One of the most common things I hear when talking about polyamory is “Oh, I could never do that. I would just be too jealous.”
I don’t know where we get this idea that jealousy is insurmountable–or, on the other hand, that poly people are poly because they never get jealous.
Perhaps the problem is that we tend to see a person’s jealousy as a sign that their partner is doing something wrong. Even therapists can fall into the trap of holding one partner responsible for the other’s jealousy–rather than helping each see how their emotions belong to them, and are a facet of their unique experience and identity. Solving uncomfortable emotions by changing the partner’s behavior is a lovely solution *when the partner is truly interested in changing their behavior*. Otherwise, it is a slippery slope to resentment.
In my philosophy, jealousy is an emotion, just like any other emotion. That means it’s possible to work with jealousy, just like it’s possible to work with anger, guilt, fear or anxiety. In fact, I believe that most therapists already have the tools to work with jealousy.
Like any other strong emotion, working with jealousy is a process of learning to hold steady, to let go of expectations, and to recognize how your emotion is a reflection of the narratives you tell yourself, rather than a reflection of reality. Working with jealousy is an opportunity to challenge your client to grow beyond their knee jerk emotional reactions.
Certainly, if you have poly clients you will need to get good at working with jealousy. The idea that poly people just don’t get jealous certainly isn’t true in all cases, or even most of the time. Nor is it predictable. I’ve worked with plenty of poly people who went in thinking they wouldn’t be jealous, and surprised themselves with strong, difficult emotions. (On the other hand, I’ve also seen people who go in thinking they will be horribly jealous, who then discover that they are much more calm about their partner’s outside encounters than they anticipated.)
No matter what, it’s useful to go in with the attitude that jealousy is both expectable and surmountable. You can help your clients overcome their jealousy–you just need to apply the same lens and the same toolkit you use every day with every other powerful emotions your clients experience.