Health & Wellness

All About All The Feelings: Let’s Talk Jealousy

People in open and poly relationships talk about how to manage the so-called "green-eyed monster", as well as exploring why jealousy might not be so scary after all
by Charlotte Moore
4 Oct 2021

UPDATED: 3 Apr 2023


Jealousy in relationships is a tricky topic. We all have different boundaries that we want to set for our partner or partners, according to what may or may not make us feel comfortable and secure. There’s more to be said about boundaries, but it’s worth noting here that the traditional model of boundaries as “no go areas”, just for things that make us feel uncomfortable, is an oversimplification. Boundaries are not just about negative space, limitation and taking things away. They can also be about expansiveness, permission and celebration. Nowhere are these boundaries most often recognised and negotiated than within an open, non-monogamous or polyamorous relationship. That said, it’s clear that many monogamous couples could learn a thing or two from the poly community about the necessity of good communication and honesty. 

This is not to say that poly or ENM (ethically non-monogamous) people are living blissfully free of jealousy – far from it! However, the structures of these kinds of relationships do require more conscious consideration of emotions and boundaries than has perhaps been granted to the traditional cisgender, heterosexual, monogamous relationships of the past, and so it makes sense to talk to poly people in particular about what this feeling might mean and how they manage it. 

What Is Jealousy? 

Jealousy is defined by Psychology Today as “a complex emotion that encompasses feelings ranging from suspicion to rage to fear to humiliation […] most typically aroused when a person perceives a threat to a valued relationship from a third party. The threat may be real or imagined.” Being jealous can feel like something to suppress and be ashamed of, but this often only serves to increase the unpleasant feelings not only of the jealousy but of the insecurity, sadness or anger that accompany it. 

No emotion in and of itself is a bad thing, and feeling jealous is very common, not only in romantic or sexual relationships but in friendships, families and amongst colleagues too.

At its most basic, it indicates a relationship’s value, and whilst it is uncomfortable to sit with an exposed insecurity, jealousy offers an opportunity to improve, repair and strengthen. 

Establishing Boundaries

“I think most people would assume that we never get jealous!” Explains 43-year-old Robert, who is part of a polyamorous triad with his partners. “There’s no one way to do poly relationships. Each one is really different, but, I think we’d all be lying if we said we’ve never experienced jealousy, ever. Generally, though, I know that if I’m feeling jealous, it’s not on my partners, it’s more how I’m feeling within myself.”

Ted Conley, a polyamory researcher, a professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan who studies polyamory told The Atlantic that “polyamory writings explicitly advocate that people revisit and reevaluate the terms of their relationships regularly and consistently – this practice could benefit monogamous relationships as well. Perhaps a monogamous couple deemed dancing with others appropriate a year ago, but after revisiting this boundary they agree that it is stressful and should be eliminated for the interim.” Boundaries can shift and change over time due to factors not solely found within the relationship. Insecurities and confidence can wax and wane for all sorts of reasons, from getting a promotion at work to moving abroad, welcoming new family members to physical bodily changes. A boundary is not a rule set in stone, but a flexible structure that can and should be reexamined as part of the process of life. 

“I honestly never expected to be jealous.” Explains Emma* when we FaceTime from her West London living room.  “Watching Tom* with other people has always been a huge turn-on, so I really never thought for a second that I’d feel a bit – cheated?”

32-year-old Emma and her partner Tom started exploring an open relationship around two years ago. “Even before we were ‘open’, I loved the idea of watching Tom with other women. So, jealousy wasn’t really something I worried about at all! The first few events were amazing. We both had the best time, but I think the issue was that we spent so long firming up our boundaries in the context of sex, I didn’t think to set any for outside of that.” 

A week after an event, Emma discovered that Tom was still in touch with someone they’d had sex with. And, she was surprised at how unhappy with the communication she was. “We had a really long chat about it and set some boundaries, but I really wish we’d done that beforehand!” Emma and Tom still attend sex events regularly, but now with the added understanding of what makes them feel most comfortable when it comes to outside communication.

This isn’t just about their relationship with one another, either, but also about being clear with people that they meet at events. It’s equally important to mitigate potential harm and confusion for those outside the couple as it is to bolster the existing relationship – if not more so, as those outside the relationship may not have the same opportunities for healing and discussion as the couple themselves. 

Dr Lori Beth Bisbey, a sex & intimacy coach and psychologist who specialises in supporting those exploring polyamory or an open relationship explains that there are a few things that can spark jealousy, even in the most healthy relationship. “Before anything else, it’s worth thinking about why you’re interested in exploring polyamory or an open relationship. Cover topics like post-event communication; are you having individual relationships or should all communication come through the two of you? You might both have deal-breakers that you’ll want to set early on, but remember that these boundaries should be reset before every event to ensure that they’re still right for you.”

What Are The Main Causes Of Jealousy? 

Dr Bisbey explains that there are three key factors that can spark the so-called green-eyed monster. “The first is a feeling of ‘I’m going to lose my place in this relationship’. If you don’t feel like your relationship is solid enough in that sense, it’s never a good idea to introduce other people. So, taking the time to work on your self-esteem is really important. Those who don’t tend to experience jealousy will have done this work prior to exploring a non-monogamous experience. They’ll take the time to work on their emotional skills, communication skills and general sense of self.”

The second is what Dr Bisbey calls a Monogamy Hangover®, a term she and a colleague coined for those that struggle with societal conditioning around monogamy. “As children, we grow up taking in the very limited view of relationships. We learn that regardless of our preferred style of partners, non-monogamous relationships are ‘wrong’ and this conditioning is responsible for a lot of jealousy, even within those that are very experienced. Under the surface, this idea can cause conflict and the best resolution is often with therapy or a GSRD (Gender, Sexual, and Relationship Diversity) practitioner to access support.” 

Rachel and Josh are experienced members of the poly community and they agree that this idea of societal conditioning can cause issues. “It’s all about communication. When we started out exploring polyamory, it almost felt wrong. We both knew we fancied other people, but it almost felt like cheating. But, I can compare directly between our monogamous relationship and our current triad and our communication improved vastly, as did the rest of our relationship!” 

Dr Bisbey explains that the third issue that has the potential to cause jealousy is what she calls ‘time and treatment’. “I love to use the divorced families example. Every weekend the non-resident parent picks up their child for a fun-filled day out. The problem? The residential parent will deal with the significantly less fun working week. We have stresses and bills to deal with and that residential parent will often feel a little hard done by. It’s the same with partners. At the weekend, your other partner might get to experience all the fun, while the nesting partner doesn’t get to see that. They have more of the day-to-day. And, this can cause jealousy on both sides.”

Rachel explains that for her and Josh, it’s also about finding out what works for you. “The best advice I could give? Talk it through, get on forums to meet others and just have fun!”