polyamory and some guy’s “first emotion”

How to Do It is Slate’s advice column, helping set sexual norms for mainstream liberal people. Bill Hicks understood that love is highly threatening to capitalism:

Therefore, loneliness and broken relationships are in the best interests of capitalism. Slate is ad-supported and owned by Jeff Bezos, so of course its sex advice doesn’t promote fulfilling relationships. Instead, it’s there to make people feel better about hitting their girlfriend, being unfaithful, things of that nature. Even when they discourage people from straying, they really don’t.

In this week’s column, they help someone with their hypocritical polyamory jealousy (an everday, relatable situation). As usual, the letter is full of questionable assumptions they don’t challenge:

My wife and I have been in a relationship for 25 years and recently decided to “open” our relationship. I have never cheated but, possibly like most people, often wanted to. I don’t know if I have engaged in self-sabotage to avoid it or am just terrible at seduction, or a little of both, but I haven’t. I have long wanted to open our relationship but never brought it up because I thought she wouldn’t go for it, or even want to have the conversation.

Recently a friend of ours, who is in town for a couple of weeks and leaving soon, discussed the possibility of an orgy/four-way with him and his partner during a small house party. It was not a possibility at the moment—our college student daughter was home—but we discussed it for later. Neither of us was interested in an orgy, but my partner and I were interested in private encounters. My rationale was that it would help to open up our sex lives; I liked that after our friend’s declaration, I felt like I had to compete for my wife’s affections. It was something I wanted, so what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. We discussed it, and it led me to have a very sweet, hot, and satisfying encounter. I was happy with my decision.

Now it’s my wife’s turn. And bam! I feel like I have had my first emotion this week because all of those things I have been calling emotions till now pale in comparison. I had absolutely no idea that this was coming. I have not been able to eat or sleep. My wife’s “date” is coming up. Is this a common reaction? Will it go away to a manageable level? Will I be able greet my friend again without the desire to throttle him? I trust and love my wife, and I want this for us. Do you think I can work through this?

It’s important to the letter writer that “most people” want to cheat “often,” confirming that the column is there to normalize such desires. Even if that’s true, why? What if the average person just has poor relationship skills, so they feel dissatisfaction in their relationships?

It’s interesting that he uses the term “self-sabotage” to mean doing what he promised to do by getting married. It’s telling that he uses the term “seduction”, which has deceptive connotations and probably means he’s spent time reading pickup artist stuff.

In the first paragraph, he thought his wife “wouldn’t go for it, or even want to have the conversation.” In the third paragraph, he describes the epic bad feelings of knowing for a certainty that his wife is going out to sleep with someone else. He doesn’t connect these things and imagine that’s how his wife felt. He’s just aware of it as a constraint on who he sleeps with, totally uninterested in why she might not be into it.

The letter writer seems to have pretty bad issues with alexithymia. Being cheated on feels bad because it confirms your insecurities and creates a fear of abandonment. He can’t really describe that beyond the word “emotion.” Of course nobody actually follows the polyamory manual, because it’s a bullshit story. In principle, though, it says you’re supposed to be more a lot more capable of communication than this before setting off a dramasplosion like polyamory.

Why is he more turned on by defeating other men in the seduction game than by his wife herself?

This is how they answer:

Stoya: Mostly I’m sitting here going “aww,” because there’s something charming about a man encountering jealousy and wanting to work through it.

Rich: Yes, and I think his drive for self-improvement makes him already ahead of the curve. A lot of people hit jealousy like a wall and stop there. I consulted the section of The Ethical Slut about jealousy, and authors Janet W. Hardy and Dossie Easton suggest using jealousy as a tool to target the exact feelings behind it. (There are a lot of possibilities—they contend that jealousy itself isn’t an emotion but a manifestation of a wide range of emotions.) And actually, backing it up for a second, reading The Ethical Slut is a good idea for anyone making their foray into ethical non-monogamy. It can be kind of heady and even woo-woo at times, but it’s very specific and detailed.

Stoya seems to pretty much accept the idea that masculinity and emotional retardation are the same thing. It’s actually dangerous to make that sound cutesy, since “jealous and emotionally stunted” is pretty much the profile of wife beaters. See The Batterer:

To perceive the male as both a victim and a perpetrator confuses this compartmentalized view, and yet I believe that this more complex perspective reflects the reality of abusiveness. There is evidence that the abusive men whom you will meet in this book were once victims, too. Perhaps not solely victim of physical or sexual abuse, although that happens all too frequently, but of more subtle emotional droughts and demands that create a personality whose tendencies toward violence are exacerbated by social conditioning. Their victimization does not excuse their behavior, but it does explain it.

Only by fully understanding the origins of abuse will we have a chance to reduce it. It’s a powerful experience for abusive men to come into a treatment group that holds them fully accountable for their actions; that does not, as the court may, diminish their responsibility because they were drinking that night; that demands they stop their destructiveness; that resists judging their actions but allows their inner self-condemnation to surface.

All the case histories in this book have been drawn from my treatment groups. It was in these groups that I heard how powerless these men felt in their lives, especially in their intimate relationships. Most don’t know how to even describe a feeling to themselves, let alone assert it to an intimate other. Some men, it seems, could listen to the blues every day for a decade before they could verbalize their own grief. They could brag of sexual conquest before they could talk of deep loneliness or their addiction to “hits” of intimacy through physical contact with a woman. It is in recognizing this emotional self-alienation that we can understand the darkest side of the male sex role.

Polyamory acts out issues instead of confronting them. The one thing they’re sure about is that someone who doesn’t want their partner sleeping is always wrong, having failed in their deep moral duty to work through jealousy issues. It’s a process.

Stoya: I have a quick qualm with The Ethical Slut, while we’re on the subject: They don’t make it super clear that the authors are (were?) in a relationship at the time of writing until like halfway through the book. It’s a great text on how one pair of people runs their poly life and can be useful, but they get a little dogmatic at times, and readers should remember that they’re being presented with just one way of handling things.

Rich: It’s definitely subjective, but at the same time it’s a product of functional expertise. To that point, it was interesting that the jealousy section includes an anecdote about a struggle Easton had with a partner’s jealousy. The authors wrote they included the anecdote “because we think it’s important that our readers know that even accomplished sluts struggle with pain, miscommunication, mismatched desires, anger, and, yes, jealousy.”

Stoya: YES.

Rich: It’s part of the ongoing process. So, is our letter writer’s jealousy a common reaction? Absolutely.

Stoya: And not necessarily a bad one. Jealousy can be your emotions saying, “We really care about this person.”

Rich: Yeah, it’s natural—or at least so ingrained as to feel natural. Whether an expression of love or insecurity, it’s practically unconscious.

Stoya: Or, continuing with the insecurity, it’s your body freaking out because you have to tolerate uncertainty. Because you don’t get to know for sure that your wife is coming home. But then when she does, of her own volition, you know she really prioritizes you.

Rich: I think for a lot of people, it’s the price that comes with the excitement of ethical non-monogamy. And what matters most for the well-being of the relationship is not how you feel at each moment, but how you handle those feelings.

Stoya: And to answer the writer’s second question, I think it’s not so much the feelings going away to a manageable level as it is developing the skills to cope with whatever feelings are happening.

Rich: Yes—I don’t know if jealousy goes away, but you can certainly get used to it. If you’re looking at it proactively, jealousy is the jumping-off point.

Stoya: Did The Ethical Slut have tips for managing the jealousy? (It’s been probably a decade since my last read-through.)

Rich: Oh yeah. Two things I highlighted: “Use your jealous as a signpost: ‘Work on this feeling here!’ Take a class, join a group, find a good therapist, start practicing meditation—go to work on yourself.” And: “You cannot deal constructively with jealously by making the other guys wrong.”

The art of gaslighting. Buddy up to the polyamory-reluctant partner: we get jealous, too! Because our culture makes “confidence” a big part of attractiveness, using the word “insecure” in this way is a type of shaming. Everyone’s supposed to be brave like Stoya and Rich, tolerating uncertainty and all that.

The argument for polyamory is supposed to be that it’s “natural”, but I don’t see any signs they’re taking attachment theory into account. We’re supposed to purge the desire for attachment security and “tolerate uncertainty”, but we’re not supposed to purge the desire to sleep around when we’re married.

It’s not obvious at all that coming back to your partner after sleeping around means you’re “prioritizing” them. Maybe it’s just easier to stay in the relationship, and the partner’s conveniently trapped and broken inside, not going anywhere. If your spouse was your priority, you wouldn’t have left to sleep with someone else in order to come back.

The “jealous” one who wants the marriage to work like the vows said needs therapy, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

Stoya: I’m stuck on his inability to eat … I know choking down food when you don’t feel like it can really suck, but you have to take care of your organism if you want to be able to think clearly and control your affect.

Rich: It’s a really strong reaction. I think you can interpret that in many ways, one of which is that the writer really loves his wife.

Stoya: Which is really beautiful and gives me hope that he absolutely can work through his feelings. There’s this lovely concept called compersion: It’s a bit like the opposite of schadenfreude. Basically “I’m so happy that you, with nothing to do with me, are so happy.” Kind of the light at the end of the jealousy tunnel.

Rich: It’s funny because opening up a relationship can feel kind of mystical. You’re given this new way of understanding how your partner is simultaneously part of you and their own distinct person with needs and pleasure methods and that these things are not in conflict, but harmonious.

Stoya: I’m wondering if focusing on the private encounter our writer has already had would help him avoid stressing over what his wife is up to? At least as a distraction for an hour.

Rich: At the very least, that could help put things into perspective: Look what happened as a result of their encounter. Satisfaction. The letter writer didn’t leave or stop loving their wife. She won’t, in all likelihood, do that either.

Stoya: Exactly. Ideally, he gives his wife the same warm reception he received when he got home from their rendezvous. I also think he’ll totally be able to greet his friend with gratitude toward them for fulfilling his and his wife’s open relationship desires.

Nobody accuses Stoya and Rich of having clinically significant theory-of-mind deficits. All signs indicate the letter writer has serious problems understanding love as a connection between people, not that he “really” loves his wife. Again, it’s cringeworthy and dangerous to tell people this kind of jealousy is a sign of deep love.

The “compersion” thing is also manipulative. Who doesn’t want to feel like a spiritual, benevolent person? They’re trying to make anyone who’d question polyamory have an identity struggle.

It’s not clear why Rich doesn’t feel the magic of union with his partner and seeing into each other’s souls until after fucking other people. Before he realizes their desires aren’t an extension of him, they have to literally desire someone else.

They end with a disclaimer that poly isn’t for everyone, blah blah blah.

Rich: I think that would be an ideal way of looking at it. I’d urge him to be particularly careful with the friend, who isn’t as emotionally tethered as the wife here and really didn’t do anything wrong. Going there with him could be a recipe for some drama. Also, our writer may never truly be rid of feelings of jealousy. Jealousy can creep in when you least expect. But again, it works as a good gauge there too—if it gets to be too much, then maybe an open relationship simply isn’t for you.

Stoya: Agreed. Sometimes fantasy is better off as only fantasy. Just because something is fun to think about and discuss doesn’t mean you necessarily have to actually do it, or do it multiple times. It’s not like you become poly and are stuck that way forever if you don’t like it. You always have the option to go back to your wife and ask to close things again.

But he doesn’t have the option of building a time machine and preventing this damage to the relationship in the first place.