Karen, a reader of this blog, wanted to know what people who responded to my survey had to say about jealousy and trust in unconventional relationships. (You can suggest a topic, too.)
Jealousy is a painfully intense, complex emotional reaction that can cripple relationships — and it happens in traditional relationships, as well as unconventional ones. Because intimate relationships are often where we are most vulnerable, yet we never really know what will happen in any relationship.
“It’s a super vulnerable feeling sometimes to trust the present and not worry about the future.”
— Colleen: queer, partnered and open to options
On the traditional Relationship Escalator, jealousy is generally assumed to be absolutely intolerable and insurmountable. In particular, people typically claim that monogamy is needed to prevent jealousy. Not that this always works, of course.
“In my monogamous relationships, jealousy was definitely a problem. So was fighting to suppress my desire for others. I never cheated, but the desire would sometimes be there. Jealousy kills relationships. It destroys trust. You’re insecure because what if she meets some guy and likes him more than you — and next thing you know she’s gone.”
— J.H., in an open relationship
Because monogamy is such a powerful social norm, people often assume that nonmonogamy must inevitably trigger jealousy — which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, consciously choosing nonmonogamy doesn’t automatically immunize anyone from jealousy. People’s hearts often aren’t quite where their heads are at.
“There were plenty of days where I would feel self conscious and wondered if she will find a new man that she will fall for. It all just depends on how I am feeling that day. Most of the time I trust her, but when I am feeling low, I feel as if she might find someone better.”
— Pastulio, in an open relationship
The catch is, exclusivity alone doesn’t prevent or cure jealousy. Trust is the antidote. Specifically, trust that your partner(s) do care for you and value your connection — as well as trust that whatever happens in your relationships, you will be okay.
In reading through over 1000 surveys, I noticed that in people in consensually nonmonogamous relationships often exhibit a strong willingness to find ways to manage jealousy, rather than just prevent it. This is a bit like shifting from trying to prevent all wildfires to allowing some controlled burns, to clear out the undergrowth.
One jealousy-management strategy that seems to work well for many nonmonogamous people is open, honest, and active communication. This helps because it builds trust — and jealousy withers in the presence of trust.
“Jealousy comes up more often than we thought it would, and at odd times. We realize that it’s a constant balancing act. We need to be in constant communication about how we are feeling at any given moment, even if we suddenly change our minds about what we are doing. Our worst experiences have come when we have expected each other to ‘read our mind,’ to sense that we were not enjoying what was going on. We just wanted each other to ‘k’now’ and ‘knock it off.'”
— Maria, married swinger
When partners are willing to talk to each other — and listen to each other — about uncomfortable feelings, trust grows. They don’t necessarily need to “fix” anything (such as remove whatever is triggering the jealousy). Often it helps a lot simply to demonstrate that they care about each other’s feelings and value their relationship. This way, they can give each other space and support to work through insecurities.
Not that this process is easy, but many people who took my survey said the effort is worth it.
“My favorite thing is that being poly, if you do it right, forces you to have regular and really honest conversations with your sweethearts about what they mean to you and their place in your life. It’s not that they can’t break my trust. Rather, the trust I have in them is so much greater than I’ve experienced before. I’m so much healthier interpersonally, and my communication skills have definitely been bolstered.”
— Lindsay, poly
“When you’re in an unconventional relationship, and you’re both invested in making things work, your partner is more connected with who they are. So they will let you know when they need space (or, indeed, anything), rather than letting assumptions build up. This makes them easier to trust and more solid as people”
— Emilia, poly with a monogamous partner
No amount of trust is a guarantee that any relationship will remain safe and stable, of course. Which is why fostering a personal sense of resilience (both emotional and logistical) is pretty important to having a healthy relationship, too — on and off the Escalator.