While jealousy may be a very strong emotional signal, it’s not a very specific one. As I’ve written before, it’s easy to panic when you experience jealousy, but it’s very much like a check engine light: Jealousy tells you that something is amiss but not what, exactly. And certainly how serious the issue is or how to really fix it.
It doesn’t help that jealousy is often something else in disguise. Part of dealing with jealousy in a productive way is unmasking what’s really underneath. I wrote two pieces a while back that discuss some of jealousy’s most frequent alter egos:
- Envy (wishing what another person has were yours).
- A sense that you or your needs are being neglected.
- Feeling left out.
- A feeling that you’re overshadowed or “less than” in comparison.
- A fear that you’ll lose someone or something that’s important to you.
- Feeling as though you’ve undergone a demotion in status.
- Feeling displaced.
For more information, please see 6 Other Things Jealousy Can Mean as well as the followup to that article specifically discussing demotion and displacement.
Those two articles underwent a recent revival, spurring on a lot of conversation, giving some folks answers and raising questions for others. I read all of the discussion and feedback with great interest.
I thought it was time to revisit the subject of jealousy, albeit from a slightly different angle. When trying to understand something better, it can be helpful to have a firm grasp not only of what it is but also what it isn’t.
Today I want to talk about what jealousy doesn’t mean.
1. Your relationship is doomed.
This one is relevant to everyone, whether you’re monogamous, nonmonogamous, polyamorous, or ambiamorous.
Just because you become jealous about something, it doesn’t mean that your relationship is doomed.
As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, researchers (Ekman, Salovey, etc.) have broadly found found that jealousy isn’t an individual human emotion per se but a system of emotions. Typically the emotional component of jealousy is some mixture of fear, anger, and sadness.
When fear is involved, a jealousy event can feel particularly threatening. And it’s easy to experience a sense of foreboding doom about your relationship.
Now, fear is a very important emotion for self-protection. It evolved to keep us safe from threats in life or death scenarios:
- A predator is chasing you, trying to eat you. You feel fear. You run away.
- You walk to the edge of a high ledge and are gripped with fear. Slowly you back away from the drop instead of walking over the side of it.
In these examples, fear is literally a lifesaver.
However, fear is an instantaneous binary and primitive response. The information we glean from modern life is typically a lot more complicated than either of those examples. There are a few problems with fear as a reporting system that make it important that we question what it’s telling us when dealing with threats that aren’t so immediate or mortal.
The first problem is that fear tends to produce a number of false alarms. Fear is known for speed and sensitivity, not accuracy. Now, it’s true that sometimes our fears are justified. Every now and then, there is a logical, well-founded basis to our fear. But the vast majority of the time, especially in modern social settings, fear overstates its case. Or to put it other words, fear can be a liar — and a very convincing one.
And even when fearful feelings are on the right track, the way fear warps our thinking tends to be profoundly unhelpful in managing relationships. An adrenaline rush might help us sprint away from a predator trying to eat us, but when it comes to problem-solving in complex social situations, it’s the complete opposite. Yerkes-Dodson famously found that a little stress is fine but that too much stress makes us terribly unproductive and ineffective (we typically narrow our field down to one or two simple solutions, ignoring the rest of the entire array of possibilities, where the optimal course of action may very well lie). It’s difficult to do anything well if you’re too keyed up.
So maybe there’s some kind of problem here that needs to be addressed. But your relationship isn’t necessarily doomed, and it’s not going to help you to problem-solve to assume that it is.
2. You’re a terrible person or there’s something fundamentally wrong with you.
In my first polyamorous relationship, I was often the odd one out. Especially when it came to jealousy. Of the three of us in our triad, I was by far the most extroverted and emotive. And yes, I experienced and showed far more jealousy than either of my partners.
At the time, I felt like there was something wrong with me. Like I was small or petty. Somehow less evolved or weaker emotionally than either of my other partners.
Even when I was totally falling apart, I generally behaved very, very well. But I still judged myself for having those jealous feelings in the first place. And then I’d turn around and judge myself for those self-judging feelings, too. Like a cat chasing its tail. Launching myself into the world’s most unproductive shame spiral.
As I’ve written before, when people get jealous, they often become ashamed of the jealousy, which is a secondary trauma loop, where you’re beating yourself up over and over again, punishing yourself for feeling (pretty normal) negative feelings.
Shame is the real killer. Not the fear, the anxiety, the jealousy. But shame. In basic survival terms, if the tribe rejects you, you die. Exile was death to our ancestors. Shame is a sense that you are unacceptable, that you don’t belong. And your brain feels like it’s life or death.
It really is okay not to feel okay. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. Fear is hard wired right in the limbic system, in the amygdala. Jealous reactions can be relearned with time, patience, and persistence, but the feelings themselves are reflexive, and it’s no reflection on you when they happen.
3. You’re not cut out for non-monogamy.
I was one of those people who thought I could never be non-monogamous. One of the reasons was that I was just too jealous. It would be too difficult. There was no way I could do it.
Now, I’m not saying my transition to polyamorous relationships was easy. It wasn’t. It took a huge amount of work — most of which was on myself. There were a lot of things I had to work on:
- Making peace with uncertainty
- Learning to not only tolerate alone time but come to actually enjoy it
- Developing a strong sense of self and emotional security that wasn’t contingent on romantic relationships (that one was a doozy, let me tell you)
- Learning how to deal productively with jealousy
None of this was easy. I’ll be the first to admit it. But the benefits of doing this work didn’t just apply to polyamory. I found all of it translated extremely well to other social settings. For example, after doing that emotional work, I found it much less terrifying to advocate for myself in professional settings and much easier to set boundaries with family members. And I found the courage to make a number of huge life changes that were long overdue: Relocating to an area with a better job market and social scene. Ending a dysfunctional relationship that wasn’t doing either of us any favors. Switching careers to something that better suited me that I’d always thought I could never do.
Was I a natural fit for polyamory? No.
Unlike a lot of other polyamorous educators, I didn’t always know I was polyamorous — or even that polyamory was something people should be doing at all. And I certainly didn’t think it was something I should be doing. Indeed, I considered myself quite a monogamous person growing up. Even now, I think of myself as being more ambiamorous than anything else, able to happily practice either polyamory or monogamy, all depending on the situation and the individuals involved.
But am I glad that I gave non-monogamy a shot? You bet.
Now, I want to be clear that I think monogamy is a perfectly lovely way to conduct oneself. It is a completely valid relationship configuration with its own set of benefits.
And I also want to be clear that no one should be forced to be non-monogamous if it’s not the style of relationship that they really want, just as non-monogamous folks shouldn’t be forced to be monogamous. If someone wants a different relationship style than their partner, they can either try to find a compromise (perhaps a mono/poly arrangement or being monogamish, etc.) — or maybe they don’t date each other at all.
But I will never go back to thinking that just because someone experiences quite a bit of natural jealousy (especially before consciously examining it and working on it) that they’re not cut out for non-monogamy. That just isn’t true. Jealousy isn’t an automatic disqualifier. It can be worked on. I lived it.
4. You’ll always feel jealousy or envy.
You won’t always feel jealousy or envy. Well… maybe you will. This one is kind of true and kind of false. Sorry, my bad. Let me explain.
The truth is that any given emotional state you’re in doesn’t last forever. No matter what it is that you’re feeling at any given moment, that feeling will lift eventually and another emotion will come in and replace it. When emotions are intense and especially if they’re unpleasant, it can be easy to feel like emotions are never going to pass. But it’s not true. Eventually, whatever you’re feeling in that given moment (whether that’s a single emotion or a system of emotions) will get overwritten by something else.
So if you’re feeling jealous (or feeling a particular mix of fear, anger, and/or sadness), you’re not always going to feel that way. That particular jealousy event will only last so long.
But it’s worth noting that you will always feel negative emotions from time to time. Sometimes you’re going to feel jealousy — in the same way that you’ll likely occasionally experience sadness or anger in response to life. As with all strong emotional reactions, we are tasked with figuring out how best to identify and respond to jealousy, essentially becoming our own emotional parent. The goal, then, is not to never ever get jealous, just like our goal should probably not be to never get sad or afraid. And instead a better goal is to learn how to deal with negative feelings when they happen.
Because the truth of the matter is that nearly everyone will experience jealousy or envy in some way, shape, or form over the course of their life. For many of us, this will be in the context of our romantic relationships. Researchers have found that having a monogamous relationship doesn’t safeguard against experiencing jealousy (in fact, people seem to paradoxically experience more jealousy long term when they are in monogamous relationships than when they are in consensually non-monogamous ones, which runs counter to wider cultural beliefs on the matter).
That said, it does seem that there are people who do experience very little to basically no romantic jealousy. But even those low/no-jealousy individuals often have some other domain in which they can experience jealousy or envy. This is huge in the age of social media (fear of missing out, the ease of social comparison) and can include any number of things:
- Feeling left out of a social event, when you see a bunch of friends are all out somewhere you really would have wanted to go but no one invited you
- Cringing as your friend starts an exciting new job while you’re stuck at one you hate
- Seeing that your mutual friends seem much more active on other people’s social media presences than on your own
- Comparing yourself physically to other people’s filtered selfies and photos of celebrities and feeling unattractive in comparison
- Becoming quite upset after your friend posts about a recent weight loss while you are struggling and failing to make the scale move
5. You need to act out.
As I mentioned in #2, it’s not wrong to feel jealousy. Feelings are never right or wrong. They just are. You get to feel what you feel.
Now, when we take actions based on our feelings, whatever they are, we need to be accountable for those. So if we cut someone out of our life, angrily explode and destroy property, tell someone off, or whatever it is we decide to do, we are on the hook for whatever outcome those actions cause.
Sometimes our feelings will push us in ways that cause us to act unproductively or in a way that actually backfires, making it harder to achieve what we actually want.
So just because feelings aren’t wrong doesn’t mean that those emotions can’t push us to do things that have really undesirable outcomes. And when that happens, we have to live with them.
But the feelings themselves aren’t wrong. They just are.
It’s incredibly difficult, verging on impossible, to make yourself feel a way you don’t feel. But actions are much easier to control. As Pearl Buck famously said, “You cannot make yourself feel something you do not feel, but you can make yourself do right in spite of your feelings.”
As I mentioned in another article, you may very well find that jealousy is telling you that you need something to change (and that could be something big). But there are ways of going out and calmly conveying this that are much more productive.
If left unchecked, jealousy can spur us to act in ways that we come to regret later. Your feelings aren’t wrong, but they don’t justify awful behavior.
6. Your concerns are irrational.
Far too often, I’ve heard people in all formats of relationship (monogamous or non-monogamous) summarily dismiss a partner’s stated concerns with “they’re just jealous” in an attempt to end important conversations. While concern trolling is always a possibility when dealing with partners who either aren’t emotionally self-aware and/or have a tendency to stay in a jealous closet, jealousy isn’t something that should be automatically dismissed. It frankly can also be a signal that gives valuable information.
Even if a person is jealous, that doesn’t automatically invalidate their argument. You can be both jealous and correct in your belief that something that has taken place is rude or a bad idea.
Jealousy can offer as a valuable window into our inner life, our concerns. And just like a check engine light, it can alert of us of important problems. We ignore those signals at our own peril.
Just because someone’s feeling jealous, it doesn’t mean that they don’t also have a valid point.