So, in my last entry about jealousy, dealing with the emotional responses that deal with jealousy, and developing the fine art of fixing refrigerators, I said “there’s more to say on the subject.” And indeed there is. I would’ve said it then, except that (a) I had to run out the door to see a client–I can’t spend all my time on LiveJournal, as much fun as that would be–and (b) we all know that nobody’ll read a seventy-six-page LiveJournal entry, anyway. So, to save my bank account and your patience, I didn’t get into everything that really needs to be got into about fixing refrigerators.
If you don’t have the faintest idea of what I’m talking about, you need to read that post first. Really, you do. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Anyway. You wake up one morning and discover that something’s wrong in your relationship; something your partner is doing is creating an emotional response in you that cascades, like those little metal balls in a pachinko machine, until you feel jealous. Metaphorically speaking, your refrigerator is broken; you can fix it, you can replace it, or you can pretend that nothing’s actually wrong and just make up a rule that says no refrigerated or frozen food in the house. After all, if you can avoid the thing that makes you confront the broken refrigerator, it’s all good, right?
Now, I would argue that fixing the refrigerator–identifying the things leading to the jealousy, identifying the fears or insecurities that underlie the jealousy, and then dealing with the jealousy at its root–is the best course of action. I would also argue that the most common response is ignoring the problem and banning any kind of frozen food in the house.
But these two things aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. If you’re on your hands and knees behind the refrigerator with a flashlight in your mouth, you probably don’t want your partner trying to pile more food into the fridge while you’re working on it, right? So it seems reasonable to say “Honey, don’t put any more food in there until I fix the problem, ‘kay?” And this is exactly what many people will tell you they’re doing when they say “My partner does something with someone else, and it makes me feel jealous, so I told him not to do that thing any more–but only until I get to the bottom of it and deal with the jealousy.”
All well and good, but you have to be really careful with this approach. If you’re not, then what happens is that days turn into weeks, weeks turn into months, you’re still uncomfortable with your partner doing whatever it is, months turn into years, and what’s actually happened is that you’ve said you’re going to fix the refrigerator but it’s still sitting in the corner dripping water all over everything and, effectively, you’re just not buying any refrigerated foods any more.
When dealing with a jealousy or insecurity issue, it’s important to differentiate between not wanting to do something because it’s uncomfortable, and not wanting to do something because it’s actually harmful. Some things are a no-brainer.
People often accuse me of being against rules of any sort in a relationship. Actually, this isn’t the case at all; I have rules in all my relationships, and certain standards of behavior which are essential and non-negotiable for anyone who wants to be partnered with me. I do not intend to come across as saying that there should be no rules in a relationship. Quite the contrary; some rules are reasonable and prudent, and some fears are rational and justified.
A trivial example is sexual health. STDs are real. they exist, and they can kill you. Anyone in a sexual relationship of any sort, especially multiple sexual relationships, is well-advised to keep that in mind, and design a minimum standard of behavior for himself and his partners to deal with that risk. In fact, you’d have to be a fool or a madman not to think about STDs when you create your relationship arrangements, and fear of STDs is not only rational, it’s downright prudent. Creating rules to protect yourself from this risk is a damn good idea.
Things aren’t as clear-cut when you’re dealing with emotional risk, however, Fears and insecurities are very, very clever at protecting and justifying themselves, and separating something that is actually harmful from something that’s merely uncomfortable isn’t always easy. It requires work. It requires examining, with an unflinching eye, what it is you’re afraid of and what it is you think will happen if your partner continues doing the thing that makes you jealous. And above all, it requires that you ask yourself, on a regular basis, What is the point of all this?
Many people in the poly community seem to be inherent pessimists, and to have a worst-case scenario of relationship.
What I mean by that is that many people start their polyamorous relationships from the perspective that polyamory itself is inherently destructive, you can’t reasonably expect your poly relationships to be healthy and positive, and if you don’t ride herd on them all the time and manage your relationships and your partner’s behavior strictly, all that will happen is you’ll lose everything.
You see this in the language that people use to describe their relationships. “Well, we do primary/secondary in order to protect the primary relationship.” Protect the primary relationship? Protect it from what? The basic premise is that if you DON’T do primary/secondary, then you’ll automatically find yourself in a situation that destroys the primary relationship; after all, if that were not the case, why would you need these structures to “protect” the existing relationship in the first place? If you believe that you need these rules in order to make sure your needs are met, then what is it that makes you think that another person’s needs must automatically come at the expense of your own?
When you start from the default assumption that other relationships are a threat, and you need to manage and control that threat, then of course it makes sense to assume that part of managing that threat means passing rules that place strict controls on your other relationships. But if you start from the default assumption that polyamory is implicitly threatening to your existing relationship, then what the hell are you doing poly for?
But wait, it gets worse! You see, people’s behaviors don’t spring from a vacuum. People act the way they do for a reason. If your partne’s behavior, left unchecked, is disrespectful to you and recklessly disregards your needs, then you don’t really solve the problem by placing controls on his behavior. The problem runs deeper than that. And contrawise, if your partner loves and respects you and wants to do right by your relationship, then you don’t need to place controls on his behavior; his behavior will reflect the fact that he wants to do right by you, and does so because he chooses to, not because you make him. As Shelly wrote elsewhere, behavior is an emergent phenomenon. You don’t actually control your partner’s heart by controlling his behavior. If your partner’s heart is not really with your relationship, making rules won’t protect your relationship; if your partner’s heart is with your relationship, making rules to protect the relationship is unnecessary.
But back to not putting vegetables into the fridge while it’s being fixed. Yes, this is a very, very good idea. It is not always true that a person who says “not now” actually means “not ever.” There are many people who say “not now” because they are, in fact, working on the problem, and sometimes working on the problem takes time.
Here’s the thing, though. Working on the problem means working on the problem. It means taking affirmative action toward addressing the underlying jealousy. It means making progress.
What can sometimes happen is that a person can sincerely believe that he wants to address the underlying insecurities or fears behind his jealousy, and he can genuinely imagine a time when he does not have those fears and his partner can do whatever it is that triggers the jealousy. But you aren’t going to get from here to there without discomfort. If you wait for a time when you no longer feel uncomfortable, then you’ll be waiting forever, and that time will never come, because the very act of working on the fears and insecurities means being uncomfortable. You cannot challenge a fear without exposing yourself to it. You cannot fix the refrigerator until you actually get on your hands and knees and crawl around behind it and start tinkering with the guts of the thing with a flashlight in your mouth, and that’s uncomfortable. If you say “Don’t do this until I feel comfortable with it” and then you don’t challenge your discomfort, you are saying “Don’t do this” and sneaking the rule in the back door. If your relationship is broken and three weeks later you’re still saying “No, honey, don’t bring any frozen foods home yet, it’s still not working,” what kind of progress are you making?
Things can get a little trickier still (this business of romantic relationship is messy, isn’t it?) when your partner has done something, intentionally or unintentionally, to damage your trust or to mistreat you in some way. When this happens, it takes time to rebuild trust and to repair the damage, and it’s reasonable to expect not to keep doing things which are threatening until you get enough time and distance to separate the damage from mere discomfort.
Of course, i say “mere discomfort” even though I know full well that that “mere discomfort” can be an overwhelming tidal wave of jealousy that so completely washes over you that it leaves you shaking and twisted up in agony and unable to do or say or think about anything save for making the feeling go away. Hey, I never said it was easy–only that it’s possible, and necessary.