When people learn that I practice nonmonogamy, one of the first questions that they ask me is “How do you handle jealousy?”
To which, I respond, “How do you?”
Jealousy is not unique to nonmonogamy. In fact, it’s not unique at all. Jealousy shows up in all kinds of relationships, and when it makes us intensely uncomfortable, we find ourselves doing anything to avoid feeling it.
It’s no wonder so many people feel confident saying “I could never do nonmonogamy; it would make me too jealous.” While choosing one relationship structure over another is a valid personal choice, that reasoning is misguided. By that logic, I would never try anything new, for fear of embarrassment. I would never watch a tearjerker, for fear of sadness. I would never go on a rollercoaster, for fear of, well, fear. How many amazing things would we refuse to do, if we were equally avoidant of other uncomfortable feelings?
In talking with thousands of people about their experiences with jealousy, in my work as a sex and relationships educator, it appears that where people get stuck is in feeling like jealousy is an unacceptable emotion. Especially for people who fancy themselves evolved in relational politics, there is an internal struggle around why they feel jealous and how they can stop it.
But what if we accepted jealousy into our lives and tried to work with it instead? What if we let jealousy be like every other emotion that we feel — an indicator that our nervous system is asking us to pay attention to something? What if, instead of battling jealousy, we reframed our understanding of it?
Let’s start here: Jealousy is a perfectly healthy emotion
Read that again.
There is nothing wrong with you for feeling jealous. In fact, if you claimed that you’ve never felt jealous once in your life, I wouldn’t believe you (emotional processing disorders notwithstanding).
Emotions are complicated. But biologically speaking, emotions are neurophysiological responses triggered by a complex constellation of changes in our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and the environment.
Hormones are released in our bodies that create physical and mental sensations that we’ve been able to put words to. And some research points to emotions as our primary motivating factor for our behavior, which can be a survival mechanism.
Jealousy is an unpleasant feeling that arises when we perceive a threat to a relationship. We may feel scared, concerned, or otherwise insecure about our safety in our connections — it’s simply one of several common emotions that are virtually universally experienced in humans.
Jealousy alerts you that a situation doesn’t feel good to you — and asks you to sort out how to regain a sense of safety and security. So why would you want to get rid of it? That sounds like an adaptive emotional response to me! And because connection and community are such deeply important safety mechanisms in social beings, like humans, of course this feeling would come up in our relationships! Jealousy is saying, “We want this relationship to survive and to feel safe. Maybe something needs to change in order for that to happen.”
So instead of pushing jealousy away, invite it in. Say thank you to jealousy. I’m listening to what you have to say.
Like with any emotion, the key is being careful of what you do with it.
Our behavioral response to jealousy can be helpful, but it can also be harmful.
While jealousy is a perfectly healthy emotion to feel, if we aren’t careful, how we react when we feel jealous can be damaging to the health of our relationships — and ourselves.
When I was a community educator for a local domestic violence agency, I co-taught workshops on healthy relationships for middle and high school students. And in that work, we would make a distinction between jealousy and extreme jealousy, where the latter indicates a response to jealousy that sets out to control other people.
For example, if I feel jealous about a new person that my partner is hanging out with, that’s okay! A supportive response to that feeling might be to journal about the feeling to try to understand where it’s coming from, to unpack it with one of my friends or my therapist, to talk compassionately with my partner about how I’m feeling — or all three!
An unsupportive response would be to yell at my partner over this new connection, to try to sabotage the relationship in some way, or to pick a fight with the new person. If my response to jealousy has the goal of manipulating the situation so that my partner stops talking to this person, my response is most likely harmful. If my response to jealousy is to understand why I feel scared and to work with my partner to feel safe again, my response is probably fair and supportive.
And if someone is using jealousy as a manipulation tactic — purposely pushing your buttons for their own benefit — that is also unsafe.
While none of us can be perfect, in a healthy relationship we want to try to avoid behavior that hurts the people that we love (and the people that they love!).
But toxic monogamy — socialized values that we hold around the virtue of monogamy that are actually hurtful to relationships — teaches us that jealousy is a sign of love. And we’re weirdly encouraged to act in (sometimes unacceptable) ways to solve feelings of jealousy externally (outside of ourselves and our relationships) instead of internally.
And a lot of that comes down to feelings of possessiveness.
Sometimes, feelings of jealousy stem from a sense of possessiveness: You believe that your partner owes you something by virtue of being your partner, and you become uncomfortable when something or someone else interferes with your needs being met. But at the core, possessiveness is the feeling that someone belongs to you — and it’s not supportive of healthy relationships.
Here are some examples of possessive behavior:
- You believe you have a right to know where your partner is or who they’re talking to, even to the point that you might follow them or look through their phone.
- You believe you have a right to control what your partner wears, especially if you’re uncomfortable with the potential (positive or negative) attention they may receive if they don’t follow your suggestion.
- You believe you have a right to determine who your partner is friends with. For example, you have a rule that your partner can’t engage with a certain gender.
- You believe your needs should come first in your relationship — that your partner has an obligation to your needs over the needs of their family, friends, or self.
What these suggest is that your partner doesn’t belong to themselves, that they’re not even a fully whole and autonomous being.
Culturally, we hear phrases like “the one, “my other half,” and even “soulmate” constantly. That “Property of So-and-So” tattoos, t-shirts, and more exist (let alone are popular!) is a perfect example of how possessiveness, particularly within monogamy, is normalized. But these colloquialisms all point to an incorrect notion: that your partner is uniquely a part of you in some way that others are not, that you “belong” to one another, as if you’re not autonomous individuals.
Possessiveness is something that you want to try to unlearn and uproot. Because while jealousy isn’t inherently a problem, possessiveness almost always is — in fact, it’s a warning sign for abuse.
But once you dedicate yourself both to unlearning harmful behavior and to reframing your relationship to jealousy, you might start to incorporate compersion.
Compersion is the positive vicarious feeling of seeing someone you love have their needs met.
For many people, the idea of having happy feelings when seeing your partner with another partner feels like a stretch (but I promise it does happen!), so let me explain this a different way: Have you ever come across children playing in a park that has a water feature? Maybe it’s a sprinkler system; maybe it’s a fountain they can run in and out of; maybe it’s those water shoots in the ground. If you’ve ever stopped to watch how elated they are, how much fun they have with something as simple as water, you may have felt filled with joy. Watching their delight fills you with delight. That’s compersion.
To extend this to romantic relationships, maybe you’ve felt excited and proud watching your partner succeed at something they’ve been working toward for a long time. Maybe you’ve felt happy seeing your partner interact with their closest sibling or an old friend. Maybe you’ve vicariously experienced their unbridled joy at their visiting a new travel destination. Seeing your partner happy doesn’t always feel like jealousy or disappointment or rage. Most of the time, it feels like compersion.
Compersion is essentially the opposite of jealousy, and it’s an experience we talk about a lot in nonmonogamy. Surprising as it might seem for folks who haven’t experienced it, there can be a sense of comfort and excitement in knowing that someone you love is happy, in knowing that a need that you can’t quite meet is being met by someone else, in knowing that your partner is experiencing the full extent of their humanity through connections with other people.
That isn’t to say that jealousy doesn’t come up in nonmonogamy, too. It sure as hell does. But a deep commitment to nonmonogamy means a deep commitment to sitting with, unpacking, and working through jealousy. And you can make that commitment in monogamy, too.
Jealousy, at the end of the day, is your nervous system alerting you to a threat to your safety. You can feel jealous when your brother receives more attention or accolades from your parents than you do. You can feel jealous when your best friend starts hanging out with their new work wife more frequently. You can feel jealous when your partner feels excited about someone they just met. But connections don’t have to be threatening.
You can change how you approach that feeling. Instead of “How can I remove the threat from my partner’s life, and therefore, mine?” ask “What is this telling me? What do I need to feel safe again?”
Because in order for us to move toward acceptance (and even compersion!), we first need to acknowledge how and why jealousy comes up for us, we need to determine if the threat we feel is real or imagined (or possibly rooted in possessiveness), and we need to decide how to get our needs met in a healthy way.
Melissa Fabello, PhD, is a social justice activist whose work focuses on body politics, beauty culture, and eating disorders. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.