This was originally published at the gender-lens site Role/Reboot, under the title “When Jealousy is a Turn-On.”
Last year, I wrote a piece called “In Praise of Monogamy“. I currently practice polyamory in my relationships, but I spent years dating monogamously. I’ve noticed that when people talk about monogamy, they usually either assume that it’s the only way to go … or they assume that it has to be thrown out the window entirely. I think that this either-or approach is completely wrongheaded, so the goal of “In Praise of Monogamy” was to talk about the advantages of monogamy in a more neutral, nuanced way. Different relationship models are all tools in a toolbox, and some people are better with some tools than others.
“In Praise of Monogamy” was probably one of my most successful articles ever — it was republished at a ton of websites, including high-profile venues like The Guardian. Simultaneously, the article got a lot of really mixed comments. Some people felt that I wasn’t praising monogamy enough; others felt that I wasn’t praising non-monogamy enough; there were lots of other frustrations too. My big takeaway was that these conversations don’t happen enough, most people aren’t used to having them, and it’s really hard to know where it start.
Jealousy is one obvious starting point, because people always bring it up in conversations about non-monogamy. I talked a little bit about jealousy in “In Praise of Monogamy.” Specifically, I wrote:
Some people experience jealousy more than, or less than, or differently from other people. Plenty of people in non-monogamous relationships experience jealousy — and plenty of non-monogamous people handle it just fine, through open-hearted communication. (Often, jealousy is managed through very detailed relationship agreements such as this fascinating polyamory “relationship contract”.)
But there are also plenty of people who appear to lack the “jealousy chip.”
And then there are plenty of people who experience so much jealousy, who feel that jealousy is such a big part of their emotional makeup, that the best way to manage it is simply through monogamy.
Personally, I used to get a lot more jealous than I do now. I think I’m less likely to get jealous these days partly because I’ve gotten better at finding low-drama men. Jealousy has a reputation for being an irrational emotion, and sometimes it genuinely is an unreasonable, cruel power-grab. But I think jealousy is often quite rational, and often arises in response to a genuine emotional threat … or deliberate manipulation.
There’s another reason, though … I’ve also noticed that some switch in my brain has flipped, and I’ve started to eroticize jealousy. I occasionally find myself fantasizing about men I care about sleeping with other women, and sometimes the fantasy is hot because I feel mildly jealous. I cannot explain how this happened. It surprised me the first time it happened, believe me. What’s really fascinating is that I think the same part of me that eroticizes jealousy, is the part that used to make me feel sick at the thought of my partner sleeping with someone else. S&M masochism: the gift that never stops giving!
I think it’s important to note here that I didn’t become less jealous because I felt like I “should,” or because I was told not to be jealous. In fact, I had an early boyfriend who acted like I was a hysterical bitch every time I got jealous … and he made things much worse. With him, I just felt awful when I got jealous; I couldn’t get past it. I felt like he was judging me for something I couldn’t help; I felt like my mind was fragmenting as I tried to force myself to “think better” without any outside support; and worst of all, I felt like I couldn’t rely on him to respect my feelings.
It was the men who treated my emotions like they were reasonable and understandable who decreased my jealousy. It’s much harder to be jealous when your partner is saying, “I totally understand,” than it is when your partner is saying, “What the hell is the matter with you?” Maybe that’s what makes monogamy such an effective jealousy-management tactic: monogamy can be like a great big sign or sticker or button you can give to your partner that says, “I respect your jealousy.” Which is not to say that monogamy is always effective for this — we all know that monogamous people get jealous all the time! (Which only adds to my point that monogamy might be viewed as just one of many tactics, rather than an answer, when jealousy is a problem.)
Now, back to the current article. Jealousy is an incredibly hot-button topic, so I’m nervous about this, but let’s focus in on it a little more.
The Feeling of Jealousy
Jealousy and its cousin, competition, are both things that happen a lot in relationships. Some people are so uncomfortable acknowledging this that they repress those feelings, or ignore the behavior that goes along with them … but I’ve rarely seen that end well. I believe that some people lack jealousy and competitive urges, but I’ve also seen a lot of people who feel those things but can’t admit it. Not even to themselves.
I dated a guy last year who told me at the start of our relationship that he never got jealous. At first I took him at his word, but I quickly noticed that he changed the subject aggressively when I mentioned past lovers. We had a mutual friend with whom I had a lot of chemistry; when the three of us were together, my boyfriend acted uncomfortable and irritable, and when I specifically acted in ways that made it obvious I was with him — like by giving him Public Displays of Affection in front of the other guy — he relaxed.
I sighed internally when I observed this, and I felt frustrated, but wasn’t sure how to talk about it without sounding like I was calling him a liar. Fortunately, he brought it up later. “I think I do get jealous sometimes, and I just don’t like to think about it because it makes me feel like a bad person,” he said, one night while we were making dinner. In that moment, my respect for him skyrocketed. It’s hard for people to keep track of themselves like that, and to shift their self-image when confronted with new evidence.
Some people seem to interpret their lovers’ jealousy as a sign of love. Hey, I’ll admit that I’ve had moments of being flattered or pleased when my boyfriends show signs of jealousy — or when they act a little competitive. Sometimes those things are scary, though … or threatening … or frustrating, like in my example above. It’s complicated!
However, I often see those dynamics play out in ways that the participants won’t admit, no matter how much evidence comes up. I think it gets especially complicated when people experience jealousy as a sexual thing, a turn-on. Most people have a hard enough time discussing their sexuality in the first place. When you add an ingredient as controversial as jealousy, the potential discussions become that much more combustible.
When I was researching pickup artists for my awesome book Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser, I found a number of discussions in that community that praise competitive feelings because they’re seen as making the relationship more fun. A lot of these guys say competition among different lovers within open relationships is awesome because it keeps everyone a little uncertain, and encourages them to be “on top of their game.” This contrasts drastically with most polyamorous perspectives; in my experience, poly folks see jealousy and competition as things that should be compartmentalized and managed very carefully, rather than encouraged or exalted. For polyamory theorists, a feeling of safety is often the goal, as opposed to a feeling of competition.
And emotional safety is certainly a concern, because jealousy is one of the most intense and overwhelming emotions out there. It’s such a hard feeling to sit with and work through. My worst experiences of jealousy felt like I was choking, like I couldn’t breathe, like I was sick to my stomach, like I was terribly obsessed, like I couldn’t think of anything but the jealousy and how much it hurt. And yet … I’ve occasionally felt jealousy that was weak, almost nice, where I felt a little twinge of it and turned to my lover and got reassured … and that made me feel more safe, more cared for, more loved.
The bottom line is that people experience jealousy and competitive urges in many different ways. It’s important to acknowledge that and honor it. I don’t see it as productive to frame things like “jealousy is bad,” or “competition is awesome.” I’d much rather frame things like: “Jealousy and competition happen sometimes, and how do we deal with them when they come up so that everyone involved feels comfortable and happy?”
I firmly believe that the primary tools for dealing with jealousy and competitive urges are honesty, good faith and respect. If you’re feeling jealous, then take a deep breath. (I’m pretty sure that most relationship drama could be avoided if more people took deep breaths.) Hopefully, you’re dating someone who you like and trust (if you’re not, what’s the point?). Remind yourself that this person, who you like and trust, probably is operating in good faith and isn’t trying to hurt you. Respect that this person has their own desires, which won’t always overlap perfectly with your own. Don’t assume that your partner is obliged to do everything you want — but do be honest about what’s hurting you, so you can work it out together.
And, in turn: if your partner is jealous, respect that emotion. Remind yourself that this person, who you like and trust, probably is operating in good faith and isn’t trying to control you. Be honest about how your partner’s jealousy makes you feel, and think about ways to reassure your partner while protecting your own needs and boundaries.
The most stable relationship formation for dealing with jealousy and competitive urges appears to be monogamy. To be sure, I think people have plenty of other reasons for choosing monogamy. But the relationship tool that seems to work most thoroughly, and most often, and for the most people, is simply … being monogamous.
There are many ways of approaching non-monogamy, but the one I’m most familiar with is polyamory. A lot of polyamorists, though not all, organize their relationships into hierarchies: they have one or more “primary relationships,” and then “secondary relationships” and other relationships that don’t make it to secondary level. Sometimes a primary partner will have “veto power” — i.e., if one partner wants to get a new partner, then the primary partner can explicitly block that partner. This seems to help control a lot of jealousy and competitive behavior.
Some poly folks say that they see hierarchies and veto power as “blunt instruments,” and that they prefer to negotiate every interaction case-by-case. This sounds fine to me as long as it works for them, of course. But I would offer this: I think that blunt instruments are sometimes the most useful tool for a given project. And in fact, blunt instruments are more often useful than finer-tuned instruments. The whole idea of finer-tuned instruments is that they’re useful for precise circumstances … but they’re also harder to use, and more fragile. Some people don’t have the time or inclination to create a whole new toolkit for every individual relationship. Some people will settle for a slightly less precise, perfect relationship in exchange for a more stable one. Sometimes it’s simply easier to use a blunter, but more universally effective tool.
I will also add that I have seen plenty of polyamorous relationships in which there were unspoken hierarchies, and unspoken veto power. This resulted in maneuvering that struck me as both underhanded and unnecessary. I’ve always felt that it would be better for everyone involved if those dynamics were put out on the surface.
Finally, for people who like jealousy and competition …. If S&M has taught me anything, it’s that it’s quite possible to play with pain and power within a safe, loving framework. The key is to compartmentalize the whole process and discuss it openly. If people are into competitive relationships, then okay. If people like jealousy, then okay. But in that case, they really ought to look for partners who share those tastes, and to find ways that they can deal with them openly and honestly.
In S&M, there’s a huge emphasis on careful communication tactics — safewords are the most famous example, but there are plenty of others. There’s also a huge emphasis on talking about the S&M encounter and processing it together afterwards; we call this aftercare. If jealousy and competitiveness can be understood as consensual games of pain and power, then I think people who want to play those games would do well to learn about S&M communication tactics. If you’re going to have fun making your partner feel an emotion as intense as jealousy, then you might consider giving your partner a safeword.