Many people assume that an open relationship will cause jealousy in both partners. Some argue that jealousy is a sign of healthy attachment, a feeling that proves love and connection. Historically, it has been assumed that pair-bonded individuals who are attached in a “healthy” way are sexually exclusive, and that exclusivity is an indicator of the success of their romantic pairing. Therefore, jealousy should be a hallmark of a successful relationship.
Instead, research has found that some pair-bonded partners experience positive feelings instead of jealousy when they open their relationship. This means that a healthy bond is not necessarily threatened by opening things up. If you are secure in your relationship and know and trust your partner, that solid attachment may supersede the need for jealousy.
Jealousy is about fear. It’s the fear that someone else might get more of your partner or take something that you already have. Jealousy feels like someone else will threaten your bond. And they might.
But feeling jealous doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. It’s a normal emotion. Jealousy shouldn’t be ignored. Sometimes it’s a warning. It can be a canary in the coal mine, a way to identify problems in a relationship. It can be an indicator that there are threats from competing sources. It’s important to listen to your intuition. Jealousy can be a sign that your partner could be straying from your relationship. Sometimes, it’s an early warning system.
But some people don’t experience any jealousy. They find delight and pleasure in their partner’s sexual experiences with other people or outside relationships. This does not necessarily indicate a problem. It may be a type of generosity. The ability to see your partner as a totally differentiated person who can appreciate other people is an expression of love. “Letting” your partner receive love from others without worrying that it will take something away from you is a sign that you are secure in your relationship, and in yourself. These people may experience compersion or pleasure in their partner’s happiness with someone else.
Most people in open monogamy relationships aren’t interested in leaving their primary partner for anyone else. They prefer being with each other and don’t want to break up; they want to share their lives. But they also want to share other experiences and discover other parts of themselves with other people. That doesn’t mean you won’t ever feel jealous.
How to Deal with Jealousy in an Open Monogamy Relationship
It can be hard to deal with jealousy. The emotion can make you feel tense and can be emotionally or even physically painful. Jealousy is triggered when you think of your partner with someone else. It could be with a specific person or in a particular sexual situation. Jealousy can come and go, and can get stronger and more intense, depending on your partner’s response to your emotions. If they get defensive or deny your feelings, it can make you more suspicious and increase your distrust.
There are many ways to deal with jealousy, but the first step is to focus on your own feelings. We will talk about how to deal with your partner’s jealousy next.
First, confront the jealous feelings in yourself. Admitting you’re jealous is hard, but discovering where the feelings are coming from can help. What are you afraid of? Are you concerned about the time your partner is spending with another person? Are you worried about the attention they are giving them? Or the affection, or the sex? Can you get specific about what is bothering you?
Next, talk about your fears. Ask your partner if you can sit down and have a real, honest discussion about your feelings. Be as definitive as you can about what it is—the time, attention, affection, or sex—that is making you jealous.
Statements to Start a Discussion:
- I am feeling some jealous feelings.
- When you_____ it makes me feel_____.
- I might be doing_____ to participate in some of those feelings.
- I need_____ from you right now.
Finally, take an honest look at your feelings. Investigate your layers of jealousy. Could there be other feelings underneath your jealousy? Is there curiosity or even interest when you think of your partner with someone else? Could you imagine changing your feelings of jealousy to compersion?
Compersion is the feeling of happiness or satisfaction when you see your partner with someone else. In one study on jealousy and compersion, researchers found that a secondary partner could enter into a relationship without creating jealousy between the primary partners. The primary partners often felt possessive of the other, but without feeling threatened or angry about their “other” relationship.
Susan Wenzel, author of A Happy Life in an Open Relationship, has a good guide for dealing with jealousy. I spoke with her as she was writing her book and dealing with her own open relationship issues. She came up with the following list of questions to ask yourself to help navigate jealous feelings:
- How do you experience jealousy?
- What are your thoughts and feelings about the situation that are causing this jealousy?
- What story are you telling yourself? For example, do you feel you aren’t loveable or are being ignored?
- What are your core beliefs about your relationship and about yourself?
- What are your unresolved painful memories?
- What is the worst possible outcome you can imagine for the relationship that is causing you jealousy and how could you resolve to live with that?
- What do you need in your relationship to feel safe without needing to control your partner? For example, do you need date nights or positive affirmation and reassurance? Think practically and concretely.
- What can you do to treat yourself like a valuable person?
- If you were to adapt a rational and healthy story about yourself, your relationship, and the cause of the jealousy within it, what would that story be?
Wenzel also talks about retroactive jealous feelings. These occur “when people feel jealous of their significant other’s past sexual experiences and relationships.” This includes “comparing the number of your own past partners, and the quality and quantity of sex with those partners, and your current partner’s sexual and relationship history.”16
In order to heal jealousy, focus on expanding and shoring up your self-esteem. Work on yourself, build your confidence. If you are having real trouble dealing with your emotions, see a therapist for further support. But don’t ignore your intuition. If talking with your partner isn’t helping, your jealousy might be warranted. Your partner could be cheating.
Ask yourself the following questions and try not to make assumptions before you process things:
- What are my major concerns? Is my partner open to change?
- Are we working on things together?
When Your Partner is Jealous
Dealing with a jealous partner can be difficult, but patience and kindness are important. Find a way to listen, validate, and empathize with their emotions. Be honest about your own behaviors and what you might have done to trigger their fears. If you need to change things in your agreement, identify the parameters and talk about how they might not be working. Discuss new ideas and create an updated open monogamy agreement by going through the monogamy continuum exercise again.
Questions to Ask:
- What is upsetting for you about our recent experiences?
- What are some things that make you uncomfortable?
- What do you think we should change?
- What do you see for our future?
Why the Truth Can Set You Free
Open monogamy is ideologically aligned with honesty. Being open and honest is the basis for this kind of perpetual attempt at truth. It also means that as your needs change, you will have to be open about what you want. If you don’t stand up for what you want, you can’t blame your partner for what is not working or what you aren’t getting.
It’s not their fault if you aren’t telling them what you want. It’s time to speak your truth. Avoiding a potential argument that hasn’t happened is a waste of energy.
You may want to change things in your marriage but have been afraid to start the conversation. You might have been worried it would hurt your partner so you’ve kept your feelings inside. By doing this, you may have created your own monogamy trap. You want to be with your partner and you don’t want to cheat, but you want something more open. Sharing your feelings is the first step.
It can be hard to confront the truth. If you don’t talk and articulate your desires, it’s almost impossible for your partner to read your mind. If you keep your needs repressed, you will continue to feel stuck and may be depriving yourself of the freedom that lies just outside of your own self-imposed marital constraints.
Excerpt from Open Monogamy: A Guide to Co-Creating Your Ideal Relationship Agreement by Tammy Nelson, PhD © 2021 Tammy Nelson. Reprinted with permission of the author and the publisher, Sounds True, Inc.
Photo © iStock/Ridofranz
Tammy Nelson, PhD, is an internationally acclaimed psychotherapist, Board Certified Sexologist, Certified Sex Therapist and Certified Imago Relationship Therapist. She has been a therapist for almost 30 years and is the executive director of the Integrative Sex Therapy Institute. She started the institute to develop courses for psychotherapists as the need grew for certified, integrated postgraduate sex and couple’s therapists in a growing field of mental health consumers who need more complex interventions for their relationship needs. Dr. Tammy is a TEDx speaker, Psychotherapy Networker Symposium speaker and the author of several books, including Getting the Sex You Want: Shed Your Inhibitions and Reach New Heights of Passion Together (Quiver, 2008) and the best-selling The New Monogamy: Redefining Your Relationship After Infidelity (New Harbinger, 2013), as well as When You’re the One Who Cheats: Ten Things You Need to Know (RL Publishing Corp., 2019) and the upcoming Integrative Sex and Couples Therapy (PESI, 2020). She can be followed on her blog, www.drtammynelson.com/blog.