Couples in open marriages deal with jealousy through open communication

David Ludden
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Imagine yourself in the following scenario:

Scenario 1: You are at an awards banquet where your life partner is being honored for significant achievements in their field. Along with this award, your partner has also been offered a considerable promotion. On the drive home, your partner reassures you of their commitment to the relationship, but they tell you the promotion is very important to them, and they appreciate your understanding that they will be very busy for a while.

Take a moment to consider how you would feel in this situation.

If you’re like most people, you’ll probably feel happy for your partner, although you may be a little disappointed at the thought of not being able to spend as much time with them as you usually do.

Now imagine yourself in this scenario:

Scenario 2: You are at a party with your significant other, who is showing great interest in a person of the opposite sex that they just met. The two of them go off to a private space for a while. On the drive home, your partner reassures you of their commitment to the relationship, but they tell you their new romance is very important to them, and they appreciate your understanding that they will be very busy for a while.

Take a moment to consider how you would feel in this situation.

If you’re like most people, you’ll probably feel various emotions, all of them negative, ranging from jealousy to anger and from feelings of betrayal to fears of abandonment.

Consensual Non-Monogamy and Compersion

These two scenarios elicit very different emotions for most people. And yet, the two are parallel. In Scenario 1, your partner receives social recognition and a new career opportunity. In Scenario 2, they receive romantic interest and a new intimacy opportunity. Why are you happy for them in the first but angry at them in the second?

According to Texas State University psychologist Rhonda Balzarini and her colleagues, this is because most of us want our partners to pursue their own career goals, but we expect them to be sexually faithful. Jealousy, then, is an emotion that is aroused when we fear the loss of our significant other.

But consider that in Scenario 2, your partner reaffirms their commitment to the relationship. It’s just that they want some time to explore an additional romantic interest with another person. Is there any way in which you would feel comfortable with this?

There are in fact such people, and they respond similarly to both scenarios. These are people who engage in consensual non-monogamy, or CNM for short. Although there are many configurations of CNM relationships, the most common are swinging, open marriage, and polyamory.

Rather than feeling jealousy in a situation like Scenario 2, they experience an emotion known as “compersion.” This is the joyful feeling of knowing an important person in your life is experiencing happiness.

People who practice CNM report that they feel compersion for their partner’s other intimate relationships. In fact, the term is mainly used within the context of extramarital intimacies. But I would contend that Scenario 1 also counts as an example of compersion, in that it likewise involves feeling joy for your partner’s happiness. In other words, compersion isn’t just an emotion that people who practice CNM can experience.

Compersion and Jealousy Can Occur Together

Is compersion the opposite of jealousy? This has been the assumption that most relationship scientists have made up until now. However, Balzarini and colleagues argue instead that jealousy and compersion aren’t opposites but instead are two separate emotions that can even be both experienced at the same time.

Consider Scenario 1 again. You’re happy for your partner’s happiness (compersion), but at the same time, you’re unhappy that they won’t be spending as much time with you (jealousy). We can experience ambivalent emotions in this case.

Balzarini and colleagues argue that emotional ambivalence is quite common in social situations. Take Shakespeare’s famous line from Romeo and Juliet: “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” In this case, the two lovers are saying goodnight, sad that they’re leaving each other for now but happily looking forward to meeting again the next day.

We experience bittersweet emotions in many other social situations as well. For instance, you’ll likely feel this way when a good friend moves away for a new career opportunity. And parents experience it repeatedly as their children establish new levels of independence.

Lessons from Consensual Non-Monogamy

Balzarini and colleagues note that CNM couples can experience both compersion and jealousy when their partner takes on a new lover. But they deal with the jealousy through open communication about it rather than through the “dirty tricks” so many jealous partners engage in.

In fact, plenty of research shows that open communication and a high degree of emotional intelligence are the keys to successful CNM. These couples understand that nothing can be hidden, that they have to have their partner’s consent to engage in a secondary relationship, and that clear boundaries must be agreed on. Furthermore, CNM couples need good insight into their own emotions and the ability to communicate those feelings clearly.

The consensus among the lay public and many psychologists alike is that consensually non-monogamous relationships can’t be as happy as monogamous ones. However, the data challenge this assumption. Rather, CNM works well for some couples, who rate their relationship satisfaction even higher than most monogamous couples, although of course, others have more variable experiences.

Regardless of the relationship style that’s right for you and your partner, there’s an important lesson to be learned from successful CNM couples. Namely, you need good insights into your emotions if you want a fulfilling relationship. Both compersion and jealousy are emotions you’ll inevitably experience, but the key is understanding what these feelings mean in the current situation rather than reacting blindly to them.

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David Ludden is a professor of psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College. As the author of two books and a popular blog for Psychology Today, he mainly writes about communication in relationships and the things couples can do to have more satisfying interactions.

Lawrenceville, GA

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