“The universe is not short on wake-up calls. We’re just quick to hit the snooze button.”
“You okay?” I ask.
“Yup,” Justin says. “I’m fine.” But it’s in that too quick, all-systems-go kind of way. How people say it when they want you to leave them alone.
I can see his body curled up on the bed, his hands pulled inward protectively. A sheen around his eyes, just visible in the light pouring in from the hallway.
“Just need a second to myself,” he says. “You should get back. Take care of the guests.”
I take another step closer. “Are you sure everything’s okay?” I ask again.
“Of course,” he replies. A pained expression flickers across his face. And disappears in an instant. It happens so fast I would never see it if I weren’t looking for it.
“Okay,” I say before stepping back into the hall. I know he’s not telling me everything.
Later he grabs my arm as I’m standing on the porch talking to our guests. Gently but firmly. A kind of insistence that I have come to recognize.
We step away together.
“I had… a moment,” he says.
And he gives me that look that tells me everything.
“When?” I ask.
He sighs. “In the hot tub. When you were making out with all those people.”
“Ugh,” I say. “You should have gotten in. I thought–”
“Yeah, we’re fine,” he says. “It’s fine. But… everyone was making out with each other, and there literally wasn’t any room for me to get into the tub…” His voice trails off.
“Oh my God, and it’s your birthday.”
“And you actually haven’t seen me do anything quite like that before.”
He nods again.
“I’m so sorry,” I say. And now I’m the one crying. I consider slinking off to the garage to hide from him. From our guests. From myself. But it’s impossible. It’s not like I can just sink into the concrete floor and disappear.
“Oh sweetie,” he says, wrapping me into his arms. “It’s really okay. I just wanted you to know.”
But there’s a tight fist of pain in my chest. And I don’t know how to make it go away.
I struggle to pull away, but he holds on tight. “You didn’t do anything wrong,” he says. But I feel like I have.
When Justin finally lets go, I wipe my face on a beach towel hanging on one of the camp chairs. Quickly bolt back into the house. Hide in the bathroom, hoping my guests will think that chlorine is irritating my eyes.
My biggest struggle with Seth as my primary was always how to manage my own jealousy and insecurity. How to calibrate exactly how much of it I would share and when. Resisting acting out in ways that were counterproductive. You know, all the things that I had read could be so difficult about polyamory and opening up.
I was a textbook case of “maybe you shouldn’t be poly” — sensitive, insecure. I wore my emotions on the surface, and they never quite fit the situation at hand.
But I worked. And worked. And sure enough, I got where I needed to be. I made huge gains over the years that Seth and I were primaries with managing my jealousy, advocating for my own needs, and becoming more secure. And even though Seth and I eventually broke up, we’ve both emerged from it as stronger people.
I started dating Justin while I was still with Seth. An intricate poly system spun like a spider’s web. So strong in some aspects and in other ways so vulnerable.
Multiple radical changes hit. Justin and I emerged from it all as primaries, sole survivors of a catastrophic web burning. I went through 4 breakups in a period of about 3 months — and Justin, a few of his own.
We were devastated. That many breakups so quickly was a sign to both of us. We needed stability. In the wake of this, we held off on new partners and went to work on ourselves. It would just be the two of us for a while. But we agreed that all it would take was one discussion for us to reopen.
I went to therapy. Went back to school. Established a career. Even while closed, we had a broad sense of what was considered “acceptable.” We were poly-aware though essentially monogamous in practice (monoflexible, monogamish, etc). Justin cuddled with friends. I’d flirt. Stuff that gets a lot of monogamous folks in trouble out in the wild.
Four years later, we kept having weird discussions the morning after parties. Odd check-ins with one of us asking the other in turn “was that cheating?” And it was hard to answer. Neither of us really knew or cared. It got a little silly. So we agreed to reopen.
I thought I knew what I was doing. We’d been together for years. We’d started out as poly, before closing up shop for a spell. And I had already gone through the process of opening up a previously closed relationship with Seth. I had made huge leaps and bounds forward getting my jealousy under control, feeling more secure as a person.
How hard could it be?
Brutally difficult, it turns out.
I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
I had never had to deal with hurting someone I cared about that much that badly, that unnecessarily, that thoughtlessly.
No, this was different. I could see a similar pain process to my own in Justin’s eyes as he “fessed up” about his difficulties. I knew precisely what he was feeling. I knew that I was only seeing the tiniest sliver of what he had felt.
The Opposite of Feeling Jealousy? Causing It
I wish I could say it was an easy fix for me to get past hurting him. I’m pragmatic. I like to find solutions. But I can’t. Not honestly.
It took me over a year to get over that night.
Justin? He got over it in about a week.
But for me, it was a long, slow process of it happening over and over again, my inadvertently hurting him by something I had done, pain that blindsided us both. His acknowledging it sweetly and kindly, my feeling the weight of it.
The jealousy I caused was a double-edged sword, sharpened on both sides. The opposite edge, the guilt of these missteps, bit deep into my flesh. It cut both ways.
I was wounded for days, weeks.
And yet, somehow as the months went along, I healed.
He hurt less often, I fucked up less, and when I did mess up, I could trust he would be fine.
“So,” I told him. “I’m thinking about writing about the hot tub thing, but it terrifies me.”
Justin smiled. “Well, Page,” he said, “That’s the surest sign that it’s something you should write about.”
Update: I wrote a followup post where I talk about how to deal with it if you’re distressed by the jealousy you cause another person.