The idea of an open or polyamorous relationship can be exciting for some people — it's the giddy freedom of sleeping with whomever you want with the warm, fuzzy stability of your boo by your side. Still, while this is attractive, a little green-eyed monster might creep in at the thought of your SO going to the bone zone with other people, too. Ultimately, the question of realistic and healthy ways to handle jealousy in open and polyamorous relationships seems to be the only thing stopping folks from taking that first step — from open/poly daydream to open/poly reality.
A quick aside: There's a difference between "open" relationships and "polyamorous" relationships. As sex educator Aida Manduley put it, polyamory is when, with the consent of all people involved, you and your partner have multiple romantic relationships. An open relationship is when, with the consent of everyone involved, you and your partner get to sleep with other people — and it's purely sexual.
While poly and open relationships may be seen as "non-traditional" partnerships, the real tea is that jealousy is a big problem in monogamous relationships, too. Either way, whether you're monogamous (and curious about your potential jealous twinges) or are open/poly now (and want to nip jealousy in the bud), you definitely want to keep some jealousy coping methods in your back-pocket. Here are five that will help your open or poly relationship be as successful and healthy as possible.
1. Talk it through
Communication is the foundation of any relationship and it's even more important when there's more than two people in a relationship. So if there's an issue — particularly jealousy — you need to talk it out. Courtney Watson, a poly-inclusive sex therapist, breaks the process down to Elite Daily in four steps:
- Clarify your feelings of jealousy and explore where they are coming from.
- Arrange a time to sit down with your partner. (Pick a neutral setting, especially outside the bedroom, where you have enough time and privacy to discuss your feelings. )
- Tell your partner and negotiate a solution that addresses your feelings, and takes into consideration their feelings and their needs.
- See if the solution works and reconvene as needed.
Learning where you jealousy stems from is easier said than done, but there's a reason why it's the first step. "Your feelings are valid and deserve to be met with compassion and curiosity. Doing so will create more space for you to examine the story behind the feeling," says Dr. Heath Schechinger, a University of California Berkeley counseling psychologist and a co-chair for the American Psychological Association's Consensual Non-Monogamy Taskforce. "Be present and non-judgmental about whatever comes up and seek to identify the need behind the feeling."
A good reminder from Schechinger is that jealousy shares many of its traits with anxiety: Both can be prompted by fear or insecurities, and how and when they pop up are influenced by genetics, environment and mood. "Like anxiety, jealousy tends to be heightened when we feel unsafe, unheard, or confused," they explain. "And lessens when we feel safe, secure, and supported."
So when you're struck with that frenzy of emotion imagining what your primary SO is doing out on their date, recognize: Your jealousy could be a symptom of a greater underlying issue between you and your main partner. A supportive and non-judgmental chat about the root of your feelings will only make your partnership stronger.
2. Re-write your jealousy narrative
Another way to get to the bottom of this is to outline your jealousy — literally. With your partner(s) or alone, make a little guidebook to your jealous feelings. And then re-write it.
"Draw a picture or describe in detail a personified version of jealousy, to clarify how you experience and relate to the feeling," they say. "What does your depiction of jealousy look and sound like? Is jealousy bigger or smaller than you? Do you get along well or hate each other? Are they angry, mean, scared? What do they tend to say to you? What are your physical cues that jealousy is present?"
Once you have a good sketch of "your jealousy narrative," as Schechinger calls it, work on reframing it in a less threatening way. Confront what you've laid out and re-evaluate what about these attributes or behaviors makes you feel jealous. "When met with support and non-judgment, the discomfort generated by envy/jealousy can increase self-awareness and highlight a need that that may not be being met," they say.
3. Re-establish boundaries
Sometimes, your jealousy in an open or poly relationship isn't just a matter of personal insecurities that should be addressed. It might be a matter of unclear boundaries. Maybe your partner is doing something in regard to their secondary relationship(s) that is bothering the hell out of you. Talk to them about it and re-examine your current set of rules.
"There needs to be a clear establishing of what is OK and not, and the conversation needs to be revisited as one or more relationships develop and change," Watson says. "If what feels good for both partners is unclear or what is hurtful for someone is unclear, jealousy and a whole host of other feelings can quickly emerge."
It can be helpful to come up with a "Yes/No/Maybe" list for you and your main SO when it comes to your extradyadic relationships. (DJ Khaled voice: new word alert! A "dyad" refers to two people in a relationship. Extradyadic refers to any person or activity outside of those core two people.) You and your main partner can go through each sexual act or behavior on the yes/no/maybe list, and label them with a resounding "yes," a hard "no," or a "maybe."
You don't necessarily have to be active or even committed to the idea of an open or poly relationship to do this. A yes/no/maybe list can be the foundation of simply seeing if a non-monogamy would be a good fit for you and your partner.
For example, maybe you're OK with your partner sleeping with other people in your open sexual relationship. But your SO cuddling their hookups or staying the night rubs you the wrong way. Maybe it blurs the lines between sexual and romantic relationship for you. Or maybe you get jealous or irritated when your partner posts about their other partner(s) on social media, or introduces them to family. Making and re-making a yes/no/maybe list with your partner might be super useful in helping you pinpoint the exact behaviors that make you feel some type of way.
4. Make a back-up plan
While you're having the "re-establishing boundaries" talk, you can also revisit or come up with a backup plan. For example, what if you're just in an open sexual relationship, and you or your partner catch feels for a hookup? What if one of your or your partner's secondary partners or hookups catch feelings? If you or your partner are prone to jealousy, this shift in relationship dynamic — that's out of your control — can stir up some less-than-desirable feelings.
Talk through all of the worst-case scenarios that could come from an open or poly relationship. Put it all on the table.
"It is a common pitfall to create agreements that prioritize protecting the primary partnership, without considering the impact on secondary partners or how secondary partnerships may evolve and deepen over time," Schechinger explains. "Communicating about this upfront can avoid heartache later on."
5. Know that it takes time
Schechinger mentions research that shows people in non-monogamous relationships typically experience less jealousy and more trust than people in monogamous ones. (One of them is 2017 study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, which surveyed 1,507 monogamous people and 617 non-monogamous people.) They say researchers have yet to discover exactly why that difference exists. Their first thought is that maybe people with less jealous dispositions are drawn to open or poly relationships. And their second thought is that maybe it's because non-monogamy helps lessen jealousy over time (a.k.a. through exposure).
Non-monogamous relationships also commonly experience the opposite of jealousy, which called compersion, Watson says. "One partner experiences joy and fulfillment by seeing their partner happy with someone else. There is less opportunity for compersion in monogamous relationships because of the exclusivity."
If you're currently in an open or poly relationship and are working to tackle jealousy, it may just take some time. And if you're worried about jealousy in a future open or poly relationship, who knows? The relationship switch-up might just give you a chance to experience a new kind of happiness and support for your SO.
Still not working? Close your relationship
Still, there's a chance that even earnest, judgment-free talks with your SO and the patience to let jealousy subside out in the world won't make non-monogamy a good fit for you. If you try troubleshooting and non-monogamy still doesn't feel good, it's A-OK to close your relationship. Part of what makes a poly or open relationship daunting isn't just the jealousy. It's also the risk that your relationship will go south because of that jealousy.
It's important to note that just because it doesn't work out, doesn't mean you have to breakup with your main SO. Watson's main tip for a smooth transition is to work out whether any previously romantic (or sexual) relationships can continue in another capacity. "Each person who has partners has a conversation with their partners," Watson says. "Work on strengthening the dyad."
No matter what your non-monogamous relationship looks like or how it turns out, know that there are healthy ways to handle and talk about jealousy. Don't let hurt feelings, insecurities, and words unsaid stop you from living your best life.