Jealous of what? Solving polyamory’s jealousy problem

Everyone asks my polyamorous family how we handle the jealousy. It's easy, because that's not how it works

Topics: Polyamory, Life stories, Editor's Picks,

Jealous of what? Solving polyamory's jealousy problem (Credit: PeopleImages via iStock)

The first question people ask my polyamorous family is “How do you handle the jealousy?” Befuddled, we answer, “What jealousy?”

I am lucky; I live with the two loves of my life.  I am smitten with my husband of 16 years, and adore my partner of four.  The three of us depend upon and nurture each other; we are a family.  When my partner and I hadn’t had a date in a while, my husband encouraged us to take a holiday at the art museum, knowing how the visual connects us.  When my husband and I hit an emotional snag in discussing our issues, my partner helped us to sort it out and come together.  And when I was picking out Christmas presents, I gave the foodies in my life some bonding time over a Japanese small plates cooking class.

The existing polyamory advice literature pushes individualistic solutions to jealousy.  Polyamory gurus such as Dossie Easton (“The Ethical Slut”), Deborah Anapol (“Love Without Limits”) and, more recently, Franklin Veaux (“More Than Two”) advocate personal responsibility as the solution to insecurity.  You must “work through” your jealousy, making sure to not “control” your partner, all the while viewing the experience of jealousy through a lens of personal growth.   My family has never needed to rely on these individualistic methods because jealousy is a social problem, not an individual one, and so are the solutions.

Prescribing of individualistic methods for management of jealousy is nothing new.  It can be traced to the decline of the family economy in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Peter N. Stearn’s “Jealousy: The Evolution of an Emotion in American History” argues that prior to the 18th century in the U.S. and Europe, jealousy was much less of a problem.  Living in close-knit social and economic communities with prescribed roles did not leave room for fears of losing one’s significant others to rivals.  Husband and wife teams were viewed as units (rather than as two individuals) embedded within a communal structure.  Sure, individuals didn’t have a whole heck of a lot of autonomy, but they did have the security of knowing their spousal relationship unit was recognized, supported and held accountable to the community.



With the shift from family- and community-based institutions to wage work in urban environments, middle-class families began functioning within spheres separated by gender (with women being relegated to the home).  Spouses overlapped less in daily life, which meant less communal support, monitoring and recognition of relationships.  It is widely recognized that the emergence of a capitalist economy caused women to lose economic and social power relative to men.  But the emergence of separate spheres also deprived both women and men of the communal support for their relationships, which had once made jealousy a non-issue.

The 20th century saw women’s reentry into the economic sphere, with increased opportunities for women and men to make individual choices about education and occupation.  These welcome economic gains for women were accompanied by the increasingly pesky problem of jealousy.  Unlike the family economy where spouses worked within the same community, now partners spent their time in separate, mixed-sex education and work institutions, with increased availability of potential alternative partners.  And while the increase in the idea of romantic love during this time period dampened jealousy some, it was a poor substitute for the previous complete communal support for relationships.

So, if green eyes grew out of the shift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, what was our newly individualistic, capitalist society to do?  Why, call those peepers into insecurity monsters that could be tamed through self-control.

Quick, guess the time period of the following quotes:

1). “Jealousy is an emotion that arises inside you; no person and no behavior can ‘make’ you jealous. Like it or not, the only person who can make that jealousy hurt less or go away is you.”

2). “Jealousy is almost always a mark of immaturity and insecurity.  As we grow confident of love and of our loved one, we are not jealous.”

3). Jealousy is “undesirable, a festering spot in every personality so affected.”

The first is contemporary, taken from the poly bible “The Ethical Slut.”  The second is from a mainstream 1950s relationship advice manual, and the third is a commentary from Margaret Mead in the 1930s.  Note that only the first quote addresses a non-monogamous audience.  Polyamory advice on jealousy is not radical when held up to this light; it is simply part of the larger 20th century context of demonizing jealousy and demanding personal responsibility for its eradication. Instead of locating jealousy within the structural changes of the 19th and 20th centuries, there has been an erroneous tendency to look inward for its causes and cures.

I think back on my life of four years ago as we first formed our polyamorous family.  My new boyfriend was surprised that he felt no jealousy of my 14-year relationship with my husband.  He felt supported and welcomed into our lives, and longed to make a commitment to us, but the absence of jealousy was perplexing to him.  Doesn’t jealousy naturally emerge from a partner having another partner, he wondered?  He waited for over a year before he made a commitment, just in case jealousy would emerge.  He was waiting for Godot.

The three of us met at a film club and just seemed to “get” each other instantly.  Our small talk consisted of Bourdieu, Navier-Stokes equations, and Henri Cartier-Bresson.  The fundamental compatibility we had was effortless and we laughed like children together.  It was this fundamental understanding of one another that allowed my boyfriend to “see” our marriage in a way that few others could.  Having the closeness of our marriage reflected back in such a nuanced and perfect way felt wonderful.  Similarly, the depth of my husband’s closeness with me allowed him to recognize the rare comfort and feeling of being at home I felt with my boyfriend.  My husband provided one of the few sources of support and recognition that my boyfriend and I had at the time for our budding (but at first, secret) relationship.  He was also there for us when we first “came out” to confused family and friends.  While many expressed worries that this new relationship would lead to destruction, my husband gave us anniversary cards and told us that we were a rare and special couple.

Eric Widmer, a sociologist at the University of Geneva shows that trust in any dyadic (two-person) relationship is influenced by the density of the larger social configuration in which it is embedded.  Research indicates that people feel more comfortable when those persons they are close to are also close to one another, which is termed transitivity.  This leads over time to dense networks, where the number of actual connections between members comes close to or equals the number of potential connections.  In my polyamory family there were three potential dyadic relationships and all have been realized either through a love relationship (my partners and I) or a close friendship (between my partners).  A dense, socially cohesive network allows for a greater degree of trust between any two members.  My family’s wider social network of friends and family varies in its transitivity with us.  But the cohesiveness within our immediate family alone begins to account for the seemingly surprising lack of jealousy.

Stephanie Koontz, in an interview for a Salon article, posits that we are unlikely to institutionalize non-monogamy because “we’re not the kind of society that has lots of very close, tight-knit relationships with a sense of interdependence that exists across the life cycle.”  I agree.  Our society has been moving away from these sorts of lifetime structures for more than two centuries.  Poly families with lifetime commitments like ours, or the one outlined in the Salon article “Polyamory works for us,”  are unlikely to become the new norm as they don’t reflect contemporary social and economic structures particularly well.  In a society characterized by individualistic neoliberalism, the best opportunities go to people who can be geographically mobile and are willing to drop long hours into education and personal career.  Given this, coordinating two (or more) partners’ individual opportunities through lifetime commitments of any sort doesn’t make a whole lot of economic sense.

Most of the polyamory advice literature does not advocate for dense interdependent networks over a lifetime anyway.  Their brand of polyamory is individual freedom rooted in personal responsibility and self-actualization, which fits much better into our current neoliberal opportunity structure.  An interviewee from “The Ethical Slut” says it best:

“My open sexual lifestyle gives me personal freedom, independence and responsibility in a way that being an exclusive couple doesn’t.  Because I’m responsible, every day, for my needs being met (or not), and for creating and maintaining the relationships in my life, I can take nothing for granted…and  so this lifestyle gives me a very concrete feeling of individuality that I re-create every day.”

This is “expressive individualism” (à la Bellah’s “Habits of the Heart”) at its finest.  The polyamory advice literature soaks in a sea of middle-class self-actualization, where seekers express their authentic selves through individualized decisions about relationships.  Much like the human potential movement of the 1960s, the purpose of relationships in polyamory is to contribute to one’s individual self-growth and to allow others the individual freedom to do the same.   This individualistic approach to relationships is also “convenient” in that it allows partners to be dispensable if we find better psychological or economic opportunities somewhere else.  Polyamory expert Deborah Anapol describes this so called new paradigm as one where the purpose of relationships is to “further the psychological and spiritual development of the partners,” which she contrasts with the “old paradigm,” which she says “expects family members to replace individual desires with group agendas.”

As one polyamory advice website states succinctly, “polyamory encourages, allows, and almost demands that you be an individual first and foremost.”

Research on polyamory indicates that participants tend to be highly educated professionals.  According to psychologist Hazel Markus, such professionals tend toward an “independent model of agency” where actions are perceived as freely chosen and independent from others (vs. working-class Americans who view their actions as interdependent with others). For instance, in a work organization, upper-middle-class employees tend to have broad networks of colleagues who work closely together but in changing configurations from one project to the next.  Without a small, consistent work group, such employees tend to think of themselves as individual agents, with a sense of agency (within organizational constraints) in choosing projects and colleagues.  Sounds pretty fantastic, right?

But what happens when we apply this model of independent agency to love relationships?  Polyamory both reflects and takes further the application of free-market principles to more and more spheres of our lives.  Why not love?  Because while shifting colleague networks are one thing, in a love and sex context, those reconfigurations are pretty hard on the heart.

We can learn something about what happens when we apply individualism to emotionally close relationships from communes in the 1960s and 1970s.  It turns out that most of these so-called communes weren’t exactly “communal.”  Research by sociologists such as Stephen Vaisey and Rosabeth Moss Kanter indicate that a shared belief in individual freedom is not enough to create a collective identity or a “we feeling.”  Those communes that stressed a “do your own thing” ethos and failed to create a commitment to something larger than oneself were the ones that changed membership frequently and did not last long.

Similarly, Elisabeth Sheff, author of “The Polyamorists Next Door,” finds that current-day polyamory intimate networks tend to change both in relationship forms as well as membership within a few months to several years’ time.  Such shifts make it more difficult to establish the sorts of dense, interconnected networks that lead to trust between members.

My hypothesis is that the more shifts that occur within a polyamory network, the more jealousy that occurs, which then requires higher degrees of individualistic emotion management.  In other words, individual freedom in relationships has an evil twin of individual constraint of emotion.

For those for whom individual freedom in relationships is the highest value, it may be worth the individual jealousy management that results from putting love on the free market.   But for those who don’t want to be faced head-on with the green-eyed monster, the advice literature is in denial about which approaches to polyamory lead to a higher or lower probability of jealousy.  There are no tools provided beyond individual emotion work for how to manage jealousy for those who want a communal, less individualistic approach to polyamory.  So, based on sociological principles on how communities function, we can derive at least some initial ideas for social solutions to polyamory’s jealousy problem:

First, the more a “we” feeling is created within social networks, the more trust and less jealousy will likely occur between members.  This is easiest with a small number of members (let’s face it, solidarity is pretty easy with my three-person family), but can be applied to a five-some or even a large social network.  One way to promote a sense of something larger than the sum of its parts is through shared values (beyond individualism) or better yet, having a shared goal. Contrast “do your own thing” communes with those that had a shared service goal; the latter were longer lasting with a sense of commitment and trust among its members, for instance see Camphill Village.

Second, we can reduce jealousy by making it everyone’s responsibility to support and recognize all existing relationships within the community.  Polyamory experts advise a jealous person to turn to his/her partner for reassurance that their relationship is important. But social network research indicates that dyads need support from the networks in which they are embedded; support that shows the relationship is recognized and valued.  Polyamory experts say the purpose of meeting your partner’s partners is to soothe your own jealousy or to find out if you happen to like the person (once again, the individualistic, what’s in it for me?).  But from a social standpoint, the purpose of meeting a partner’s partner is to make a contribution to reducing jealousy in your community by letting the person know that you recognize and value of the relationship they have with your partner.  A sense of security in a relationship is dependent upon the community having the relationship’s back, and each person can contribute to that effort, and receive its benefits.

The common denominator is social rather than personal responsibility.  Seeing ourselves as part of a larger system (whether of three or 300 people) leads to taking social responsibility for the health of that system.  Can we solve polyamory’s jealousy problem?   Perhaps, perhaps not.  But what we can do is stop pretending that we don’t know where jealousy comes from.

Elizabeth Stern is the pseudonym of a PhD social scientist and freelance writer living on the East Coast

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