by Elizabeth Stern
The first question people ask my polyamorous family is “How do you handle the jealousy?” Befuddled, we answer, “What jealousy?”
I am lucky; I live with the two loves of my life. I am smitten with my husband of 16 years, and adore my partner of four. The three of us depend upon and nurture each other; we are a family. When my partner and I hadn’t had a date in a while, my husband encouraged us to take a holiday at the art museum, knowing how the visual connects us. When my husband and I hit an emotional snag in discussing our issues, my partner helped us to sort it out and come together. And when I was picking out Christmas presents, I gave the foodies in my life some bonding time over a Japanese small plates cooking class.
The existing polyamory advice literature pushes individualistic solutions to jealousy. Polyamory gurus such as Dossie Easton (“The Ethical Slut”), Deborah Anapol (“Love Without Limits”) and, more recently, Franklin Veaux (“More Than Two”) advocate personal responsibility as the solution to insecurity. You must “work through” your jealousy, making sure to not “control” your partner, all the while viewing the experience of jealousy through a lens of personal growth. My family has never needed to rely on these individualistic methods because jealousy is a social problem, not an individual one, and so are the solutions.
Prescribing of individualistic methods for management of jealousy is nothing new. It can be traced to the decline of the family economy in the 18th and 19th centuries. Peter N. Stearn’s “Jealousy: The Evolution of an Emotion in American History” argues that prior to the 18th century in the U.S. and Europe, jealousy was much less of a problem. Living in close-knit social and economic communities with prescribed roles did not leave room for fears of losing one’s significant others to rivals. Husband and wife teams were viewed as units (rather than as two individuals) embedded within a communal structure. Sure, individuals didn’t have a whole heck of a lot of autonomy, but they did have the security of knowing their spousal relationship unit was recognized, supported and held accountable to the community.
With the shift from family- and community-based institutions to wage work in urban environments, middle-class families began functioning within spheres separated by gender (with women being relegated to the home). Spouses overlapped less in daily life, which meant less communal support, monitoring and recognition of relationships. It is widely recognized that the emergence of a capitalist economy caused women to lose economic and social power relative to men. But the emergence of separate spheres also deprived both women and men of the communal support for their relationships, which had once made jealousy a non-issue.
The 20th century saw women’s reentry into the economic sphere, with increased opportunities for women and men to make individual choices about education and occupation. These welcome economic gains for women were accompanied by the increasingly pesky problem of jealousy. Unlike the family economy where spouses worked within the same community, now partners spent their time in separate, mixed-sex education and work institutions, with increased availability of potential alternative partners. And while the increase in the idea of romantic love during this time period dampened jealousy some, it was a poor substitute for the previous complete communal support for relationships.
So, if green eyes grew out of the shift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, what was our newly individualistic, capitalist society to do? Why, call those peepers into insecurity monsters that could be tamed through self-control.
Quick, guess the time period of the following quotes:
1). “Jealousy is an emotion that arises inside you; no person and no behavior can ‘make’ you jealous. Like it or not, the only person who can make that jealousy hurt less or go away is you.”
2). “Jealousy is almost always a mark of immaturity and insecurity. As we grow confident of love and of our loved one, we are not jealous.”
3). Jealousy is “undesirable, a festering spot in every personality so affected.”
The first is contemporary, taken from the poly bible “The Ethical Slut.” The second is from a mainstream 1950s relationship advice manual, and the third is a commentary from Margaret Mead in the 1930s. Note that only the first quote addresses a non-monogamous audience. Polyamory advice on jealousy is not radical when held up to this light; it is simply part of the larger 20th century context of demonizing jealousy and demanding personal responsibility for its eradication. Instead of locating jealousy within the structural changes of the 19th and 20th centuries, there has been an erroneous tendency to look inward for its causes and cures.
I think back on my life of four years ago as we first formed our polyamorous family. My new boyfriend was surprised that he felt no jealousy of my 14-year relationship with my husband. He felt supported and welcomed into our lives, and longed to make a commitment to us, but the absence of jealousy was perplexing to him. Doesn’t jealousy naturally emerge from a partner having another partner, he wondered? He waited for over a year before he made a commitment, just in case jealousy would emerge. He was waiting for Godot.
The three of us met at a film club and just seemed to “get” each other instantly. Our small talk consisted of Bourdieu, Navier-Stokes equations, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. The fundamental compatibility we had was effortless and we laughed like children together. It was this fundamental understanding of one another that allowed my boyfriend to “see” our marriage in a way that few others could. Having the closeness of our marriage reflected back in such a nuanced and perfect way felt wonderful. Similarly, the depth of my husband’s closeness with me allowed him to recognize the rare comfort and feeling of being at home I felt with my boyfriend. My husband provided one of the few sources of support and recognition that my boyfriend and I had at the time for our budding (but at first, secret) relationship. He was also there for us when we first “came out” to confused family and friends. While many expressed worries that this new relationship would lead to destruction, my husband gave us anniversary cards and told us that we were a rare and special couple. ...