Friday, December 4, 2015

I'm Not 'Jealous' -- I Just Feel Like Sh*t

Dear Viny,

I've been married for fifteen years and our marriage has been open for five years. Our foray into polyamory got off to a rocky start, but things smoothed out, and I felt that everything was going along swimmingly for the last 3 or 4 years. The last few months, neither of us have had very active dating lives, and we were kind of relishing being an “old married couple” again. Then, thunder struck. My husband met someone and went from 0 to 60 in no time flat (well, really, it was a couple of weeks, but it felt crazy whirlwind to me). I had a really hard time because a lot of the particular details echoed that rocky time when we were first opening up, which nearly ended our marriage. In dealing with things, naturally I sought the council and succor of friends. Some people started talking to me about “dealing with jealousy” – and I have to admit I started to bristle! I'm not jealous! I'm *way* past Poly 101! I'm feeling neglected, forgotten, disregarded. I'm feeling a fear of abandonment. I'm feeling the deep pain of personal insecurities that are only reinforced by the amazingness of this new person. I'm feeling bad that I feel bad! Where's that compersion I'm supposed to be feeling? So, what are your thoughts on the word "jealous"? Am I feeling jealous? Am I just playing with semantics?

- Concerned Linguist


Dear Concerned,

You may have heard that Eskimos have at least fifty words for snow. As it turns out, this is a matter of some debate: apparently the Eskimo-Aleut languages use suffixes to form new words, which means they can create new vocabulary to describe all kinds of phenomena, not just snow, using a relatively small number of root words. I wish I had recourse to their method of enlarging the lexicon. It's always seemed absurd to me that we're stuck with one piddly little word to describe the various complex blends of different emotions that comprise jealousy: fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, envy, excitement, loneliness, dread, desperation, and generalized “blah”.

I think we should have a word for the kind of jealousy that keeps a person up at night with heart palpitations, and another word for the kind of jealousy that leads one to re-activate one's OKCupid account in search of external validation, and yet another word for the kind of jealousy that's like being the only inhabitant of a drafty old castle on a drab, wintery hilltop.

However, lacking any better options, I've always just gone with “jealous” whenever I experience some kind of negativity related to someone other than myself getting something I value from someone I love. Yes, it's a wholly inadequate word, but that doesn't mean it's inaccurate. Although there are many different types of frozen-white-stuff-from-the-sky, from powder to slush to snirt (did you know snirt was a thing?), it's all snow, if you catch my drift (sorry – couldn't resist). So I wonder what it is about the word “jealous” that bothers you so much.

You assert that you are “way past Poly 101” – could it be that you have spent the last three or four years patting yourself on the back for how well you've learned your lessons, pitying the poor saps who are still stuttering over their ABC's? If so, I have some good news: when your friends talk to you about dealing with jealousy, they aren't judging you. They aren't saying you belong in the remedial “How to Share with Others” class. They're trying to help you deal with an emotion that's as common as snow in Alaska.

No, I'm not overstating the case. Jealousy is very, very common. It is the feeling that arises when you compare yourself to someone else – including a past version of yourself, or an idealized future version – and find your present self...lacking.

And that's what you're doing to yourself right now. You're comparing yourself to your husband's amazing new person, and feeling inadequate. You're comparing yourself to the un-jealous, got-it-together girl you were (or thought you were) a few months ago, and feeling disgusted by how quickly she unraveled. You're comparing yourself to the wise woman you want to be, and feeling despondent.

I've changed your words, I realize. Your actual words were “neglected,” “forgotten,” and “disregarded.” Past participles of transitive verbs. Which begs the question: Who is neglecting you? Who has forgotten you? Whose regard for you has lessened? I'm sure you could make a case for why your husband belongs in the subject position here. And yes, absolutely, you have every right to demand better treatment from him if he has caused, or contributed to, your present distress by being insensitive, or thoughtless, or impatient, or whatever. But I suspect that nothing he could do differently (short of not having fallen in love with this particular person, in this particular way, at this particular time) will make you feel much better, unless you can take responsibility for your jealousy.

Taking responsibility for a negative emotion does not mean blaming yourself for feeling bad. It means acknowledging the ways in which you are habitually unkind to yourself, and getting to work on loving yourself better.

Loving yourself well is the only cure for what ails you. No one else's love can penetrate your self-protective wall, the one you've built to hide your small, stupid self: the self who doesn't measure up, the self who doesn't know what to do, the self who is afraid she'll never be good enough. She is desperate for love right now, and only you can reach her.

Please give her a big hug. Do it right now: just wrap your arms around yourself, and squeeze. Then do it again. For me, and for everyone else who cares about you.

Squalls and Flurries,

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