Sharing emotional responsibility was easy in a monogamous marriage. I could ask my husband to take some of the burdens if I was feeling less than peachy, and I could do the same for him. It felt like a normal part of a partnership and truly, there was nothing wrong with it.
But in polyamory that just doesn’t work. With three partners to balance I can’t expect them to take on my emotional baggage or take on all of theirs myself.
It’s not such a bad thing. In one-on-one romantic relationships as well as friendships its normal to exchange emotional responsibility. We always want to lighten the emotional load for those we love (as partners and friends), and we truly do appreciate how they do the same for us. As I said, there’s nothing actually wrong with this. As a common practice, it’s a tango we’re all pretty good at. That doesn’t mean there isn’t value to changing the tempo a bit and taking more responsibility for ourselves.
Let’s start with the big one, shall we:
When I explain to people that I’m in a relationship with multiple people one of the most common questions is how we can love without jealousy. There’s a couple points that I want to address on that front.
First of all, we didn’t eliminate jealousy from our range of emotions when we chose this relationship. However, we did make a commitment to manage all of our emotions, including jealousy, appropriately.
In our language, we tend to attribute jealousy we feel to other peoples actions. For example: “He was flirty with her all night just to make me jealous.” We talk about how other peoples actions are the cause of our jealousy and therefore we see it as their responsibility to relieve the jealousy with reassurance.
We might experience jealousy when we witness someone else’s actions but it isn’t something they actually created. When you see your partner interact with someone else and feel jealous it’s an expression of fear and insecurity. Try this on: “He was flirty with her all night and I was scared he’d like her better than me.”
Let’s be clear – it’s not inherently bad to have these fears and insecurities in our relationships. Some people feel them more often or more strongly than others but they’re pretty normal. My point here isn’t that you should or shouldn’t feel this way – just that you have to own that insecurity and address it.
Think of it this way: “If he chooses her over me – that’s his choice, and not a fault of mine.”
“He can appreciate her beauty and still love me just the same.”
“I’m worth loving and we’re happy together. I trust him and don’t hold
his actions against him; I’m not looking for any reason to retract my
Taking ownership of the jealousy means we have more power than we originally thought. We can ease our own emotions and reassure ourselves. We aren’t relying on someone else to remind us of our value.
It also ties in a way to my post on maintaining your own identity within your relationships – just like having your own hobbies and interests, you should know your worth and that it exists independent of your relationship, even when experiencing jealousy.
To be fair here we’re also humans and we don’t always handle our jealousy as appropriately as we wish we did. It’s hard for everyone but as much as we try to practice owning our jealousy and coping with it effectively we also practice forgiveness when we throw each other off balance.
Compersion is the opposite of jealousy
A word that quickly got added to my vocabulary as Ben and I fell for Maggie and Tom was compersion. This is the feeling of joy and happiness you feel knowing your partner is experiencing joy and satisfaction with someone else (no, it’s not just sexual but a whole and full relationship between two humans!).
Instead of inspiring fear that he’ll choose Maggie over me, I usually lean the other way and feel happy for Ben that he has such happiness in his relationship with Maggie. It’s the utmost security knowing that his happiness with her does not diminish his happiness with me and so instead of resenting it and feeling jealous, I celebrate it and feel happy.
It helps that I have a relationship with Maggie that is separate from the boys, and have a relationship with Tom that is also unique. Knowing from personal experience that loving Maggie and loving Tom has not lessened my love for Ben makes it easier to know that Ben can also love Maggie without it taking anything away from me.
When I read posts from others in a polyamorous relationship that are struggling with jealousy they are often struggling in part because their partner has one or more other partners but, for one reason or another, they do not. I think that balance isn’t necessary – one doesn’t have to have something just because the other does – but it sure helps with an empathetic understanding of the emotional experience.
Take emotional responsibility In all your Relationships
Learning to be more consciously responsible for my emotions in my romantic relationships has opened my eyes to the value of emotional responsibility in general. As a student in particular over the past 6 years, it’s been almost necessary to lean on each other. In the high-stress atmosphere of University with half your friends in an identity crisis and the other half confident in who they are but stressed about their future the emotional exchange helped all of us balance out enough to function.
As I age into adulthood, my stress level, identity and relationships are all stabilizing and I see emotional responsibility as a way to maintain more even and balanced control of our own lives. There will always be circumstances beyond our control and they will inevitably fuck with our plans. We will also always be surprised by emotions we didn’t expect to feel – jealousy, anger, sadness, even strange amounts of joy that we may or may not know the cause of. Managing these emotions on our own limits the havoc they may wreak on our daily lives and stabilizes our sense of self.
Developing Emotional Responsibility
So now that I’ve made the case for emotional responsibility, how can someone begin practicing it?
Reflect before you speak. Before you share your emotions and get caught up in what others did that contributed to them consider what existing emotions allowed others to have an impact on you (ie: existing insecurities that turn in to jealousy, as explored above.) Consider how you can work through those existing emotions with a focus on your own abilities. When you’re approaching someone else it’s beneficial to both of you if you can ask for support handling certain emotions rather than just asking them to calm those emotions for you.
For example – approaching your partner to say “Hey, in this situation I felt really ______. I know that isn’t what you intended and doesn’t really reflect your intentions or behaviour, but it helps me feel better when you _____.”
Be open with those you love. Owning and taking responsibility for our emotions doesn’t mean they have to be secrets. Share how you’re feeling and what you can do to alleviate any negative emotions. If I do feel a pang of jealousy or sadness I can say to my partners “I felt a bit jealous when —–, so I’m working through that right now.” It lets them know what’s gong on with me without obligating them to take action on my behalf.
Above all, stay calm. It’s easy to jump to conclusions and quickly fall in to old habits but take a deep breath and assess what’s happening as separate from how you’re feeling. Then assess how you’re feeling and look at how the two connect. Try to be specific in identifying what you would like to change, what you can change yourself and what you need from others to accomplish the change you want.
Last but not least, before you ask for support consider exactly what you’re asking. Taking emotional responsibility is all about being more self sufficient and managing your own emotions. It’s perfectly reasonable to ask your partners, from time to time, to adjust their phrasing on a certain subject or keep an awareness of how a situation impacts you but asking that they completely change an aspect of another relationship or otherwise let your emotions dictate their behaviour may lead to trouble later on. Keep this in mind.
Your quest for emotional responsibility may surprise or confuse others.
This has been the most unexpected part of this emotional journey. I think it has affected most of us in our little family. It seems natural to let our new found emotional attitude permeate through all the different relationships in our lives. Since the most outward aspect of this journey is asking less of others the people around us have sometimes felt we isolated ourselves or abandoned them, depending on their perspective.
People are used to feeling needed just as much as they have need for other people in their lives. We were focused on guarding ourselves and our relationships against negative emotions like unexpected jealousy or the disapproval of others. It was later we realized that needing our friends less for that emotional support meant finding new ways to look after them and show them that they are just as important to us as they always have been.
Well – that was a long one! Thanks for reading!