The Green Eyed Monster

I received several positive comments on my post from yesterday that all kind of touched on jealousy. I’m intimately familiar with the feeling of jealousy. In fact, I used to be an incredibly jealous person. Just the thought of my partner being flirted with would become near rage inducing, my stomach would tie up in knots and I would start to run scenarios through my head that I just knew were true. My mind and body worked together to make me as miserable as possible. It was a terrible feeling and a destructive force in my relationship. I needed to overcome it.

I think jealousy is a natural feeling and, like the other negative emotions (anger, hatred, fear, disgust, etc), it was naturally selected for because it provided an evolutionary advantage to us. A person who felt jealousy may be able to spread their genetic code more efficiently than a person who didn’t really feel jealousy. Now, those methods would likely be morally deplorable to us in today’s society, but they were likely effective in a more hunter-gatherer tribe situation that we evolved from. It is always worth repeating, nature is a shitty measure for morality and just because something is “natural” that does not mean it is good or healthy.

Jealousy, in modern society, seems to be accepted more than it should. We kind of brush off jealousy in a way that we don’t with other emotions. If our friend is dating someone who “is just a jealous person” we would probably see that as less than ideal, but not necessarily a deal breaker. But, if our friend was dating someone who “just happens to be a hateful person” or “an angry person” we would be much more likely to try and get our friend out of that situation. I think some people even glorify jealousy and see it as a sign that someone truly loves them. The more jealous a person gets the more they truly care, but that isn’t the case. And, on the other side, people feel like their partner must not realy love them if they don’t get jealous, that if someone isn’t threatened by others it is because they don’t care about you. The more jealous a person gets the more they want to own or control. That isn’t love, that’s possession.

(I don’t mean this in a judgy way, I am just as guilty of this as anyone. I still feel jealousy from time to time and it is because I want to possess my partner or friend’s time or resources. Sometimes I feel I have a right to their time, mind, body, attention, or whatever. I struggle with this all the time.)

Luckily, jealousy (like all destructive emotions), can be overcome. Yes, it requires fighting against our nature, but that is something we do every day. In our post-hunter-gatherer society, many of the instincts we evolved with are destructive and we must fight against them in order to be healthy and prosperous. Our ability to act in a way contrary to our “nature” is one of the things that seems to separate us from animals.

For me, there are three things that really help me overcome jealousy. The first is meditation. I know I sound like some sort of religious zealot when I talk about mindfulness meditation, but it really has helped me immensely. I still struggle with the practice daily, but I have found myself to gain a lot from it, and there is science to back it up.

Second is communication with my partner. When I feel jealous I can come to my partner and talk about it. We go deeper than “I feel jealous” and try to get to the heart of the issue. Maybe it is something silly like “In that moment I was worried you cared more for that person than me” or maybe it is something more legitimate like “I’m having a really rough time but you prioritized someone else over caring for me and that hurt”. By verbally expressing what my concerns are we can find solutions, and expressing them often brings to light how irrational they are. Honest communication can also force us to admit some things about ourselves that we may be a little ashamed of. Maybe our jealousy stems from us feeling like we have some ownership over the other person, that we view them as our possession in some sense. Admitting that may be shameful but it is the only way to actually overcome jealousy.

Third, by taking small steps into situations that worry me I’ve been able to overcome jealousy. Most of the time I felt feelings of jealousy it was while thinking about hypothetical situations, it was all in my head. It wasn’t seeing my partner having sex with someone, it was imagining my partner having sex with another person (and thinking about how that person is satisfying her more, more her type, more attractive, etc etc etc). But, when we actually stepped into situations where I might be jealousy the reality was very different. There is no perfect Adonis waiting to steal my partner, there are only other humans with imperfections, insecurities, and fantasies they want to explore. By taking slow steps I was able to build up comfort with new situations and the old situations are no longer jealousy-inducing. Nobody should just jump into an orgy, you need to start small to build up emotional strength and realistic expectations.

As a practical example of how baby-steps worked for me and can be applied to all types of situations from BDSM to swinging to whatever your fantasy is (this took place over about two years so far):

  1. I express an interest in swapping with another couple and we discuss what that would look like and any emotional concerns we have.
  2. We watch an educational video about how to do something like that safely and making sure we take care of each other’s emotional needs. We talk about the video.
  3. We go into an environment where sex may be happening but there is no expectation that we will play with other couples (or even each other). Everyone here is strangers and there is no concern for awkwardness from seeing friends or whatever. We talk before we arrive about our expectations and concerns, and we talk after the experience to see how we felt with everything.
  4. We return to the previous place several times to continue to get comfortable with the idea of having sex near people who are having sex.
  5. We talk about what we think the next step should be and agree that same-room sex with just one other couple would be a good experience  and that some soft touch (making out, handjobs, etc) are okay.
  6. We have sex in the same room as another couple and communicate with them before and after.
  7. That happens a few more times with different friends that we trust.
  8. We agree that the next step is a threesome with a male and that a stranger would probably be better than a friend.
  9. When an opportunity arises for that threesome we communicate before, during, and after.
  10. We talk some more to discuss the next steps and decide that a foursome may be okay at this point but it would still require discussion before and depend a lot on the couple involved.

When we love someone we want them to be the best they can be. We want them to get the most out of life and experience their desires. We don’t want our relationship with them to hold them back or cause resentment. Jealousy can get in the way of our relationship and our ability to truly express our love, but it can be overcome (not completely, but it gets easier and easier). And, with some work and luck, you can start to feel joy when you see your partner in the throws of ecstasy. You can feel joy and excitement when someone you love is having a good time. You can feel pride knowing that you, as a partnership, have such a strong relationship and such effective communication that you have defeated the green-eyed monster. Instead of jealousy, you have compersion, and that has allowed you to have a partnership that is filled with new adventures, variety, and love.

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It Isn’t Up To Me

My partner and I are occasionally in situations where people are more comfortable with non-monogamy than in average society. Sometimes it is a festival, Burning Man, or a small intimate gathering with like-minded people. Despite these non-traditional locations filled with open people there are still some reflections of our male-centric society.

In particular, people will ask me if they can do something physical with my partner*.

If you want to kiss her, ask her and not me. Her body is not mine, even though we are in a relationship. She is free to do what she wishes with other people, and if she does something that violates our agreed boundaries then that is between her and I. It isn’t between me and someone she may connect with because her commitment to me does not mean she defers to me when she wants to do something. I am, under no circumstances, someone who grants permission to her. She is still an autonomous person.

I guess some people may have the best intentions, but it isn’t their place to prevent her from cheating or betraying me. That is between her and I, though I doubt that would ever happen. We communicate and are open enough about our feelings that neither of us feel like our actions are being restrained by each other. But, if one of us did cheat it would not be an relationship extinction level event. We’d talk through it, figure out if there are some core issues that caused it (or if it was just a one time mistake) and correct our boundaries to make things work.

Each of us has “veto” power because our relationship with each other comes first, but that has never really been exercised. We trust each other. Jealousy comes from the unknown and when you know that your partner will tell you about any crush or kiss then there is no unknown, nothing to be jealous of.

Maybe this problem only manifests itself in this way with polyamorous, open relationships, and monogamish couples, but I think it exists in monogamous couples as well. People ask one partner if another person is allowed to do something. A partnership does not destroy autonomy. Being connected should make us stronger, give us more opportunities, and provide new experiences.

* The one situation where this doesn’t bother me is if I am friends with the person asking. I can understand checking in with me first to make sure our friendship won’t be compromised.

36 Hours in the City of Good and Evil

This weekend I flew into Washington DC for a birthday party. I figure, what’s the point of being a young professional in your 30’s with no kids if you can’t jet across the country for parties from time to time. Despite the 4-hours of sleep on a red-eye, fighting with Amtrak, DC Metro, and just the general suck of the infrastructure in this city I am crazy happy that I made the trip. To be honest, I’m trying to figure out a way Anna and I can come in for a party next week where I might be able to show off my fire dancing skills a little (if I can figure a way to transport a 5’0″ fire staff on an airplane… I wonder if that is on the TSA “no-fly” list).

I’ve really found that I enjoy coming back to the District from time-to-time. I hated living here (seriously… hated it) but the people I know here are some of the greatest humans I’ve  ever encountered and they know how to party and make someone feel welcome. I have a certain level of comfort with them that I don’t often experience. As an introvert I usually hate big social events and I even had to retreat to a quiet corner a half dozen times last night just to recenter myself. It is exhausting meeting new people, I’d much rather have a small intimate conversation with close friends than be surrounded by bodies and noise.

If I’m really being honest though, there was something else on my mind from early on. I have known all week that I would be meeting a bit of a liberty internet celebrity crush of mine at this party. Having a physical, sexual attraction to someone is easy but it is often little more than fantasy in the beginning and I think one advantage of meeting people online is quickly moving to real discussions and an opportunity to develop an intellectual attraction of substance. As a poly, open, anarchist I often have to retreat to the internet to find like-minded people and because of that my social skills are often sub-par.

I found myself nervous (which is actually kind of rare) as we started talking and I was oddly aware of my mannerisms and voice patterns. The conversations we had were absolutely what I needed though. To just sit back and talk to someone about dealing with jealousy, rules we have in place with our partners, how we came to our views, and where we see ourselves in the future was a highlight of my trip. It is rare I can talk to someone in person because I spend half the time defending my personal choices or going over basics, to have a personal conversation about life from a non-judgmental person was something that has been missing from my life. I only wish we would have had more time to talk and dive into even deeper subjects and see if this can blossom into a real friendship. Of course, the idealist creative side of me is forecasting way into the future…

So, this little patch of swampland continues to redeem itself despite sitting at the center of all that is wrong with society. One of the lessons from my bike ride last summer was that people matter and that people are good, and that is why I like visiting DC, the people. I’m sure I’ll be back soon you ugly, muggy, toxic, sad, power-thirsty, hive of scum and villainy.

Compersion

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While at the EFF a couple of weeks ago I was introduced to the word “compersion“. Microsoft Word is putting a red squiggly line under it so obviously Bill Gates doesn’t know the word either but luckily Wikipedia is up to speed. In the poly community it is often considered the opposite of jealousy, the specific definition varies slightly but my favorite is “A feeling of joy when a loved one invests in and takes pleasure from another romantic or sexual relationship”. It’s about experiencing authentic joy and happiness when someone you love and care for has found a connection with another.

While I have felt twinges of this before I really am kind of basking in it right now. One of my partners has given me great news, she will be travelling soon to see a new interest and is very excited about it. I care for her deeply and I am really quite joyous that she has this opportunity. Many would feel jealous knowing that someone they care about has romantic feelings for another and may be having sex with them but jealousy, like all emotions, are in the realm of the mind and completely within our control. I’m not immune to knee-jerk jealous reactions but my primary response to hearing that any of my partners have a romantic connection with another is joy.

On Jealousy

By far the most common question I am asked about non-monogamy is how to deal with jealousy. While I certainly don’t have all the answers (or maybe any answers) I have dealt with jealousy before and I thought maybe telling my story a bit might help someone out there. Two quick notes first:

  • Lanes of Love has a fantastic post about jealousy from a woman’s perspective and I highly recommend it
  • Jealousy contains the word “lousy”, which I find interesting even though the two words don’t seem to have a shared etymology

Okay, on to my story…

There was a time in my past when I was an extremely jealous person. I obsessed over where my significant other was, who she was with, and thought she was lying to me all the time. Every phone call, email, or rumor stirred extreme discomfort inside of me and I became incredibly distracted with all the possible things that were going on. I couldn’t eat, sleep, or concentrate on work. My behavior while jealous made me a bad student, friend, employee, and fiance. It was awful for everyone involved.

When my engagement broke off I became a very dark person and pretty much shut down my emotions. I didn’t feel jealousy anymore because I really didn’t feel at all. I had made a very conscious decision to view emotion as unnecessary and harmful to myself. I saw Vulcans and Randian heroes as an ideal to shoot for and modeled my behavior after them. While this helped me in many ways it was not really sustainable, and in hindsight I don’t think it was healthy either.

After some failed emotional attachments that still contained jealousy I found myself in need of some serious self-reflection. Using the tools I’d developed during my dark phase of emotionless interactions I started to analyze why I felt jealous and if that jealousy was justified. Most of this analysis happened at Burning Man where I was surrounded by friends and more than a little bit of MDMA to open myself up. My time at Burning Man allowed me to remove myself from the normal world and really heal myself from the emotional wounds that I’d developed over the years.

For me I found most of my jealousy came from two sources: lack of control and a feeling of betrayal from my past beliefs. The former is the most dangerous part in my opinion. I desired control over my environment and the lives of others, to me that is what jealousy is… it is a desire to control another person and when it translates into action it is a form of emotional slavery. The latter source stems from my upbringing in a Christian conservative home which greatly reflected an unrealistic Disney-esque version of relationships. If I just “gave it to God” everything would turn out great with a house, 2.5 kids, a golden retriever, and a cute little life in the ‘burbs. If things went wrong it was my fault and I should feel guilty. Reality is not like that at all and some of my jealousy came from feeling betrayed, I was taught one thing and it turned out not to be true.

Realizing the true foundation of my jealousy allowed me to overcome it. I have no right (or conscious desire) to control another person’s actions and my past beliefs should in no way control my future actions. There certainly is a place for emotions, even “negative” ones, in relationships but jealousy serves no purpose. I can be angry if someone’s behavior puts me in danger or betrays my trust, but jealousy is not the right emotion. Jealousy is preemptive, it assumes guilt before facts are presented. If you are with someone that causes jealousy then you need to deal with internal emotions before a healthy relationship can really develop.

I am at a point now where jealousy does not have a negative impact on my life. I still feel a little twinge in my stomach from time-to-time when I hear about the other men in the lives of people I see but it is no longer controlling and no longer harms our interactions. If the feeling gets strong I talk about it with those I’m involved with and sort out why I am feeling that way, but for the most part jealousy serves as a signalling device. For me to feel that twinge of jealousy let’s me know that I care about someone, that I love them… I don’t let it control my actions or determine my fate anymore.