Distressed by Another’s Jealousy: How to Deal With Guilt From Hurting a Partner

a very sad looking character made of marshmallows. they have little hands made from white thumbtacks.
Image by Maryam Abdulghaffar / CC BY

I enjoy and follow your writings and the recent one about how to know your partner is jealous and not just inventing a concern reminded me that I’ve been trying to find some info on how to deal with it when a partner is jealous.

More specifically, how do I not have anxious and guilty feelings, once a partner has told me they are working through some jealousy? It’s been an unexpected beast to wrestle with — for some reason I only anticipated I’d have to master my own jealousy, and I guess I’ve done that pretty well, because the jealousy of other people causes me more distress.

I’ve read other resources and found them helpful, but I need specific ideas about managing the intersection of these topics. 

First Things First: Remember It’s Normal

I’ve struggled with this myself. The polyamory how-to largely focuses on how to manage our own jealousy. How to build a personal sense of a security. But maybe the greatest challenge I ever faced was the pain that came when I realized my actions had inspired jealousy in someone I cared about deeply. I had never had to deal with hurting someone I cared about that much that badly, that unnecessarily, that thoughtlessly.

I hadn’t violated our agreement. Or done anything I wasn’t supposed to do. But nonetheless, they were hurt. And you’re right. It was painful for both of us.

So I know it’s not the best position to be in, but I want to let you know that you’re not alone in this.

It is a hard pill to swallow: Sometimes you hurt people, even if you aren’t doing anything wrong.

Now if you’re anything like me, you’re already arguing, “Sure, Page, I get what you’re saying. But just because it’s normal, it doesn’t mean that I’m handling it the right way or doing the right thing.”

And you have a point. So I’ll tell you what the gold standard looks like, more or less, in helping a partner through their struggles with jealousy.

Let’s make a deal right now: If you follow this process, you have nothing to feel guilty about. You have my permission to feel okay about things.

Repair Any Rifts in Secure Attachment

As I mentioned in an earlier piece, periods of extreme stress can actually cause some people with otherwise secure attachment to behave as though they are anxiously attached. I have seen this pattern produced reliably in poly relationships, particularly when a new partner is introduced, especially if it’s the first one introduced into a newly opened relationship. Taking on a new partner and establishing that first emotional connection is A LOT. That’s going to throw even people who are normally very securely attached into an anxious attachment cycle as it all reads as “threat” to our brains.

To counter this effect, show extra affection.

Make sure to reconnect after any time apart, spending time together so that the anxious partner can be reassured and the emotional connection in the preexisting relationship reaffirmed (note: the optimal way to reconnect depends largely on your preferred love languages).

And most importantly, be as available and responsive as you can be.

Don’t Get Defensive About Your Own Behavior

Even if you didn’t do anything wrong, something about the situation might have been particularly troubling for them.

If your partner points out something that was difficult or inspired extra jealousy, focus on validating those feelings and reassuring your partner that they are important to you. Don’t prioritize defending your own behavior.

“Seeing you kiss that person made me so much more jealous than I thought it would,” is not best met with, “So what? I had permission to kiss them. I didn’t do anything wrong!”

While this may be technically correct, it’s not conducive to helping the other person feel better.

Now, it’s fine to establish that fact (especially if your partner brings up issues of wrongdoing), but do it in a way that’s not defensive and doesn’t invalidate your partner’s emotions. And only after you’ve demonstrated to your partner that you care that they got hurt.

People can still get hurt in situations where nobody has done anything wrong (in all of life, not just in polyamory). That’s important to remember. It’s often counterproductive to treat someone else’s pain as a clear indicator that you, or anybody, is at fault and jump to your own defense without first properly honoring the other person’s pain.

Ask What They Need From You

Don’t assume that you know better than they do. Ask your partner what they need. I find that asking “What can I do to help you through this?” often yields better answers than yes or no questions like “Do you need anything from me?” or “Is there anything I can do?”

But it can take some time to sort out emotions, especially complicated ones. Your partner might not know right away what they need. If this is the case, let them know: “If you think of something, I’m here for you.”

And honor that promise.

Follow Their Lead

If they just want time and space to think through things (common with introverts), then allow them that. Don’t overwhelm them with contact for your own sense of closure (something I’ve been guilty of in the past).

If they want to discuss their fears and anxieties, be there for them.  Don’t dismiss or invalidate their fears. Be open and empathetic. Listen. Care. Be non-judgmental and patient.

It Might Not Feel Like Anything Is Changing, But Trust Your Partner’s Reporting

I brought up this question to Skyspook on a road trip we took recently. I shared the process I describe in this article.

“You remember the hot tub thing?” I asked him.

“Of course,” he said. It was memorable. The first time I’d really seen him jealous. And gut-wrenching for both of us.

“How did I do? You know… helping you through that.”

“Page,” he said. “You were wonderful.”

“Really?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Because I felt completely useless when I was helping you. I felt like nothing I did worked.”

“Well, that’s your problem,” Skyspook said. “It was my work to do. And you did plenty. You were there for me. And you didn’t act like there was anything wrong with me for feeling the way I did. That’s huge.”

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So bear this in mind. Your partner is a better judge of how things are going than your nagging guilt is.

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As Paul Hauck writes:

People…who feel guilty or inferior almost always give themselves 2 grades. The first grade is for the things they have done; the second grade is for themselves as human beings.

Always judge your actions but never judge yourself, good or bad.

There are no good people or bad people in the world. There are only people who do good or bad things.

That’s self-acceptance. And that’s how you build up a self-image you can live with.

A Final Note on Guilt

Researcher Roy Baumeister has studied guilt extensively. According to Baumeister, feeling guilty about something is a way of showing that you care. And guilt is useful when it’s a force that makes us pay attention to others.

Do that. Pay attention and you pay the price.

But once you do, let yourself off the hook. Don’t pay the price over and over again. You wouldn’t do that with a one-time bill. Don’t do it emotionally either.

Let yourself settle the debt and move on.

 

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