On Jealousy

When I talk about polyamory there is a particular sentiment that always comes up: “I couldn’t do that, I’d be too jealous.”

And I’m happy for those people.  “To thine own self be true” was one of the most potent droplets of wisdom in the ocean of Shakespeare’s work.  Acknowledging that jealousy is present and accounting for that fact by avoiding situations where it would drive you mad is a very smart thing to do.  However, when I go on to say that jealousy is a worthless emotion that is only destructive, many of those same people will object.  That’s where I think they’re wrong.

The first objection is usually that our tendency toward jealousy is natural.  While this is true, I can’t help but think…so what?  Our compulsion to overeat (or to eat junk food) is also natural, but who in their right mind would argue that we should indulge it for that reason?  Acknowledge its presence, sure, but we all know we should fight that natural tendency if we’re to be happy.

Then again, if we could choose our emotions, we’d all just choose to be happy instead of going out and actively doing things to make ourselves happy.  Even if we acknowledge that jealousy is bad for us, we can’t just will jealousy away, just like we can’t just will ourselves to be happy.  However, we can change the way we look at things, which can change the way we feel about them.  For instance, praying once made me phenomenally happy when I believed in god.  Now that I know god doesn’t exist, praying makes me feel lousy for wasting my time.

So, in the pursuit of examining our situation (admittedly with the hope of changing how you look at it), let’s ask what makes us jealous with someone we love?  It can’t be that we don’t want them to be happy, since we spend a lot of time in our relationships thinking of ways to make our partner happy.  But it may very well be that we don’t want our partner to be happy in that particular way.  Why?  We have no issue with our partner being happy with others, or even with other men/women.  So what is it about them being happy in that particular way?  Are we afraid we’ll lose them?  Are we afraid they will love someone more?

Let’s look at the first concern, that you’ll lose your partner if they love or become physical with someone else, and let’s clear one thing up: wanting to have sex with someone else does not mean that somebody does not love you and/or does not want to have sex with you.  There are certain qualities that your partner finds attractive, and other people on this planet are going to have them besides you (otherwise the porn industry would be broke).  People find many members of the opposite sex attractive for a variety of reasons.  If you’re jealous because you’re afraid of losing someone you love, ask yourself how much jealousy helps you accomplish that.  If your partner wants to sexually be with another man/woman, do you think that desire will evaporate because a rule has been put in place to give your jealousy priority over your partner’s desires?  It just means she won’t indulge it for fear of losing you.  Why is that a win for either of you?

And if your partner wants to explore other relationships to the exclusion of the one she’s in with you, why would you want to maintain that relationship anyway?  Why would you want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with you?  As Christopher said:

If your partner wanted to explore other relationships because they didn’t want you anymore, though, then the relationship is already over.  I, for one, don’t want a relationship, even (especially) a marriage, where my partner stays with me because her exposure to other people’s minds and bodies is being arbitrarily limited.  It’s exactly because my marriage is romantically and sexually open that I know that my wife genuinely wants to be with me.

So jealousy will not keep someone with you, not in any meaningful way.  What it can do is drive them away from you.  If a person wishes to be with others in some way, whether it’s sexually or whether it’s just hanging out with their guy/girl friends and you forbid it, it may very well create resentment.  And I don’t think it can be argued that resentment is an effective way to keep someone enamored with you.  What can keep someone with you in a meaningful way (as I would argue, the only meaningful way) is their own choice.  But they must be free to make it.  If you insist that your partner is making that choice of their own volition, then why the constraints of monogamous rules?

I am not against monogamy, I simply think obligatory monogamy makes no sense (unless your goal is to assuage your own fears of loss).  If a person forgoes possible happiness because I’ll be hurt if they’re happy that way, I’d feel like I was holding them hostage.  If someone has the whole world to choose from, without the weight of guilt or their partner’s jealousy bearing down on them, and they still choose you…that’s beautiful!  If they honestly don’t want to be with anybody else, more power to them!  So elective monogamy is fantastic in my eyes.  To me, it’s love in its purest form.

But is it possible they’ll love someone more?  Well, maybe.  But why does that matter?  Since when is love a competition?  If you have a second child, is it a matter of which child you love more?  Of course not: you love them both.  Time is a finite resource, love is not.  Yes, it would mean your partner is spending time with someone else, but as long as they were hanging out with friends beforehand, they were already doing that, and nobody finds it unreasonable for their partner to have their own time with friends (if someone does take issue with that, they’re generally viewed as possessive).  You could even spend time together with your partner and someone else they love.  It can be a very enjoyable time (as long as jealousy doesn’t gum up the works and rob you of what could be a lot of fun).

Love is a tricky word.  It will mean something different when I say it than when you say it.  It seems to me that if you were to unpack the word “love” the way a lot of people use it you would find a lot of qualities that, without their Trojan horse, are obviously qualities people don’t pursue by themselves.  These are things like obligation (in the sense of feeling like you own another person’s actions), jealousy, guilt, etc.  They are the  enemies of happiness, but somewhere along the line movies and other societal factors convinced a lot of us that love isn’t love without them.  That’s a damn shame, because I think they cheapen the concept.  If you love someone, I cannot think of a more noble definition of that word other than this: you want the person you love to be happy, no matter what, no matter who it is with.  That, to me, is the most care you can demonstrate for another person.  It’s also the most selfless.

It’s why I gave Michaelyn a copy of The Ethical Slut for Friendsmas and wrote this inside the cover.

Ultimately, I find that supporting someone in exploring their desires is the most likely way to produce gratitude in another human being.  Finding happiness when they are happy in every way makes me feel as though I’m caring for them without the pollution of self-interest.  In my eyes, giving power to jealousy means giving power to my insecurities, and it means placing my insecurities higher than the desires of someone I love in terms of importance.

I’ve never seen anything but bad happen when I do that.

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About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.