Monday, August 2, 2010

Jealousy, Envy, and Compersion

This article is the second in a four part series on polyamory and open and non-traditional relationships. The first article is about open and non-traditional relationships in general, the benefits, the dangers, and how to approach them. This second will discuss jealousy, envy and compersion and how to deal with the issues that opening a relationship could cause. The third discusses and defines various terms. The fourth article will talk about lessons that have been learned in the experience of the polyamorous community which can be applied to any relationship.

Let's start by discussing the terms that we are talking about.

Jealousy - Discomfort or bitterness at someone else having something that is yours. For this discussion, we are specifically talking about being distressed that someone else is with your significant other.

Envy - Unhappiness not because someone else has what you want but because you do not have what you want.

Compersion - An empathic state of happiness. Sharing in the joy of another.

Besides communication, these are three of the most important concepts in open relationships.

People raised in our monogamous society are taught to feel that they are being somehow betrayed or diminished when someone else is intimate with someone they are romantically attached to. Jealousy is common, even among people who have practiced open relationships for a long time. Some people do not experience jealousy, but that is the exception, not the rule.

Dan says: My primary and I used to go to this night club. She enjoyed going there because she liked all the attention that men would pay to her. Something about this made me uncomfortable. This struck me as unusual because I am not usually a jealous guy. In talking to her, we came to understand that my discomfort came in the fact that she was free to go home from the club with anyone she chose, and that there was another man there who did not like me and was actually trying to show me up. My real discomfort was not worrying about our relationship, but being on edge because I felt like I was in competition with this other man. We agreed that she would come home with me from the club, and that, if she wanted to go home with someone else, she would ask permission ahead of time. After that I felt completely comfortable with the attention she got.

The proper way to deal with this is with openness, honesty, and understanding. Talk to your partner about how you are feeling, but understand that the jealousy is a phenomenon of your own emotions. Also, be sure to use "I" statements. ("I feel this way when you do that." versus "You make me feel this way.") This will keep the conversation productive and not adversarial.

The root of the jealousy may just be deeply ingrained emotional response to stimuli, but it could also be something specific about the situation. Sometimes it can be remedied by a solution as simple as your significant other checking in once during a date to remind you that she still loves you and will return to you.

A common solution is to have a specific act that is sacred to your specific relationship. You probably want to avoid more common sexual acts, as more intimate, affectionate acts work better for this. Think of the secret song in Moulin Rouge. While that movie is certainly no example of proper open relationships, the secret song served the same purpose of being a reminder of something that was intimately unique to their relationship.

The key thing here is that jealousy is natural, and the way that you feel is not "wrong". It is something to be addressed, and should be addressed openly and dealt with in whatever way is necessary to make everyone as comfortable as possible with the situation.

Sometimes we think that we are jealous, but we are really envious. What's the difference? Jealousy is feeling uncomfortable because someone else is being intimate with your lover. As the Duke in Moulin Rouge says, "It's not that I'm a jealous man, I just don't like other people touching my things!"

Sometimes, the issue is not that you mind that your boyfriend is off with his new lady. You mind that you are sitting at home watching reruns of the People's Court while he is having a wild time with his date. This is envy. You would not mind if they had their date while you were otherwise busy, but you find yourself wishing that he was with you at this time.

A common solution to this is careful scheduling. Your boyfriend planning to go out with his other ladyfriend on Thursday night? That would be an excellent night for you to see your own paramour.

Like jealousy, this is usually dealt with by talking openly about the concerns, and developing a solution with creativity, honesty, and, of course, love.

Compersion is a goal of many polyamorous people, as it allows the relationship to move from a place of giving something up to a place of building something together. By giving something up, I mean that some people look at open relationships as a trade. I will let you see other people if you let me see other people. This is an exchange of value, and is not the best structure for a relationship.

A better situation is one where each partner wants to their partner to be happy. "You like painting Warhammer figures in the basement so I am happy that you are happy in your hobby, even though I don't happen to share that hobby." Likewise, "Going on a date with Suzy makes you happy, so I am happy for you even though that date does not involve me."

For some people, this sounds like a very alien concept. They may be willing to accept that their partner will make time with others, but being happy about it? That seems a bit extreme, but that is only because we think of sex as this activity which is important above all others. You would not feel jealous if your partner went golfing with another person. In fact, if you hated golf, you would be happy that your partner found someone to golf with so that (1) your partner would be happy, and (2) your partner would stop asking you to go golfing.

Candy says: I am a bit of a voyeur. It turns me on almost as much to see my boyfriend with another woman as it does to be with him myself. This makes compersion a lot easier for me.

Emily says: My husband was seeing this woman who was stunningly gorgeous. At first, I was a little jealous of her. She made me feel a little inadequate. Then, I got to know her a bit better and found that she was a really nice person. From then on, I was perfectly comfortable with my hubby seeing her. My only remaining jealousy was that he got to sleep with her and I didn't.

Our emotions are what they are and should be dealt with honestly, without seeking to place blame, only seeking to find solutions. You cannot fight them and you cannot bury them. What you can do is look at them to understand what it is that causes them. Often, when the underlying causes of negative emotions like envy and jealousy are identified, the situation can be adjusted to satisfy all involved.

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