Polyamory has existed for centuries, but it's only recently — as society warms to formerly unconventional romantic setups — that polyamory has landed on the mainstream radar.
That doesn't mean the majority of Americans understand it. Even as more polyamorous partners come to the fore (one study found 4% to 5% of the U.S. population identifies as poly), most people still have one big question about polyamory:
"How do you not get jealous?"
The jealousy factor might be the most confounding aspect of polyamory for non-poly people. After all, polyamory isn't casual sex between multiple partners, but rather a complex relationship structured around multiple emotional connections. Even for those who fully support polyamory and the freedom to love whomever one wants, the perplexing question remains: If you're in love, how could you possibly accept your beloved partner being with another person, sexually or otherwise? How does it work?
The answer, it turns out, is the key to having a healthy polyamory relationship — and it's something people in monogamous relationships could probably learn to do better.
It's all about being happy for each other. "It's called 'compersion,'" Becky Koski told Mic. The 30-year-old from Anchorage, Alaska, has been in polyamorous relationships for over a decade. "It's kind of the opposite of schadenfreude, meaning you derive happiness from your partner's happiness. Instead of getting upset or jealous, when you see your partner getting involved with someone new, you are excited for them and excited vicariously through them."
Steve Dean, founder of online dating consultancy Dateworking, has been in non-monogamous relationships for three years. "Compersion is basically happiness at someone else's happiness," he told Mic, comparing it to a parent's genuine happiness at seeing his or her child happy. It's an unselfish attitude that comes from viewing an experience through another person's eyes.
Koski admits this doesn't mean poly relationships are all jealousy-free; after all, envy and grudges are components of even healthy monogamous partnerships. But for many poly partners, said Koski, jealousy is "just another emotion or issue to work through, as opposed to this end-all, be-all problem that can't be surmounted."
Converting jealousy into happiness comes from talking. Lots of talking. "Instead of just caving to [jealousy] when it appears," Koski said, "you talk to your partner or partners about ways to deal with it."
For example, if one partner tells another partner they want to see a third (or forth or fifth) person, compersion compels that second partner to swap an angry response for a supportive one. According to Dean, that could include responses such as, "Tell me what your motivations are, and what your perspective looks like. What values does this person have in your life that's motivating you to want to see them?"
Any answers that follow should increase honest communication and understanding between the partners — and hopefully decrease jealousy. "You have to be so comfortable with communication ... and overcommunication," Dean said.
Communication not only helps maintain the relationship; it can also, as one polyamorous woman told the Atlantic, help the jealous person grow. "It's part of learning a healthy self-awareness and the ability to self-soothe," she said. "I notice what I'm feeling, and do a dive inward."
Poly partners provide a model for anyone dealing with jealousy. Compersion might be a foreign word to most monogamous people, but it's the same strategy that any couple should be attempting. Marriage and family therapist Erica Curtis told Mic, "There is no secret, insider approach that helps polyandrous couples deal more effectively than monogamous couples when it comes to avoiding or dealing with jealousy."
Ultimately, it just takes communication and lots of trust. "I think the No. 1 biggest misconception is that polyamorous people just have sex all the time," Dean said. "But I'd say the best way to describe polyamorous people is that they communicate all the time. If you're dating multiple people and you're cognizant of multiple people's needs, then you need to communicate that to any new people you date and amongst one another."
It's exactly the way any healthy relationship should operate. Jealousy might not be totally avoidable. But if poly relationships are any proof, we can all probably get better at turning the green-eyed monster into something a little more friendly.