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The Ethical Slut Read-along: Jealousy (Part 1)

Posted in Polyamory, and The Ethical Slut Read Along

I am leading a read-through of The Ethical Slut, 2nd editionIf you’d like to catch up on past installments, check the list at the bottom of the series introduction. Comments on the topics in this discussion are welcome anytime, even from people who aren’t following along in the book.

In this installment we discuss Chapter 13, “Roadmaps through Jealousy.”

The Ethical Slut, Second Edition by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy

This chapter marks the beginning of part three of The Ethical Slut which is called “Navigating Challenges.” These chapters seem to be designed to help would-be sluts with difficult situations they may encounter — in the case of this chapter it’s the infamous green-eyed monster, jealousy.

This chapter is similar to one in the first edition, but it has added material such as some exercises for the reader. Because this is an expansive topic I’ve decided to write it in two parts. This portion covers everything up to page 119.

“Your authors believe that most people take the destructive power of jealousy way too much for granted, that they give their jealousy far more power than it deserves. — from The Ethical Slut

More than perhaps anything else, I think the specter of jealousy keeps people from trying polyamory or other forms of open relationships. When I came out to my father as polyamorous, jealousy was the first thing he cited for why he could “never do that.” He told me a story of a girl he was pursuing for some time, only to come over to her house one day and discover her in the midst of sex with one of his best friends. A successful polyamorist doesn’t necessarily have a total lack of jealousy or envy or other difficult emotions — putting myself in his shoes, I can well imagine the angry feelings I’d have to struggle with toward my friend and the woman I’d been lusting after. Obviously the paradigm of monogamy may lead a person to feel they have to choose one person over another, but even polyamorous people may choose to focus their time on one person rather than another, and mismatched attraction is just as present in our circles as it is amongst more traditional relationship styles.

The difference is that it’s more common amongst polyamorists to see jealousy as a challenge to be overcome rather than the relationship destroying, unbreachable wall the dominant paradigm seems to perceive. Easton and Hardy point out that when one delves deeply into jealousy, one finds that it is not a single emotion but a complex feeling made up of several: insecurity, fear, loneliness, envy, anger, and more. Analyzing our own jealousy can lead to us discovering new areas for personal growth, and even ways we can grow closer to our lovers or more self-confident and independent through the effort to overcome it.

The first exercise in this chapter is to talk about how you experience jealousy. After being poly for many years, I’ve found that not very much still triggers this feeling in me. It does get easier with time and experience. Now that I’ve learned that giving lovers the freedom to explore pleasure and emotional connection with others tends to bring us closer together it takes a lot more to set me off and, when I do feel bad, it takes less to set me to rights again or at least bring me to a place of coping.

Jealousy is a complex feeling usually made up of a host of simpler emotions like insecurity, fear, or loneliness. Photo by Juliana Coutinho.

When I do feel jealousy it tends to occur as a feeling of restlessness combined with insecurity. I feel uncomfortable in my skin and suddenly find myself thinking thoughts which I normally would never worry about — I catch myself questioning my abilities as a lover or dominant, or start second guessing my communications with people I love, wondering if I am somehow driving them away. I sometimes get a feeling of the bottom-dropping out, a kind of vertigo or almost-nausea. Because the thoughts that accompany this feeling are so very irrational, so easily disproven by recalling my many happy life experiences, it helps me to recognize jealousy for what it is and helps me own those feelings. Its very irrationality encourages me to look for root causes.

Honestly for me the most common cause of jealousy is exhaustion. For example, if a lover messages me to tell me about a wonderful time they’re having with someone else and instead of feeling joyful and excited for them I feel yucky or down, then the first thing I do is examine my personal state. I bring to mind the old concept of HALT which is used in addiction and recovery — how long has it been since I ate? Do I need a nap or to go to bed? Is there something else troubling but unrelated that is clouding my thoughts and interfering with my ability to hear my lover clearly? Can I do something easy to make myself feel pampered or loved?

Another thing that helps a lot is recognizing that jealousy is almost always a temporary feeling. I’ve struggled with depression all my life, and at least some of it is simply chemical in my case. I’ve learned that depression is transitory — an unpleasant visitor that sometimes shows up at my door, but always leaves on its way again given time. While there are direct coping mechanisms I can take, often it helps just to take the time to recognize that these feelings are not going to last forever. Jealousy is the same way — I know from experience that the unpleasant feelings I may have in the moment will almost certainly disappear the next time I can talk with, touch, or be intimate with the lover in question. Sometimes the very act of scheduling a date and knowing when I’ll see someone again is enough to take care of the feeling.

Even when jealousy is a genuine red flag warning us about another's behavior, we can still only take responsibility for our own actions. Photo by Shaun Jones.

I do want to address one last thing which has made me feel jealousy, though I hesitate a little bit — jealousy has sometimes been a genuine red flag, a sign that my lover was doing something hurtful or damaging to our relationship. The reason I hesitate is because very often blaming others can be the first action people take when they feel jealousy, rather than doing so only after looking at themselves.

To give a personal example, when I was in a very intense relationship during 2010 I suddenly found myself feeling very jealous about my partner’s new lover. The circumstances around which she added this new person were strange to begin with, because at first she’d lied to me and worked to avoid telling me about the sexual aspect of their relationship. Still, I tried everything I could do to get over the feelings and accept what was happening only to run up against feelings of jealousy again and again. Something just didn’t feel right. And it turned out something wasn’t: she was growing distant from me, planning to abandon the home we were supposed to share in Austin in favor of moving in with him in another city and getting engaged, and, as the final kicker, I overheard her a few times encouraging him to apply his generally misanthropic attitudes toward me.

Here’s the key though: even though she was acting in ways that made jealousy arise in me, even though it was a red flag that our relationship was broken, I still had to own the feelings as my own. She had, as always, the free will to move away from me, and I had to accept that and turn to the other loved ones in my life for support. I had to learn to stand on my own and build my own life in Austin. I also learned an important lesson, which is that while I don’t require everyone in a poly network to be friends I do require everyone to be cordial and friendly. In the end, after a lot of pain and grief, I came out of the situation with a renewed love of living in Austin, a better understanding of my needs and limits in relationships, a stronger poly network than ever and a deeper trust in the reliability of my own feelings. I grew because of jealousy instead of running from it.

The second half of this chapter talks more about coping mechanisms for jealousy. We’ll examine these techniques in Part 2 of this installment of the read-along, which will be posted on Thursday, April 21.

If you’d like to join this conversation in the comments, tell us a bit about what makes you feel jealous and what you’ve learned about the unique ways you feel it.

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