While jealousy is not the only challenge for people choosing polyamory, and can trouble those in monogamous relationships as well, it's probably the most common trial faced by those brave souls who dare to share intimately with more than one at a time. While people have many reasons for making the relationship choices they do, I strongly suspect that avoiding or relieving jealousy plays a huge role.
We know that polyamory research is virtually never funded, but you might think that an emotion which is frequently implicated in domestic violence and homicide among those who believe in monogamy would be thoroughly investigated. To date, jealousy has gotten surprisingly little attention from researchers, and most of the research that's been done addresses the attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors associated with jealousy rather than with the neurophysiological correlates or the experiential nature of the emotion itself.
Neuroimaging is only in the early stages of its investigation of jealousy. In a 2006 study reported in NeuroImage, Japanese neuroscientist Hidehiko Takahashi found some significant sex differences in the neural response to statements depicting sexual and emotional infidelity. In men, jealousy activates the amygdala and hypothalamus, regions rich in testosterone receptors and involved in sexual and aggressive behavior. In women, thoughts of emotional infidelity activate the posterior superior temporal sulcus, a region implicated in the detection of intention, deception, and trustworthiness as well as violation of social norms. Takahashi interpreted the greater activation elicited by emotional infidelity in females as evidence that they're particularly sensitive to changes in a partner's mind. Perhaps his findings account for the greater tendency of men to react to the sexual act itself rather than its emotional implications. These are interesting findings, but don't shed much light on the cause or implications of these gender differences.
Most researchers agree that on a cognitive-behavioral level, sexual jealousy is a reaction to a partner's real or imagined experience with a third party and that jealousy is most likely to occur in a person who is both dependent and insecure. No doubt these factors play a role, but given the dearth of rigorous scientific data in this fascinating area, direct observation and anecdotal reports become significant.
My own clinical observation based on working with thousands of people struggling with jealousy points in another direction. I notice that jealousy most often arises when a person's need for control is threatened. This may or may not coincide with dependency and low self-esteem.
What I find most intriguing about jealousy is the actual bodily sensations and internal thoughts and energetic events that create the experience we call jealousy. People commonly describe jealous sensations as gut wrenching, churning, agitating, arousing, and overpoweringly unpleasant. While different people become jealous for different reasons and in differing circumstances, the actual physical feelings are remarkably consistent from person to person, although they may vary in intensity. Even a low level of jealousy is usually uncomfortable enough that most people will try to distract themselves or take some action to eliminate the perceived cause of their jealousy. Consequently, it is only in body-centered psychotherapy or in some kinds of spiritual practices, such as vipassana meditation or self-inquiry, that people are likely to explore the experience of jealousy without immediately trying to escape it.
Early on, I realized that in order to really understand what jealousy is and how it operates and to what end, I would have to examine my own inner process. If you too want to understand jealousy, I invite you to do the same. The next time the opportunity arises, instead of pushing it away, welcome the chance to investigate the nature of jealousy. Here's what I found to be true for myself.
I'm most vulnerable to jealousy when I'm feeling both love and sexual arousal. Love is felt primarily in my heart center, in the center of the chest, as a sensation of expansion or sometimes cracking open or radiating outward. These physical sensations are accompanied by a sense of connection or oneness with others. Sexual arousal arises from the pelvic region as a high-voltage current, heat and tingling from my pelvic floor up into my genitals and lower abdomen, radiating both downward to my toes and upward to the top of my head. Both sensations are very pleasurable and can easily induce a desire to join with another to further increase and disperse the energy. They raise my sensitivity to stimuli of all kinds and at the same time raise my pain threshold. The experience is one of being supercharged or energized and at the same time feeling everything inside me and around me more deeply.
If something then occurs that I think might separate me from my beloved or love object, fear and/or anger arise within me. The fear is felt as a contraction, a tightening, and a shutting down. The anger is energizing, like sexual arousal, and like sexual arousal, it seeks a release and connection with something outside me, but it also hardens my heart center, contracting it and walling it off. These impulses of contraction and shutting down collide with the already established wave of expansion and opening up. Mind and body are confused. They cannot gracefully contain such duality. Unable to wrap my consciousness around this resounding contradiction, I long to jump out of my skin and call this powerful, churning, open-and-closed-at-the-same-time sensation jealousy. If I stay with it, I find I have some choices. I can channel this energy into further opening my heart, amplifying my arousal, leaving my body, or exploding in anger.
Another way of saying this would be that jealousy can feel like a powerful blend of all emotions at once. Love, sexual arousal, fear, and anger may all be blended together into one gigantic ball of energy that threatens to overwhelm the rational mind. If a single strong emotion has the potential to "hijack" us, as Daniel Goleman puts it in Emotional Intelligence, what chance do we stand against jealousy? The key, as in dealing with all emotions, is to notice the early signals of its approach and take appropriate action while we still have our wits about us. But what is an appropriate response to jealousy?
I always encourage people to find an appropriate balance between becoming skillful at finding ways to sidestep jealousy and avoid the turmoil it brings and inviting jealousy to become a powerful teacher who can show us the places we most need healing and motivate us to grow beyond our perceived limits so that we're capable of more love.
If your bodymind is swamped with overwhelmingly chaotic sensations, you're in no position to learn anything. The mistake most people make is to assume that a jealous person is a rational person. If you or a partner is deep in the throes of jealousy, this is an emotional emergency and requires emotional first aid, not intellectual or logical discussion or solutions. Touch, breathing, and emotional release can soothe and discharge enough of the intensity so that problem solving is later possible. But it's much less disruptive to respond to jealousy before a crisis arises.
Part of the difficulty in managing jealousy is that most people have gotten conflicting messages about it. One the one hand, it's inevitable and part of love. On the other, it's shameful and a sign of weakness. Hence, working with jealousy always entails working with the shadow. When people manage their jealousy too well, they limit their own potential or may find themselves adapting to a disempowering situation.
The first step in managing jealousy is admitting to yourself and your partner(s) that something is disturbing you. When people try to keep a stiff upper lip and deny that they're jealous, they usually sabotage themselves by allowing their jealousy to build until it really is unmanageable. It's far better to acknowledge the first stirrings of jealousy and learn to listen respectfully to the part of yourself that feels jealous without believing everything you hear. If this isn't a process you're familiar with, seek the help of an experienced therapist until disidentifying with your emotions and dialoguing with conflicting parts become second nature. Most people tend to leap prematurely into action to change the situation instead of pausing a moment to integrate this uncomfortable experience and reclaim their shadow self.
Asking for support from friends as well as partners is an important way to take care of yourself even when you're familiar with navigating these turbulent emotional currents. Communicating as clearly as you can what you're experiencing and making specific requests without engaging in blame or making demands can be amazingly effective.
Finally, it's much more skillful to realize that the sensations being interpreted as jealousy can be perceived in a different way than trying not to feel the sensations themselves. Compersion is a word used to describe an emotion that is the opposite of jealousy. Compersion means to feel joy, delight, and sexual arousal when one's beloved loves or is being loved by another. Compersion is especially strong and accessible when all the people involved have positive feelings for each other, but that's not a necessary precondition.
Some people spontaneously have had the experience of compersion, much to their surprise, when they were anticipating feeling jealous. Some find compersion as natural and inevitable as jealousy seems to be for others. People like this instantly recognize their feeling as compersion as soon as they hear the new term.
However, since most of us have been raised with an expectation of jealousy, compersion is often an alien concept. Learning theory tells us that it's always easier to replace one habit with another than to just eliminate the first one. If you can't imagine feeling compersion instead of jealousy, you can try the following experiment the next time you feel jealous. Instead of focusing on your own discomfort and fears, try putting your attention on your partner. Think of the happiness, turn on and pleasure your partner may be experiencing and how your partner's good feelings will eventually be passed on to you.
Just having a concept that acknowledges that you have an alternative to feeling jealous can go a long way toward transforming jealousy. It really is possible to feel joy and expansion rather than fear and contraction in response to a loved one's sharing their love with others, as thousands of people can attest. But it's not always easy. My e-book Compersion: Using Jealousy as a Path to Unconditional Love offers ways to reprogram your thinking away from jealousy and toward compersion while bringing the valuable messages jealousy brings into awareness.
On a practical level, jealousy is not so scary, it's simply a helpful sign that your relationship needs work of some kind. For example, jealousy can be a message that your relation is changing. Rather than fearing the changes and struggling against them, jealousy can instead be a message to surrender to change and trust that if you set her free, she'll return if she truly belongs with you. Or jealousy could be bringing your attention to your own fear of abandonment, showing you that if you fail to address the source of this fear in you, you may indeed drive your partner away. There are many messages jealousy can bring, and the more willing and able you are to hear them, the greater the possibility for polyamory without tears.