6 Other Things that Jealousy Can Mean

A picture of a white cat with a brown top of its head, viewed from the side. The cat looks like it might be experiencing some jealousy. A cartoon thought bubble contains the words "I'm cute, too"
Image by liz west / CC BY

It’s usually one of first things you’re asked when someone finds out that you’re polyamorous: “But don’t you get jealous?” I get asked it a lot. And one of the most important realizations I had was that jealousy isn’t really an emotion.

If anything, jealousy is a system of emotions. And perhaps trickiest of all: Jealousy often is something else in disguise.

Here are 6 other things that it can mean when you experience jealousy.

1. Envy From Someone Else Getting Something You Wish You Had

A lot of people distinguish between jealousy and envy this way: Envy is wishing what another person has were yours. And jealousy is about fearing that you’ll lose what you have.

It’s a great distinction. Sometimes when we think we’re jealous, we’re really more envious. Maybe your partner got your metamour (your partner’s other partner) a nice gift. Something you wished you had.

That isn’t about insecurity or feeling less than. That’s literally about someone else getting something you wished you had.

This also happens a lot in polyamory with scheduling — because of work schedules, you might only be able to see partner A during the week, where partner B you can see on the weekend. And maybe that means you go to more social events with partner B. Partner A could definitely be envious of that, if they want to be able to take you to parties with them.

And outside of a romantic context, I see this a lot in my own social network. I know a lot of content creators and people with serious side hustles, largely because I’m fascinated by people who have a lot going on in their life. Roughly two-thirds of the people I know are busting their butt on some kind of creative project. And every now and then, one of us will break out and have a bit of success.

And inevitably? This will cause stress for the ones who haven’t made it yet. Which inspires envy.

2. Feeling Left Out

This is a big one for me: Feeling left out when I’m not part of something.

I typically run into it when a partner is going out with someone to a restaurant I haven’t been to yet, and it’s somewhere that I want to go.

I’ve even run into it in non-romantic situations where a bunch of friends go out somewhere without me and look like they’re having a good time. Maybe I had to work. Or maybe they didn’t ask me.

Whatever the case, I can definitely become “jelly” when people are doing something cool, and I’m not invited.

3. Feeling Neglected (or Like You’re Not Getting Your Needs Met)

When someone is paying a lot of attention to someone else, it can be easy to feel neglected by comparison. This is an especially common problem with NRE (New Relationship Energy, aka limerence).

Falling in love is a wildly emotional and irrational experience. While falling in love is extremely fun, it’s not something we’re necessarily meant to perpetually do. Under the influence of NRE, people have been known to neglect important responsibilities at work or as a parent, make poor financial decisions, and skimp on sleep and other self-care.

And yes, getting swept away by NRE means a person might not pay as much attention to romancing their existing partner.

A lot of that neglectful NRE behavior can function similarly to when monogamous people have a lot of work stress. And while that can cause problems in monogamous relationships, we don’t tend to interpret it as “being jealous” of work. It’s more clear in that case that other things (or people) are being neglected.

Recognizing this sort of “jealousy” as a sign that you or your partner’s other responsibilities are being neglected can be helpful in knowing to address those issues. Please see this post on accountability talks for more information on ways to have those kinds of conversations.

4. Feeling Overshadowed, or “Less Than” in Comparison

Maybe you think your metamour is more attractive than you are. Or younger or more charming.

My personal worst struggle with this? Was when Skyspook started dating someone who grew up with poly parents who modeled healthy non-monogamy for her from a very young age. I was blindsided by how envious and yes, even threatened, by this that I felt. I think was because my own transition to polyamory was rough. It took a lot of personal work for me to feel secure (a la this process).

So I worried that the new girlfriend was a super enlightened futuristic space being — and that I’d seem like a cavewoman in comparison. Grunting and throwing rocks at people’s heads.

In reality, none of that happened. But, boy, was I worried about it.

See also: The story of how I came to love someone as a metamour who initially struck me as a younger, better version of me

5. You’re Afraid (of Losing Them)

As I wrote at the beginning of the piece, researchers (e.g., Ekman) have found that jealousy isn’t really an emotion per se, but rather, a system of emotions.

When jealousy manifests, it tends to be some mix of fear, sadness, and/or anger. Typically, fear is at its core. This can be the fear of missing out, the fear of losing something that you value, the fear of rejection, etc. Sadness and/or anger are laid over this matrix of fear. Since the anger and sadness are closer to the surface, it can be more difficult to get to the underlying cause. But we need to ask the important question: What am I really afraid of?

Very commonly with polyamorous relationships, what is perceived as jealousy is really just a fear of losing that person from your life.

And with this I’ve found 2 approaches personally very helpful:

6. That You’re Human

A while back, I wrote a post called “Please Be Jealous.” In the piece, I share a time that I got jealous and talk about how being ashamed of jealousy is arguably worse than feeling jealous in the first place. Because feeling bad about feeling bad causes a secondary trauma loop, where you’re beating yourself up over and over again. Punishing yourself for feeling (pretty normal) negative feelings.

And it’s true. Sometimes? You just get a twinge. It happens.

It doesn’t mean that you’re a jealous person or insecure or anything like that.

As I’ve discussed, while it’s not always the culprit, fear is a very prime suspect in jealous twinges. And fear is hard wired right in the limbic system, in the amygdala. Jealous impulses can be relearned with time, patience, and persistence, but the feelings themselves are reflexive, and it’s no reflection on you when they happen. It doesn’t make you weak. Or unsuitable for non-monogamy.

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These are a few of the most common disguises, but jealousy, like Martin, gets around, and I’m sure you have seen it take even more forms than what I’ve outlined here. What other things can jealousy masquerade as?

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Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory

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