I called her the jealous woman. She was fierce and relentless, and during a difficult period in my life she arose in me when she sensed a threat. I was dating someone around that time. The butterflies were flying, and much of the time it felt so right, but the jealous woman kept popping up. I tried asking the jealous woman questions: What did she want? Why was she sabotaging me? What could I do to make her go away?
As it turns out, trying to make the jealous side of myself disappear was not the most helpful approach. Instead, says Aida Manduley, a sexuality educator and trauma-focused therapist, “it can be really useful to befriend your jealousy.” Jealousy can be a burning, urgent, awful feeling. But behind that immediate experience, there are important clues about where we’re at and what we need.
“I absolutely believe that it’s a place to be curious,” says Meisha Thrasher, a therapist, member of the National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network, and cofounder of WOCTribal, a nonprofit coalition for Women Of Color that promotes national dialogue on whole-body wellness. Most of us, whether we have one partner or ten, experience jealousy. While this achingly intense feeling is, frankly, a pain in the ass, it’s also deeply human.
Rather than viewing a visit from the green-eyed monster as a negative, Thrasher and Manduley advise seeing jealousy as an invitation to better meet our needs. Here are some tips for befriending your own jealousy, and recruiting it as an ally in the process of building deeper intimacy.
Jealousy Is Totally Normal
First off, let’s get one thing clear: Jealousy is a totally normal emotion. It’s not shameful, it’s not bad, and it doesn’t mean you’re less evolved than others. “There is no feeling that is off limits,” says Manduley.
What matters with jealousy is how we choose to act on it. That’s a loaded topic, because jealousy gets to the core of our societal beliefs about what it means to be in an intimate relationship. In heteropatriarchal, compulsory monogamy—the ideology that we must partner with and marry one partner who “belongs” to us—jealousy and possessiveness are often romanticized as signs of devotion.
Jealousy is neither a blank check to control our partners, nor is it necessarily a sign that we are insufficiently evolved.
Many non-monogamous folks have done great work to challenge the idea that we own or have an entitlement to our partners’ sexualities—monitoring your partner is coercive, not cute. At the same time, says Manduley, some people who practice non-monogamy can stigmatize others for feeling jealousy. “They think that being jealous is bad and that it’s just about residual monogamy in your brain,” they say.
But jealousy is neither a blank check to control our partners, nor is it necessarily a sign that we are insufficiently evolved. Instead, it’s “a little warning flag or a symptom,” says Manduley. Our task isn’t to ignore jealousy nor thoughtlessly do whatever jealousy says; it’s to get to know it.
We Get Better at Jealousy With Practice
Give yourself time and space to feel the raw intensity of jealousy, without turning it on yourself and others. Thrasher suggests grounding yourself in your immediate physical reality. Take deep breaths; change position by either standing up or sitting down.
If you’re feeling tempted to take your jealousy out on your partner, promise yourself that you’ll first focus on another activity for the next five or ten minutes. Thrasher advises getting into hot water. “A hot shower will change your mind.” You can also make a hot cup of tea and tune into what it tastes and smells like, or move your body in a way that feels good.
It’s hard to feel such an intense emotion, but it gets easier over time. That’s one concrete advantage nonmonogamous people have when it comes to contending with jealousy: They get more opportunities to consciously build these skills. “Development of this muscle just gets stronger with practice,” says Thrasher.
Break Jealousy Down Into Its “Ingredients”
Manduley compares jealousy to a cake. It’s not the whole cake you’re interested in. Instead, “We want to look at the eggs and the flour and the milk and the sugar.”
There are many different emotional ingredients that can make up our jealousy. “The emotion that’s triggered is actually fear,” Thrasher says. This might be fear of losing a partner, or fear that we’ll be replaced. We may fear our own perceived inadequacy. We may feel competitive or worry about fairness or equity, perhaps by feeling it’s unfair that our partner spends more time with another partner than with us. Or we may feel a desire to control.
Underlying most of these factors is fear of scarcity. We worry that we don’t have enough time, resources or love; we worry that we ourselves are not enough. It’s true, says Manduley, that there’s only a certain number of hours in a day and money in the bank.
But fear of scarcity can also be a reflection of past deprivation or abandonment, and of internalized negative messages from systemic racism and gender inequality. To understand whether our jealousy might be rooted in past trauma, says Thrasher, “We scan our memories for times in the past when jealousy has been an issue for us.” This could include not having access to enough food or parental care as a child; it could include being abused by a partner who used infidelity as a tool of control.
We worry that we don’t have enough time, resources or love; we worry that we ourselves are not enough.
If you’re experiencing jealousy—or your partner is—it can help to unpack how power, privilege, and oppression play into the situation.
Because we’re raised in a patriarchal culture, we’re all taught to equate possessiveness with romance. But the way we receive that message differs based on our identity and material situation. “For a lot of people, especially people who are accustomed to having social power, their jealousy is coming from a palace of entitlement,” says Manduley.
Since men and masculine people are socialized to equate sexual dominance with social power, they may be more likely to express entitlement to partners’ sexual, emotional, and domestic labor. In monogamous relationships, this can take the form of policing partners’ bodies and behavior. In non-monogamous relationships, says Manduley, it often takes the form of the “one penis policy,” in which cis men dictate that their female partners can only partner with other women (though women, of course, can also have penises). Of course, partnerships are not dictatorships; they are collaborations.
Jealousy can also point to inequality. If we rely on a partner for material support for ourselves and our children, jealousy is a reasonable, self-protective response to them allocating limited resources to other partners without our consent.
Working through our jealousy can also help us challenge compulsory monogamy in a positive way. Individualistic cultures value exclusivity over collectivity. But this belief often leads to dependence on one partnership to address needs better met by a community. Sharing love does not lessen us. “If you light a candle with a candle that was previously on fire, the first candle doesn’t become suddenly not on fire,” Manduley says.
Address the Root Cause
Now that you’ve befriended your jealousy, here comes the hard part: deciding what to do about it.
Depending on the ingredients in your jealousy cake, the solution can be relatively simple. Perhaps you discover that the jealousy is less about your partner than about struggles you’ve been having at work; investing in your professional success could help. Perhaps you learned your partner sees their other partner more because they are helping them care for an ailing parent, and that puts your mind at ease. Or perhaps, you and a partner agree you’ll spend more time together.
You may, however, discover that your jealousy is pointing to deeper problems in your relationship. Perhaps your partner is lying to you or violating your boundaries or consent, or you’re in a relationship form, like polyamory, that simply isn’t suited for you. In that case, jealousy may be an opportunity to radically change, or even end, that relationship. If jealousy is interfering with your ability to be present in the relationship and to enjoy your daily life, says Manduley, that’s a red flag; so is your partner meeting your attempts to discuss your jealousy with dismissal or condescension.
On the other hand, if your partner “is curious and they’re asking questions, they’re sitting with you and offering solutions and strategies, those are green flags,” says Manduley.
As for me, I eventually did have a dialogue with the jealous woman inside me. As it turned out, she had a lot to say. She had sensed that the person I was dating was treating me in an exploitative way. When I listened to her, I realized she was right, and ended it. My jealousy didn’t sabotage me at all; she helped me grow. These days, jealousy still isn’t my favorite visitor—but when she does come around, I set her a place at my table, and ask what’s on her mind.