Is Polyamory Right for Us If We Sometimes Experience Jealousy?

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

One of my partners and I have been together for more than three years. About a year ago, we opened our relationship to a third person and ultimately both fell in love with her. We’ve been living together in a polyamorous triad for several months. You might consider us ethically nonmonogamous, in the sense there is open, honest, and constant communication among us about our intimate pursuits outside of the triad. Each of us has an equal say in shaping our dynamic. We all have veto power when it comes to introducing new partners, and we all practice safe sex both inside and outside the triad.

As with any relationship, though, it’s not all sizzle and fun. The everyday issues (division of labor, finances, etc.) you find in other relationships are issues for us too, though in some ways they’re actually easier to resolve given the extra set of hands and extra income. Other issues can be tougher to deal with, however. One of them is jealousy. While we all want to see our partners happy, we all deal with various levels of jealousy at times. I have read conflicting theories about this as it relates to “big” relationships like ours. On one side of the debate, people say jealousy is healthy so long as it is not accompanied by resentment. On the other side of the debate, people say you shouldn’t experience jealousy at all in a healthy relationship. So, which is it?

I want to be clear that despite occasional jealousy issues, none of us has expressed unhappiness. We all say we’re more fulfilled (and not just sexually) now than we ever were in more traditional relationship structures. I don’t think any of us sees jealousy as something that will tear us apart. But I would like to hear from a therapist, ideally one who has experience working with nonmonogamous relationship structures, whether we’re looking at this the right way or whether perhaps we have work to do when it comes to understanding and processing our feelings of jealousy. Thank you. —Poly Polly

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Dear Polly,

Oof! This topic is so important. You are certainly not alone in these value conflicts, as it seems you have already been made aware by outlining the “two sides” of the debate.

I can appreciate that you are wanting a therapist to validate your perspective through clinical knowledge and experience. I also want to acknowledge that many therapists who are nonaffirming may inadvertently confirm your fears by pathologizing nonmonogamy or the experience of jealousy itself. Certainly, there are instances of jealousy as a warning sign in relationships, and there are partners who seek polyamory for the wrong reasons (or, rather, participate in unethical nonmonogamy and call it “poly”). But that’s not what you’re writing about here.

I loved the way you defined “ethical nonmonogamy”—so much I’ll repeat those parameters here: (1) You and your partners engage in open, honest, and constant communication about your intimate pursuits outside of your triad; (2) each of you has an equal say in shaping your dynamic; (3) you all have veto power when it comes to introducing new partners; and (4) you all practice safe sex both inside and out of the triad.

To the extent there can be a “code of conduct” for nonmonogamous relationships, wouldn’t this be it? How many relationships, even monogamous partnerships, can truthfully report this same level of intentionality and authenticity? You’re all working hard on your relationship(s), and it shows in your writing.

I want to expand on the divided perspectives from opposing sides of the debate you name, while acknowledging that sometimes these sorts of binaries perpetuate problems (that is, framing jealousy as a purely “good” or “bad” thing may be problematic on its own).

Regarding jealousy, Shaun McGonigal of the Poly Skeptic blog astutely wrote in 2012, “Most resources I have seen seem to emphasize that the feeling is probably unwarranted; that what we fear is not happening and we need to stop being so suspicious. But when you share your lovers, the thing you feel jealous about is happening!” However, they report a rather damning prognosis for the presence of jealousy: “It is a sign of lack of trust, security, and can only act to drive people apart, rather than help in any way” (2012, paragraphs 11 and 13).

Kathy Labriola—counselor, nurse, and author of Love in Abundance and The Jealousy Workbook—takes a different approach. She writes:

Many of my clients are involved in some type of open relationship, either by choice or by chance. (…) In my experience with clients, jealousy seems inevitable in this type of relationship. Each partner is agreeing to the unpredictability, stress, time, pressures, complications, and insecurities of adding outside relationships to an existing relationship. Allowing your partner and yourself the freedom to pursue other sexual relationships is one of the hardest things you are likely to attempt in your lifetime. As a result, the experience of jealousy should not seem surprising, but rather to be expected (2013, p. 1).

I echo Labriola’s perspective on jealousy, and find fault with our tendency to diagnose jealousy as inherently damning. It doesn’t feel good, certainly. And it may indeed be rooted in ideology that conflicts with our “woke” values. However, I prefer to cast feelings in the roles of challenging teachers, holding compassion and curiosity about them rather than diagnosis and prescription. (What are they trying to teach you about yourself?) While you can place a code of conduct on your actions and systems of accountability, I think it is dangerous territory to place restrictions on emotions alone. You can’t police which emotions partners can and can’t have, and you can’t choose which emotions you will and won’t have. So, breathe a sigh of relief, collectively with your partners, and alleviate yourselves of that burden as soon as possible.

You intuit that your partners don’t see the jealousy as something that will tear you apart. I think that’s important. Perhaps listen to what the jealousy is telling you—something about yourself rather than the relationship structure, perhaps?

As a therapist working with any person who is trying to “do the right thing,” I see that some are hard on themselves not just for what they do, but for what they think. This can create a snowball effect that looks like: “Oh no, I have this thing (the feeling)”; “oh no, there’s something wrong (anxiety about the original feeling)”; “oh no, I shouldn’t have this (prescription of the feeling as bad).” This chain of command can exacerbate the original feeling when we have shame about it. It seems that some in the poly community may be inadvertently shaming folks for their jealousy in a manner that could be silencing, even if unintentionally.

You intuit that your partners don’t see the jealousy as something that will tear you apart. I think that’s important. Perhaps listen to what the jealousy is telling you—something about yourself rather than the relationship structure, perhaps?

If the jealousy illuminates an unsustainable relationship structure, figure out how to communicate about that. Labriola’s workbook may be a good resource for you, or you and your partners could seek out an affirming therapist who is competent and open to navigating complex and nontraditional relationship structures.

So often, jealousy illuminates our greatest fears and doubts. Sometimes it will point you in the direction of “something needs to change between us,” but other times you may just need to develop stronger coping skills for standing strong in the face of fears. Indeed, any partnership is a leap of faith and a conscious decision to trust another person.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all or “right” way to love, but jealousy tends to surface in most relationship structures at one time or another (again, how many monogamous couples struggle with jealousy?). Please also consider the newness of your newest partner—often, jealousy is strongest in the first year or two of a partnership as there has not yet been enough time for structures to stabilize and reliability to be demonstrated over time. Please be gentle and patient with yourselves.

Kind regards,

Sharon Glassburn, MA, MFT

References:

  1. Labriola, K. (2013). The jealousy workbook: Exercises and insights for managing open relationships. San Francisco, CA: Greenery Press.
  2. McGonigal, S. (2012, March 4). Jealousy and polyamory [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://polyskeptic.com/2012/03/04/jealousy-and-polyamory/

Sharon Glassburn
Sharon Glassburn, MA, MFT, works individually and relationally with people ages 11 and up. She has worked with a broad range of individuals, families, and partnerships, but feels especially called to sexual minority and transgender advocacy and inclusion. She launched her Chicago-based private practice, Curiosity Counseling, in January 2017. Before private practice, Sharon worked in a family counseling agency, a walk-in LGBT peer counseling center, and schools. In addition to her role as a therapist, she has served as a professional/academic writing consultant, diversity educator, and creative writing instructor.
  • 2 comments
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  • Jada

    June 17th, 2017 at 9:21 AM

    My instinct would automatically tell me no, that this would not be the right move for you, but that is just based on a snap judgement.

  • Caleb

    June 19th, 2017 at 2:22 PM

    So this is not for me but I will add that I think that if you do love someone then it is only natural for you to feel jealous of them interacting with another person in this way. I don’t think that there is anyone who could avoid feeling that way and I would go even further and say that if there isn’t some part of you that is jealous then maybe this is not the person that you are meant to be with.

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