Jealousy in Open Relationships
Jealousy is an obstacle faced in most relationships, monogamous and not. Sometimes jealousy arises because our relationship agreements have been broken or exploited. In these times, jealousy tells us “I’m not being treated well, do something about it.” At other times jealousy arises even when our partners have adhered to the rules. This can make us feel helpless and crazy, as our partners insist and we agree that they did nothing technically wrong. In open relationships this second type of jealousy can feel particularly bewildering. Maybe you thought an open relationship structure would give you a means to control your jealousy. Maybe your partner thought you gave up the “right” to be jealous when the two of you agreed to sleep with other people.
Our culture has given jealousy enormous weight – it is seen as valid justification for ending relationships, acting out, and physically harming partners. Most people will do anything to avoid feeling it, and opening a relationship has all kinds of potential triggers for jealousy. We’ve been conditioned to believe that love is a finite resource and that if a partner is giving love to someone else, there is less left for us. While this isn’t true about love, it is true of the more tangible parts of relationships: time, money and energy, to name a few.
People in successful open (and monogamous!) relationships know two things: first – that “jealousy” is an umbrella emotion that encompasses many potential feelings (anger, fear of abandonment, competitiveness, loneliness, and envy, just to name a few) and second: that jealousy is a useful warning sign, like a little red flag popping up to say “you have work to do over here!” Feeling jealous feels bad, but there are several strategies to help you weather storms as they pop up, and make your relationship(s) stronger as a result.
A note about the activities below: these exercises are designed for couples that honor their agreements. If you are feeling jealous because your partner is cheating, a compulsive liar or rule-breaker, the activities below will leave you feeling frustrated. However, there is still hope - call 267-324-9564 to make an appointment with a couples therapist.
In moments of extreme jealousy it can be easy to fall into old and unhelpful cognitive distortions [hyperlink]. When our partner takes a date to a movie instead of us, we might spiral from “why didn’t Lucy take me?” to “Lucy likes hanging with Clyde more than me” to “Lucy doesn't like to spend time with me.”
Take a minute to pause. When you feel jealousy coming on, remove yourself from the situation or trigger if you can. Step outside, log off the internet, find an empty chair, whatever it takes to give yourself enough space to reflect on what you are feeling. Reality Testing uses questions to check our perception of what’s happening. Some helpful questions are below, and you may want to adapt or add depending on specific rules and agreements that exist in your relationship.
- Do I have a history of jealousy when something doesn’t go my way, or is there something about this situation that is triggering my feelings?
- Do I trust that my partner still loves me?
- Do I believe that my partner has the right to choose how they spend their time, energy and affection?
- Has my partner shirked any shared responsibilities (i.e. childcare, bill-paying, cleaning the cat box, etc)?
- Has my partner broken any of our rules or boundaries?
- Do we have a rule or boundary around whatever has made me upset?
- What emotions are underneath my jealousy? Anger? Sadness? Fear?
- Is my partner aware of how I feel in this moment?
- In the past, when I have shared my feelings with my partner has she/he responded in an empathic way?
- If a specific action made me jealous, is it something I would like to do or try with my partner?
After you’ve assessed the relationship between your reaction, the triggering incident and reality, be gentle with yourself. Take a breath and move into the second phase of dealing with jealousy.
Feel your Feelings
Jealousy feels bad. When confronted with jealousy, we may want to blame our partner for making us feel this way, or disengage from them completely to escape. But if we listen to our jealousy and what lies underneath it, it can strengthen our relationships. The trick to making jealousy work for you and your relationship is to relax into it.
Journaling or drawing is a great way to do this. Take some time to see how many feelings are inside your jealousy, and write or draw them all.
Option 1: Write
Set a timer for 10 minutes, and write without stopping until the timer dings. Focus on what’s contained inside your jealousy. Does your jealousy contain anger? Sadness? Fear? Loneliness? Name as many as you can. Accept them and remember that all feelings are valid. Just because you have opened your relationship doesn’t mean you’ve given up the right to feel mad, scared, embarrassed or lonely.
Option 2: Draw
If you prefer drawing to writing, you might turn on a timer for 10 minutes and draw like your feelings. Press your red crayons really hard on to the paper if you’re angry, draw long slow loops for your sadness, tiny sharp squiggles in the corner for your loneliness, etc. Try to find all the feelings inside your jealousy and give them the chance to express themselves in your drawing.
Most people find that just acknowledging feelings lessons their intensity. And naming them gives you and your partner a map of what to work on. If you find that your jealousy is full of loneliness and fear, it might be useful to talk to your partner about how to increase your confidence in the relationship. Maybe you need to set up a special date night, or nightly affirmations. If your jealousy is full of competitiveness, maybe you and your partner need to set up opportunities to try some of the activities they’ve shared with other dates. Processing our feelings reduces their immediacy, and gives us information about what we need to work on.
Once you’ve had a chance to explore your feelings on your own, it’s time to bring your partner into the conversation.
Start by sharing what happened and how it made you feel.
- I felt ____ when I saw/heard ____
- When you ___ I felt jealous. Underneath my jealousy was ____.
Make a request for what you need. At the beginning of open relationships, it can be hard to distill feelings into request. Some examples are below.
- A boundary: Maybe you’ve encountered a behavior or situation that is too difficult for you to handle right now. A boundary might be temporary – something taken off the table until you and your partner have built more trust. Or it might be permanent – you will never be comfortable with your partner going on dates if you are the one stuck home babysitting the kids.
Examples could include: please don’t take dates to places I’ll be; don’t date people I know; don’t peg dates; don’t go out without finding a babysitter first.
- An agreement: While boundaries define something as “off limits”, agreements are mutual actions both parties can take. An agreement provides a map for future situations by creating mutual expectations of behavior.
Examples could include: we always agree where you’ll sleep BEFORE you go on a date,; we call each other after dates are over; let’s see X movie together; when we try pegging for the first time we’ll do it together.
With practice, processing your feelings of jealousy on your own and with your partner will become more comfortable. More importantly, it will generate boundaries and agreements that keep everyone feeling safe and happy. Dealing with jealousy is a life long process. As your needs and relationships change, so too will your triggers for jealousy. But with these three tools, you can learn to make jealousy work for you, instead of against you.
If you want additional tools to unpack jealousy with your partner, call 267-324-9564 to make an appointment with a therapist in Center City Philadelphia. If you live outside of Philadelphia, no worries, we also provide telephone counseling services.