against the veto (or, fear by any other name…)
by Andrea Zanin
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt
I’ve been thinking lately about how the first question on everyone’s lips—poly and monogamous alike—when the topic of non-monogamy comes up is, “How do you deal with the jealousy?”
Seriously? I’m so tired of it.
The first reason is because jealousy comes up in every kind of relationship, not just in poly ones. The most incredibly awful jealousy I’ve ever seen has been in my own monogamous relationships. In my experience, poly brings up a whole bunch of stuff for people, and most of it’s not really specific to poly. It’s basically the same stuff that comes up in monogamous relationships, just more intensely and with fewer buffers. If you’re poly, then whatever your particular weakness is, poly will shine an even brighter light on it, and that’s the shape your personal challenge will take; it’s each person’s individual challenge to work through whatever that stuff is. Lots of folks make the mistake of thinking poly is to blame for all that stuff, but really all poly is is a rather unforgiving mirror that causes us to have to face ourselves, and sometimes we don’t like what we see.
At least when you’re non-monogamous you (may) have access to a subculture with tons to say about jealousy management. Jealousy is seen as something to be acknowledged, understood and dealt with – books, websites, conferences and tons of other resources abound. And while I applaud those people who create those resources, and further applaud the people who take advantage of them, I think it makes for a bit of an unfortunate situation: because poly folks actually tackle jealousy head-on by talking about it a lot, it makes it look as though jealousy were the province of the polyamorous, when in fact it’s rampant all over the place. The only difference is that the rest of the world thinks that’s okay.
Which leads me to the second reason I’m so tired of the jealousy question. This one takes a bit more explanation.
Our culture gives enormous weight to jealousy, as though it were both inescapable and agonizing. We attribute such all-reigning power to jealousy that we use it as justification, however contested, for a range of incredibly poor behaviour, including some that’s truly horrific—everything from the cold shoulder to murder.
The stuff that most often comes up in any relationship is around fear of loss or fear of pain and how we each respond to that. Clamp down and try to control? Pull back and try to escape? Lash out and try to hurt first, or worse, or in revenge? Feel inadequate and try to get reassurance?
That whole package—which is basically a whole lot of variations on “fear”—we call jealousy. That’s one problem. Even the name we use for that package of emotion acts as a mask that tries to protect what’s underneath it. “I’m jealous” is somehow easier or more acceptable to say than “I’m terrified.” Sort of like how “I’m angry” is seen as somehow more powerful than “I’m vulnerable.” This is the product of a messed-up patriarchal culture and messed-up ideas about what’s really powerful, cuz trust me, vulnerability is incredibly strong.
Then we make it worse. We decide that jealousy must be avoided at all costs. Pull out “jealousy” and all of a sudden you have a nicely packaged reason to make your partner do anything you want. Don’t see him more than twice a week or I’ll be jealous. Don’t touch her in front of me or I’ll be jealous. Don’t wear that dress, other men will look at you and that makes me jealous. In short: don’t do anything that triggers my jealousy, and then I won’t be jealous, and then everything will be fine. We will have successfully avoided jealousy.
But if we drop the protective mantle called “jealousy” and we simply talk about “fear” the picture changes. If we instantly saw a demonstration of “jealousy” as simply a high-stress manifestation of fear, it would all of a sudden be a lot less powerful and a lot more vulnerable.
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