I’m lounging in my PJs watching Gossip Girl as my partner’s heels click down the corridor towards me. She bursts in – a vision of femme cougar hotness – and kisses me goodnight on her way out for a date with her new lover. As she prances down the hallway I yell after her “do everything I wouldn’t do!” Her laughter echoes up the stairwell, “oh I will, don’t wait up!”
To be in the dreamy non-monogamous partnership I have today took years in the making – I wasn’t always able to send my lovers off to their other dates with such good cheer. I wish lessons in how to navigate relationships came with the queer “welcome pack”. There’s this myth that you’re either the jealous type or not, when in reality – most of us experience jealousy or insecurity to some degree. Since dealing with jealousy isn’t automatically embedded in the queer gene, it’s something we have to learn. If you’d never played the piano you wouldn’t expect to immediately be able to bust out your favorite Adele number. You’d have to find a piano or keyboard you could practice on, seek out a teacher or watch youtube tutorials and obviously make a sparkly outfit that matches the piano perfectly. Similarly, non-monogamous relationships take practice and skills, particularly after the years of monogamy training most of us grow up with. There’s so much more to being in non-monogamous relationships than dealing with jealousy, but since this is the first thing many folks tend to ask, here’s some reflections on my long dalliance with the green-eyed monster.
Rewind back to over a decade ago when I was in my first non-monogamous relationships. My sentences used to start like this “I wouldn’t be jealous if only you had ______” (insert any combination of “told me at a better time”, “shared less/more details”, “been dressed in yellow polka-dots while doing a handstand with a six-legged frog in your pocket”). SIDE NOTE TO ALL OF MY EXES FROM THIS ERA– YEAH, SORRY ABOUT THAT. I felt so ashamed and unradical about being jealous or insecure that I used to try to hide it by blaming my feelings on others. Or by trying to exert control through increasingly elaborate rules and veto powers – “well he is my cousin’s ex-partner’s friend’s therapist’s mother in law’s neighbor’s mechanic – don’t you think that’s too close a connection?” And then I’d feel guilty and ricochet in the other direction “how about you start dating my best friend? You’d be perfect together!” Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with dating a partner’s best friend – but I didn’t have the skills to deal with these type of closer poly situations at the time.
Something had to shift – my relationships became so process intensive that it would take five years to negotiate a peck on the cheek with another date, after which we’d all have lost our boners anyway. So, instead of doing battle the green-eyed monster or trying to push it underground, I decided to try a different approach and I invited the monster to a cup of tea.
And a very strange thing happened. When I started to just sit and really listen to the jealousy monster, the things that came out of those gaping jaws were not more rules nor more blaming. They were bellows of much deeper things which I’d left unaddressed in my life. And being present with these groans has enabled me to heal some deep shit and grow my relationships. Depending on what the monster has to say to each us, we can figure out what is actually going on and how to address it. Here are some examples:
1) Monster: “I bet their other lover is better than you in bed”
- Do some work on sexual confidence e.g. ask your lover to give you extra compliments or tell you what makes your sexy time together unique & special.
- Make a playlist in your head about any positive sexy times you’ve gotten to have and celebrate yourself as a fabulous lover.
- If you find you are actually lacking in some skills – do some reading or take some classes – remember sexual skills take time and practice too.
- Learn to feel valuable and worthy beyond sex. Sit with the fact that, well yes, maybe they are a more experienced/ skillful fuck than you. And here’s the liberating thing: WHO CARES? That doesn’t make you less valuable or worthy as a person. It can be very freeing to not have to be the best in bed.
- Flip it on it’s head – appreciate the increased range of sexy skills your lover could bring back to your sex life from their new lovers.
2) Monster: “your lover is spending all their time with their new shiny date, and they don’t have any time for you”
- Bring it up with your lover and negotiate. Try to focus on what you want with your lover, rather than what you don’t want them to do with others. For instance, do you want more quality time? Them being more attentive when you’re together? Making a special effort to take you on dates? It may not necessarily mean your lover has to cut back on their time with others.
- Plan out other things you’re excited about so that you’re being responsible for creating your own happiness rather than relying solely on a partner. Like creating that gayest outfit to go with you new piano hobby. Dedicating time to your creative life. Or hanging out with your friends.
3) Monster: “you’re unlovable, you’re worthless and they’ll leave you for their new lover because you’re nothing”
- Recognize the ways a shitty system may have trained you to feel worthless through devaluing people of colour, Indigenous folks, femmes, women, trans folks, people with disabilities and other many other identities. So remember it’s not a personal failing if you struggle with feeling worthless.
- Ask for extra validation or support from friends, family, partners or lovers.
- Make lists of your strengths, visualize feeling good about yourself.
- Do spiritual practices from your own cultural heritage to keep you grounded and which help you feel connected to the universe so it doesn’t have to be about separate little you. For me, going for walks or gazing at stars works well (or even imaging a sky full of stars).
4) Monster: “Something’s wrong here. You’re being fucked over.”
- Is someone being dishonest with you or crossing agreed on boundaries or behaving in a way that doesn’t feel emotionally or physically safe?
- Seek out support from friends and/or counselor – make sure they have non-monogamy experience
- Communicate/ remind your partner of your boundaries and what you need to feel to safe. Ask them directly what’s going on.
- If you find your partner is being dishonest, it’s up to you how much you want to work with them to transform the situation versus getting yourself out of the relationship. It can be a difficult juggle between allowing room for mistakes and growth, yet also not accepting shitty behaviour. Remember to also think about the role you may have had in the situation e.g. if someone is feeling slut shamed or unfairly blamed, they may start to be dishonest (which doesn’t make that dishonesty ok).
5) Monster: “they get all the dates & attention, it’s not fair”
- Bring power imbalances up with your partner, calling in support from allies and friends as needed.
- Do the work to analyze and acknowledge if/where you have dating privilege (see below) rather than leaving it up to folks who are being fucked over by power imbalances.
This last monster can get complex which makes it even more important to unpack. We live in a racist, femme-phobic, capitalist, fat-phobic, disablist hetero-patriarchy which teaches us to find certain types of people sexy and others unsexy or less desirable. These power dynamics can play out in who gets asked to dance at the queer slow dance and who has the most opportunities to go on dates. As a queer white mostly-able-bodied trans man, I have a lot of desirability privilege which manifests to different extents depending on the context. For example, I get a lot of attention in queer women’s circles, although a little less so since I started busting out my femme side. Even though I don’t tend to date women anymore (except for my partner), the attention helps me feel confident. With gay men – to whom I am predominantly attracted – my effeminacy and my trans-junk mostly thrusts me a little lower in the pecking order, although certainly I still experience a huge amount of privilege from my whiteness.
Even though it’s been a lot of unpleasant work sitting with the green eyed monster, the things I’ve gotten to learn and change filter through to way more than dealing with jealousy. I’ve gotten to grow my confidence, develop agency in creating my own happiness and have more harmonious relationships. And now my visits with said monster are much fewer and further between. With practice, I more rapidly identify what’s going on and I have a broader set of tools to quickly deal with the underlying things. What might have previously spiraled me into days of gut-wrenching anguish is now a two minute “Hello my old friend, what’s up this time? Sexual ego? Oh, isn’t that cute – my sexual ego is back. Hi sexual ego. Wait, where are you going? Oh, you’re gone already? Well, nice to see you again. Bye-bye.”
Oh, and PS the green eyed monster doesn’t just haunt poly folks – people in monogamous relationships experience jealousy too! Open relationships are often unfairly scrutinised – when they break down many people say “see non-monogamy doesn’t work!” When the shit hits the fan in monogamous relationships, we might say “they were not compatible” or “so-and-so was an asshole”, but rarely do we blame the actual relationship model itself. Conversely, there can be a real pressure in some queer communities to be non-monogamous with an underlying idea that monogamy equals oppression, while non-monogamy equals radical. I don’t see anything inherently more radical about non-monogamous relationships. I’ve seen people do monogamous relationships in deeply radical transformative ways and I’ve also seen people do non-monogamous relationships in very unradical ways.
It’s not about pitting monogamy and non-monogamy against each other. I think monogamy really suits some people and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’d like to see support for a myriad of relationship models from monogamy to sluttiness to asexuality to non-monogamy to polyamory. And in fact, there are many similar relationship skills that we can build with each other, regardless of our relationship styles. Like how to be responsible when we cause harm (and we ALL hurt other people to varying degrees), sharing emotional labour, unpacking how bigger systems of power and oppression shape our relationships and learning how to make matching outfits for our piano duets and trios.
These are but a few of the topics touched up on in my theatre show, No Strings (Attached), which Gein Wong, Eventual Ashes, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre and and I are delighted to present for it’s Toronto premier March 16-26, 2016. Even though some of these topics are very serious, the show is also funny and irreverent. If you came to one of the work in progress showings in 2013, it’s now grown significantly into almost twice the length and has toured across the globe to 40 cities! So, start getting your most fabulous outfits together and come and join us for the ride. Your green-eyed monsters are also invited.