Triggers and Judgements
Anger, guilt, hate, shame, and jealousy. Sometimes called masks and secondary emotions, these words describe a unique state of mind. They are triggered like an emotion and feel like an emotion. Fundamentally their origin is not based on personal values or needs, as define emotions in an earlier chapter. Rather they are a blindness to needs and therefore a blindness to true triggers and true emotions. Judgements are the singular trigger of anger, jealousy, and guilt. Today, I will focus on jealousy.
It goes something like this. A trigger signals an unmet need that creates an emotion based on a value system. I’m dating Penny. When she breaks up with me (trigger) I feel sad (emotion) because I love her (emotion) and I will no longer be able to express that love (unmet need) and receive love (unmet need), which I feel most comfortable doing in a committed relationship with her (value).
A judgement is blaming our unmet needs outwardly and handing over the responsibility to whoever is blamed. In the above instance, I can understand that Penny has her own needs that are not being fulfilled by the relationship, and I don’t blame her for my emotions. If I do, it can go something like this. I’m dating Penny. When she has sex with Julia (trigger) I start to get worried (emotion) that Penny will leave me (judgement). Sex leads to bonds, and when Penny bonds with another person she may not need me anymore (judgement). In fact, she might have been wanting a way out for a long time (judgement). Even if she still loves me, she might not love me as much as she loves Julia (judgement) and then she might break up with me (judgement/trigger). Her sleeping with Julia (trigger) is making me feel really jealous (emotion?)
I’ll say this right here: jealous is not healthy, and it is not normal. It is, however, a common manifestation of unexpressed needs and emotions because of cultural conditioning and entrenched values that get hidden in our language. In other words, jealousy happens because culture has indicated people have a right to not get triggered. By deconstructing these jealous-feeling emotions, you can understand the needs and emotions behind the jealousy. You can isolate the judgements, and in so doing, the jealousy fully transforms. This will take time and it is normal to continue to struggle with this process. The ultimate goal is to rid yourself of jealousy completely; it serves no true value to your life.
Responses to Jealousy
When jealousy is treated like an emotion, a common solution is to “work on it.” Cognitively or intuitively, jealousy flags the need to feel and understand more about what is going on inside. Some people want to avoid ever experiencing jealousy and will channel their effort to triggers. Jealousy is an alarm that you are expressing your emotions and needs through judgements. Relieving it requires identifying those judgements as well as the emotions and needs that are not getting attention.
Processing jealousy can happen in five ways:
Ignore, Repress, and Do Nothing
Ignoring an uncomfortable emotion frequently occurs when you do not think there is anything that can be done about it. Resignation to feeling jealous may come from a desire to grow tolerance. After all, you see jealousy and bad and therefore you are bad for feeling it. Perhaps you just accept that your partner will always love someone else, or love them more, and you’re just trying to keep the love you have. Maybe your insecurities are so strong that confronting whatever is behind jealousy is much more uncomfortable, so you’ll take what you can get. But it still is an uncomfortable experience.
So you do nothing except try not to feel. I’ll consign the ramifications of repression to the imagination of dear reader.
It’s your fault!
At least, that’s what you’re telling yourself as you internalize jealousy. Your partner gets a pass, because hey, you’re polyamorous right? Maybe just wallow in the jealousy a little bit. You just need to work on your insecurities more better. Hey, wait a minute, this feels like guilt. Yes, guilt will emerge as you judge yourself. Guilt, like jealousy, is eagerly avoided. So you can go over this entire response system again with a new judgementfeeling, guilt replacing jealousy.
A great way to use self-judgement and induce guilt is to attempt to compete with whoever you are jealous of. You need to put out more or give better blowjobs. Workout, grow larger muscles, shrink your waste. Read more books, use bigger words. Do more things. Then you’ll feel safer, right?
Seek Power Balance
Conventional wisdom will encourage a pragmatic approach to jealousy. Your partner isn’t jealous of you so what gives? Embrace the freedom that comes with polyamory, pursue your own opportunities. If you restore power (defined in the chapter Insecurities as how easy it is to leave a relationship), then you’ll be less jealous.
It could be that jealousy really only indicates that you aren’t doing enough. So just take back the power! Don’t let anyone make you feel bad about yourself!
But… if your partner sees your new power, and then they get jealous of you, then take back the power back, then you…umm…
Attempt to Remove Triggers
Most polyamorous people have rejected the notion that you are entitled to control triggers, at least within the parameters of feeling jealousy. In other words, your partner has a right to pursue relationships, and no matter how jealous you feel, it is not okay to ask them to stop. You recognize that triggers are simply strategies that another person uses to get their needs met. And you’re polyamorous so you’ve embraced the idea that your partner will pursue another relationship to whatever degree they want and it’s totally fine.
Well maybe. It depends. Maybe if you feel really really REALLY overwhelmingly jealous, they can stop for just a little bit until you process things. Maybe they can just, like, not have sex until you talk about it. Maybe only spend one day a week, or a month, or a year with them. Maybe someone, someday. Just not her, maybe not them, maybe later.
Maybe everything is okay to happen until it actually happens. And maybe the only thing you want to do is slam on the brakes.
You can remove triggers entirely, or you can try to postpone them. Will you feel better next time? Will it get easier after you reinforce that removing triggers make you feel safe and that feeling your emotions is hard?
Examination of what your jealousy is specifically comprised of, what judgements you are holding on to, what unmet needs you have, what expectations you have for your partner to meet those needs, and what emotions you are experiencing will transform jealousy into a more genuine emotion.
You can’t let go of judgements and entitlement until you can communicate them as such. You can’t explore your true emotions until you separate triggers from judgements. This can be especially hard if you’ve only been taught a judgemental language.
To help, I’ve detailed a few common judgements that lead to feeling jealousy and what to do about them. Many of these emotions are interrelated and are most definitely not mutually exclusive. By isolating them you can understand why they exist, and why they always feel jealous. The best way to unmask monster is to look it straight in the mirror.
Examination of Judgements Behind Jealousy
Jealousy from Insecurity
You’ll probably hear this as the most common form of jealousy in polyamory. It’s when you idealize open relationships, but a trigger is overwhelming. It pops up unexpectedly all the time. Jealousy from insecurity feels like fear: you want to feel compersion, but you’re scared that you’ll be left because you’re not good enough. Insecurity, in other words, is self-judgement, and it gets its own chapter.
Body image, sexual adequacy, fears of abandonment, fear of worthiness, insecurities about intelligence, income, and a plethora of other insecurities are things humans have decided are reasons to hate themselves. These are judgements are concocted when a partner dates someone prettier than you, buffer than you, smarter than you, richer than you, more compassionate than you, more secure than you…better than you.
I won’t be broaching the subject of universal human value. I don’t have time to tell you that everyone deserves love, no matter what painful things have happened to you, nor what pain you have caused others. I really can’t take the space to reassure you that although looks matter, attractiveness is a lifestyle choice more than it is genetic. And I certainly can’t delve into the fact no, there is no better or worse; that you belong, as much as anyone, in the fabric of humanity and it’s up to you to confidently find your place.
A special note on jealousy from possessiveness. Some insecurities are so entrenched that people feel jealousy because they simply “don’t like to share.” It could be an extreme fear of abandonment, a life of withheld love, fear of loneliness, or PTSD.Tthis form of judgement is unwilling to confront deeper insecurities exist in the first place. If you think you don’t have insecurities and you just don’t like to share then I have news for you. You DO have insecurities. They are so terrifying that they are almost invisible, only surfacing as vague and uncomfortable judgement based emotions. But people aren’t possessions: it’s not up to you to decide to share them or not, and relationships don’t exist to protect you from your insecurities. The more you substitute a human for your own emotions, the more painful it will be when you finally realize them.
Furthermore, your insecurities are yours, not your partners’. And they can love you and help you work through them, but ultimately, this is your job to do. And it’ll make you better! Jealousy from insecurity is invaluable for any individuals interested self-improvement. Take the time to work on yourself. You deserve to be the most confident version of yourself possible, and I guarantee you underestimate how attractive that person is.
Jealousy as Guilt
Nothing quite loses power like fucking up in a relationship. Jealousy from the self-judgement of guilt arises after you cheat on your partner, mistreat them, maintain some form of control, or just generally disempower them. In these instances, a new partner represents their freedom–freedom from you. Why would they put up with you when someone else treats them better?
Jealousy from guilt most likely feels like anger and bitterness. A good sign your jealousy is coming from guilt is you are triggered when your partner is happy about the nice things their partners are doing or new boundaries with you. It can even manifest as satisfaction or comfort coming from pain your partner experiences that lead them to need you more.
As toxic as this all sounds, it can be very subtle and seem benign to you. You may feel like your role is being compromised, that your partner was happier the way things were no matter how they are acting now, and that you truly have their best interest in mind. Maybe you’re disconnected from empathy and justify your behavior (especially when double standards are applied), but ultimately I can only say this: you exist in someone else’s life solely to make theirs better. If you are feeling jealousy as guilt, empathetically connect with your partner, empower them rather than control them, and if they leave you or set boundaries, celebrate and support their free choice.
You may notice an interesting pattern emerging. A judgement triggers jealousy. Examination reveals a judgement, and upon further examination you reveal yet another judgement. Jealousy feels like guilt feels like anger, feels like what exactly? Judgement based feelings can layer upon themselves and often do. What’s at the bottom of the well? Go ask Alice, I think she’ll know. Just kidding. But you can see why people judge, why people feel judgement based emotions, and why they spend their energy communicating in a way that prevents them from what their true feelings are. Each layer represents a greater emotional discomfort. What is buried deep can be quite scary indeed. More on that in the chapter Insecurities.
Jealousy from Betrayal
Many times people explore polyamory after cheating. You open your heart when it is most vulnerable to try to make your partner happy. Your spirit is willing, but you just can’t get over what happened. Jealousy from betrayal feels like sadness, and anger if you think in judgements.
No matter how hard you try, you just can’t feel safe. It hurt so much the first time, and you think your permission and blessing will make it easier. But then it just isn’t, and you yearn to protect what is yours. This form of jealousy will require empathy for the person who broke trust. Letting go of your judgement means understanding they have needs that didn’t change just because of a rule or agreement. It can be difficult to hold agreements when they do not meet your needs, and their betrayal is really the fear that their needs will be deemed unimportant compared to yours; in their mind, there are no fair solutions to get needs met. People “betray” out of a sense of prioritizing themselves over another person in an ill-conceived competition of needs. It was the communication, not the action itself, that causes the hurt.
Recovering from a lack of trust is very difficult to do. It is instinctual to hold tighter something that has hurt us. It will require forgiveness.
Judging a strategy someone uses to get their needs met as betrayal can be very unhealthy for both partners and used as a justification to get what you want over the other person. In these instances, it can be best to let go of attachment and see how the relationship can repair itself after both you and your partner take space and perhaps pursue what you want in other people. The desire for freedom or exploration is why a betrayal may have happened in the first place. Expressing self-love, that is, meeting your needs without the help of another person, can be a great way to build resilience, empathy, and forgiveness. That doesn’t mean breaking up, but if you truly can’t forgive it may be best to scale the relationship back while everyone can heal.
Polyamory is much easier to start fresh with a new relationship. Opening existing relationships is hard because of changing roles and behavior, and even harder when recovering from betrayal. Even in instances of established open relationships, betrayal can certainly happen. And this means dynamics that were once comfortable now trigger jealousy.
It can’t solve all your problems, but thinking in terms of strategies, emotions, and needs versus betrayal is your first step to feeling better.
Jealousy as Envy
This form of jealousy is probably the most common in healthier open relationships, but it can just as easily have a dark side. On the lighter side, it is can be silly and easy to joke that you’re not jealous that your partner has a hot date, you just wish that someone would hit on you too! It’s very common to feel envious when a lot of personal insecurity issues are overcome.
On the flip side, feeling left out can eventually weigh on someone and even start triggering insecurities. Imbalance of opportunity is a given in any relationship, and it may not have anything to do with dating. It could be friendships, job opportunities, etc, and when not transformed as pure envy this jealousy feels like loneliness.
It is easy to rely on a partner for all kinds of things: a lover, a job reference, a solid friend, a roommate, a wingman, a babysitter, or someone to just sit and love on when there’s nothing else to do. When they suddenly don’t need you anymore you may find yourself envious of their opportunity or the people they spend time with.
Relying on people to fill personal voids will cause envy if you empower them to get their needs met outside of you. Such envy could encourage strategies that disempower your partner, undermining your original intent. Synergy is fantastic and a cornerstone of any relationship, but good communication will enable expectations to be set out. People will change. And they will find new people. Branch yourself out! And make sure your relationships are their best because of mutual compatibility. Building a network of friends and lovers is one of the best advantages of polyamory, so enjoy it!
NVC won’t necessarily create new opportunities for you, but you’ll feel more comfortable with envy than if judge yourself on why you are alone and experience jealousy.
Jealousy from Prejudice
This jealousy can exist with any form of prejudice, including race and religion, but I’m specifically about gender based prejudice. I’ve seen it happen so many times:
“If you are going to cheat on me, cheat on me with another guy. You having sex with a girl would just make me feel so much less…manly.”
“You want to fuck a guy? Are you even a lesbian?”
The One Penis Policy falls under this category of jealousy from prejudice.
This form of jealousy feels like hate.
So much of jealousy, in both closed and open relationships, is gendered. Being uncomfortable with your partner having sex with a certain gender or person with certain sexuality is more than just a prejudice when it causes jealousy. Bisexuals infamously face this form of jealousy from partners of any gender.
I’ll be the first to admit I’ve felt a bit more jealous of men than women in my relationships and struggled with jealousy from prejudice. Why? Because even though I celebrated the bisexuality of many of my partners, and loved my lesbian friends, I judged that men would be more competitive. I was confident that even a competitive woman wouldn’t be a “threat,” but another person with a penis could replace me. This was because of a perceived gendered role I thought I had in someone’s life and perhaps larger cultural implications. This insecurity, unfortunately, manifested itself as a prejudice I wasn’t even aware of, and it caused a lot of jealous feelings when my partners dated men.
In a multicultural world with disproportionate oppression of groups, the nature of conditioning, and myriad stereotypes with lack of exposure to people of different groups it is virtually impossible for anyone to not carry prejudices. Overcoming mine was simply bringing it to light. I was in denial for a long time about it, and I tried to justify it by pointing to the behavior of individuals rather than identifying my prejudice of groups.
A special note on sexism. There is an imposed sexual role for women throughout the entire planet and most of recorded human history. This particular form of oppression manifests as sex negativity for women, and the jealousy from sexism exists as slut-shaming, control of a woman’s body, and sexual double standards. Such culturally accepted prejudice can cause an extreme form of jealousy in personal relationships. Confronting this form of prejudice by examination, not judgements, is critical to overcoming them. As tempting as it might be to smash the patriarchy, understand that separating prejudice and judgements from emotions, strategies, and needs does not increase tolerance of sexism but rather proffers a safe venue of change for people that hold such prejudice.
My advice to everyone, not just men, is to be open to your prejudice. Admit them, and confront them by talking to people that you have been prejudiced against. You’ll find these irrational fears do not exist because you actually hate people, but because the world has told you that you have to protect yourself with the use of discriminating judgements.
Jealousy from Protectiveness
The final form of jealousy I’ll talk about feels like indignation, and it is triggered when your partner is dating someone you don’t find attractive in one form or another. You find your partner a reflection of you, and you find their partner a reflection of them.
In a lot of ways, this is the opposite of jealousy from insecurity (although ironically they are not mutually exclusive). You’re more jealous when you think your partners’ new boyfriend or girlfriend isn’t very pretty, or has a dead end job, or isn’t very smart, or isn’t good for them. You want them to date UP, not down.
There are two origins of this: You are either trying to protect someone, or you are trying to protect yourself by proxy. If you are trying to protect the other person, the first question you need to ask to overcome this jealousy is: do they need it? Are they being mistreated? How is this person bad for them? Are you just being judgemental of their partner? As with every form of jealousy, empathy is a good answer, especially if something superficial like looks is triggering your jealousy.
Most likely, this judgement of another person’s worth to your partner is an attempt to protect the image you have of yourself or your social capital by proxy. If the other partner is healthy, yet unattractive to you, it is important to separate your emotions from those of your partner and examine exactly why you are in a relationship in the first place. Why do you feel a need to judge someone based on looks, or income, or whatever? Does your partner know how you feel about them boosting your perceived social capital? Are they okay with it? Examine your judgements, and why you are less free and pickier with your love, and why you want your values to translate to your partners as well.
If a partner is truly with someone that is violent or mistreats them versus just someone you don’t find attractive. Ultimately it might mean holding your boundaries with your partner because that unhealthy relationship will affect you. You can attempt to empower them. Pressuring or controlling, even if it is in their perceived best interest, will not be effective. Hold boundaries and support their choices. The boundaries ensure you are not enabling them to outsource capacity to you while they work on a less healthy relationship. And true support will help them recognize the contrast of empowerment you show them, and the disempowerment their partner does.
First and foremost, you have to want to not be jealous. Accept that it isn’t only unhealthy, but it isn’t even a real emotion. Only then will you be motivated to practice language that identifies vulnerable emotions or expectations. Understand your capacity in confronting it. You may need to do a lot of self-work. It’s always worth doing because jealousy as emotion doesn’t pay off to hold on to.
With NVC, the emotions you experience will still exist. These are some of the emotions my jealousy has been transformed into:
Positive jealousy as motivation: When I pinpointed my body image issues, I went to the gym. When I was triggered by someone sexier than me that my partner liked, I was all the more motivated to be better myself. If I was insecure about sexual prowess, I just worked on an effort in sex and foreplay. Jealousy hasn’t been my only reason for self-work, but it is a damn good motivator. My insecurities diminished one by one. Jealousy became a great tool to identify what was hidden to me. I was going to be better than my fears and became a better person for it.
Positive jealousy as New Relationship Energy: Nothing makes your partner more attractive than them being wanted by someone else. That little spark of jealousy can give you new relationship energy as it channels into appreciation and attraction to your partner. Monogamous people have been triggering each other’s jealousy to spur chemistry for decades, no reason why you can’t do it too.
Positive jealousy as kinkiness: A recent partner of mine would overcome her jealousy by playing out sexual fantasies involving the person they were jealous of during sex. I tried it too, and wow, it was empowering. It’s along the same vein as NRE; the greater the stakes are (from innocent flirting to actual sex), the kinkier it is.
Positive Jealousy as Compassion: Jealousy is a red flag that I lack empathy. If I’m judging someone, I’m pigeonholing them in some way. My default mindset is If I’m jealous, I’m wrong. It spurs me to reflect empathetically towards the person I am jealous of. I want their happiness as much as I want mine and my partners’. I want world peace, and they are part of it. I can’t go on without them. I will show them love, and jealousy helped me to try.
Positive vs Negative Requests
Finally, a note on how to treat your partner when you are jealous. Here’s another silver bullet solution. Monogamy exists so often to sidestep insecurities; it protects your vulnerable emotions from being exposed. Most of the scenarios described above aren’t relevant in a closed relationship, but almost every one will exist in one form or another in an open relationship, especially for the uninitiated. No one is responsible, under any circumstances, to protect you from your own emotions or triggers. It is up to you to confront your emotions, understand your capacity, and communicate well in your relationship.
So what do you do when you feel jealous? Rather than attempting to limit the behavior of your partner through a negative request to close off their options, veto a person, or make a rule limiting behavior, make a positive request: ask them to do something extra for you that will help you through your jealousy rather than do something less for themselves. Live by the Polyamory Credo, your role in a relationship is to empower your partner to the point of making it as easy as possible for them to leave you, and you’ll develop a healthy mindset quicker than you may anticipate.
May self-love and empathy replace all your jealous emotions.
Anger as an emotion is also based in judgement. Marshal Rosenberg, creater of nonviolent communication, has written a concise and powerful analysis in his book The Surprising Purpose of Anger.