner has sex with someone of the same sex as you. What do you do?
Well, you can take the “I’m not the boss of my partner, so I will let my partner do his thing; my healousy is my issue to deal with, and I souldn’t feel it, so I won’t” approach. That usually involves squashing or suppressing the jealousy, which in turn usually means sitting in a dark room crying and feeling like you’re going to throw up when your partner is out having fun, sometimes combined with moodiness and passive-aggressiveness when your partner returns..y’know, just to spice things up.
Of course, you’re going to feel like crap. Getting back to the refrigerator, this is like continuing to put food into the fridge even though you know it’s broken. Result: wilted lettuce and sour milk. Bon appetit!
Or, you can say “I get jealous if my partner does X or Y with a person of Z sex, so we’ll make a rule in our relationship: no X or Y with someone of Z sex.” There you go, you don’t feel jealous any more. Of course, the underlying cause is still there–you haven’t fixed it. What will likely happen then is that six monthsdown the road, you’ll find that action W triggers the same jealousy. Okay, no biggie–we’ll outlaw W too. But wait, action Q and S trigger jealousy too–who knew? Hey, we can handle this; we’ll pass rules against Q and S. Oh, and against T, too, because T is, y’know, kinda like S. And we’ll pass rules against–you know what, this other partner of yours is just making me feel jealous in general. Veto!!!
And then you end up with problems in your own relationship, because, y’know, unintended consequences and all that. One of the unintended consequences of vetoing a person your partner loves is that you hurt your partner; one of the predictable consequences of doing things which hurt your partner is you damage your relationship.
Or, there’s a third solution. You can break up with your partner, because you feel jealous when your partner does X with a person of sex Y, and your partner wants to do X with people of sex Y, and you don’t like controlling your partner and you don’t like feeling jealous, so this isn’t the relationship for you.
Hey, at least it’s an honest response. You’ve thrown the refrigerator away, and replaced it with a new one.
And that’s about where your options end, right?
There’s another option. You can fix the fucking refrigerator.
Rathewr than retype it, I’ll simply repost here what I said in the thread to leotheseadragon:
“Were I in your partner’s shoes, the conversation would go a bit differently:
“I am uncomfortable with this, and for some reason the idea of you playing alone with a person of the same sex is OK with me but the idea of you playing alone with the person of the opposite sex is not OK with me.
I do not understand these feelings yet, but they seem like they are rooted in some kind of fear (such as the fear that I cannot compete with someone of the same sex as me), or possibly some jealousy. I need to work on this, because I recognize that it is irrational and unjustified. Therefore, it is OK with me if you play with someone of either sex, but I will want to talk to you about it afterward, and analyze my feelings and reactions, and try to understand them so that I can address whatever is causing these reactions. After you are done, I will need some time with you so that we can work together at identifying what is causing this irrational emotional response on my part.”
That’s what I mean when I say “fix the refrigerator.”
The nice thing about doing this is that you can, if you have isolated the emotional response beneath the jealousy and identified positive ways to deal with it directly, end up in a position where you don’t feel jealous any more. Even when your partner does the things that used to trigger the jealousy. You just don’t feel jealous any more. You do not need to pass rules banning certain behavior and you do not need to veto someone, because you don’t feel jealous any more.
The downside, though, is that your irrational fear will fight to protect itself; it won’t go down easy. The thought process goes like this:
“If my partner does these things with someone of the same sex as me, then I might lose my partner, because someone else might give him the same things I give him. If I lose my fear of losing my partner, I will no longer have a reason to ask my partner not to do these things. If I don’t have a reason to ask my partner not to do these things, then my partner will do them, because I know he wants to do them. If my partner does these things, I will lose my partner, because then someone else will give him the same things I give him. So I better not get over my fear, because if I get over my fear, then i won’t have a reason to ask him not to do these things, and that means he’ll do these things, and that means…I’ll lose him!”
And ’round and ’round it goes. You don’t want to lose the fear, because you’re afraid something bad will happen, and you can’t give up the fear of something bad happening because if you do…you’re afraid something bad will happen.
Fixing the refrigerator requires a leap of faith. It requires believing, even if your fear is telling you otherwise, that your partner is with you because your partner wants to be with you. If you start with the assumption that your partner wants to be with you, then anything becomes possible–including defeating your jealousy without passing rules.
But you got to start there. You got to take it on faith, even when your fear is telling you otherwise–and believe me, it will.
There’s more to say on the subject, but this message is too long anyway, and I have a meeting with a client.