As a sex-positive feminist with a wide-ranging sexual history and an open-minded attitude toward relationships, I didn’t think jealousy could affect me — until it took over my life.
During my 30s, I started a love affair with a married man. No, this isn’t your typical affair story — I knew he was married, and that he was also polyamorous.
I’d been in open relationships myself in the past. I considered myself a sexual libertine, knew plenty of poly people, and figured I couldn’t get hurt if I went into the affair understanding the rules of their – and our – arrangement. Besides, even in past monogamous relationships, I’d found it charming when my partner flirted with other people, taking it as a sign of their attractiveness when the people flirted back. I thought I’d be totally fine with the setup; I’d have the freedom to see other people and spend time with him too.
But in real life, my idealistic view of non-monogamy quickly gave way to something much darker.
I enjoyed our initial flirtation, our sexy hotel dates, our banter, along with the simpler moments of simply looking at him after sex, his face relaxed and tender. I found myself falling hard for my new lover, but it seemed like the more I cared about him, the more distant he felt, literally and figuratively.
Complicating our arrangement was the fact that even though he was in an open marriage, he chose to keep our affair a secret. He’d told me he and his wife had lovers separately, and together, but didn’t elaborate on why the subject of me was one he wanted to keep off-limits between them, and I didn’t pry. To be clear, the secrecy actually made what we were doing cheating, as one of the bedrocks of most polyamorous relationships is honesty and openness.
Yes, some couples have “don’t ask, don’t tell” arrangements, but this situation wasn’t that.
We had to sneak around, which initially sounded exciting. I went along with it in the beginning though because I thought I’d benefit from it, too. I was attracted to the thrill of feeling “special,” and keeping our trysts private added to that sensation.
The downside of that naughty thrill, though, was that I couldn’t call or text him if I was randomly thinking about him. I had to wait for him to contact me, and when he did, I’d leap at the crumbs of attention, picking up his calls mid-meal or answering his texts in the middle of the day. The less I heard from him, the more my jealousy started to creep in, becoming a hobby that filled more and more of my waking hours, until I found myself consumed.
This overwhelming jealousy took me by surprise, because I’d never expected to feel that way, to want more than I was supposed to have from him. But our emotions don’t always play by the rules our minds have agreed to.
Meanwhile, both of them were active online, and I took full advantage by exploring every nook and cranny of their virtual lives. No detail was too obscure or hard to reach, as I became a type of cyberstalker I would have been horrified by if it were anyone else. I never did anything malicious to them; instead, I hurt myself by using my sleuthing to fuel my jealousy.
It started with simply looking him up on Facebook or reading his blog entries once in a while. But soon those morsels of information weren’t enough, so I read all the archives, then started following his wife too. Checking up on them online became a daily activity, as routine as checking my email, ramping up whenever I didn’t hear from him.
I knew the names of their pets, their family members, where they’d traveled, pop culture favourites and other minutiae. I was mainlining their lives – at least, the parts they’d shared with the virtual world. I would click any link of anyone pictured in photos with either of them, studying them like I was going to be graded. I would try to imagine what their life together was life – did they eat breakfast in bed? What were they doing at that exact moment?
My jealousy was less about an actual person and more about some utopian vision of perfection that existed entirely in my own head.
Gone were those grand ideals about my own freedom to date freely. There was no time or space in my heart, not when he was all I could think about. Having access to so much data about both of them was a double-edged sword, one I used to stab myself over and over again. I knew it was unhealthy, thanks to the way I’d close my laptop in a teary daze, but I couldn’t seem to stop.
Jealousy was such a foreign emotion to me that I didn’t know how to process it, so I turned inward. I hadn’t told anyone except a few very close friends about our affair, since it was supposed to be on the down low, which left me feeling isolated. I certainly didn’t tell them the depths of jealousy I’d fallen into.
I felt stupid for feeling the way I did, like I’d failed at being the carefree, sexually open person I’d billed myself as, to him and to the world. My jealousy felt like a retro, outdated emotion I should have been able to cast aside. But no matter how many times I told myself that, I couldn’t do it.
Being the ‘other woman’ felt like such a boring, tired stereotype, but one that I’d easily fallen into. I read books like Cheating on the Sisterhood: Infidelity and Feminism and the anthology The Other Woman, trying to understand how that title had become such a comfortable one for me to wear and embody. But no amount of common ground with other “other women” helped me step back into being the confident, proud person I’d been pre-affair.
At some point, my jealousy morphed from simply wishing I were the one waking up next to him to something else entirely. I became fixated on being like his wife, not Single White Female-style, but wanting to do anything she had done, as if that would somehow make me worthy of him. I was too deep down the green-eyed monster rabbit hole to realise that maybe he was interested in me precisely for my uniqueness. But who I was never felt like enough, not when I felt the lack of him far more than his presence.
I channeled my jealousy until it became a daily project. I couldn’t have articulated exactly what I wanted to accomplish, only that making jealousy an active task felt better than crying every time I was reminded of him (which was pretty much 24/7).
We would go through periods of intense communication, dirty text upon dirty text flying between our phones, with occasional hotel trysts in between, to times when I wondered if he even remembered me. I eventually put his initials in my phone next to the words ‘DON’T PICK UP’ (yes, in all caps). Spoiler alert: I still picked up, albeit with a huge helping of self-hatred and shame that I couldn’t even follow my own very clear instructions.
Eventually I tried, unsuccessfully, to get an article published in a magazine she’d written for. Yes, I realise how ludicrous that sounds now, but at the time, I was obsessed with achieving the things she had, as if that would validate me – whether I ‘got’ him, or his time or attention, in the end or not. I’d read her pieces there probably a dozen times each, trying to glean what made them so special, hoping that would give me the key to what made her so special.
But after the third rejection, I was devastated. The words of the bland form letter swam in front of me, a sign that maybe I really wasn’t worthy – never mind that my logical self knows very well that professional rejections aren’t personal. I was far, far beyond logic by that point. It was my jealousy rock-bottom moment.
Finally I realised that I could keep chasing this ideal of womanhood I’d built up in my head, or step off that tortured hamster wheel. By then, my jealousy was less about an actual person and more about some utopian vision of perfection that existed entirely in my own head. I was chasing an ideal I could never become – and even if I did somehow achieve it (meaning him), did I really want a relationship built on such a flawed premise?
I was angry with myself for having sunk to such lows, but as I removed him from the centre of my mind’s orbit, I tried not to be bitter. Almost three years after we’d started our affair, I got the word ‘heart’ tattooed on my left inner arm in letters big enough to remind me that mine was still strong and powerful and passionate, even if it had led me astray. I vowed to be single for the next year, thinking that would help me finally purge any stray hints of jealousy from my system.
Two months after that, I went to dinner with the man I’ve been dating for the past seven years. I didn’t think it was a date, but somehow, my year of singledom was quickly set aside as I found myself falling in love – the kind that was entirely reciprocated.
Through him, I’ve learned that I don’t have to be perfect for him to love me, nor do I have to be anyone but me, flaws and all. I wonder sometimes if I would have met him sooner if I hadn’t spent so much time letting jealousy rule my life. Perhaps. Or maybe I simply had to learn to focus on and love myself before I found someone who could be a true partner, not an imaginary one.
This article first appeared on HuffPost US Personal
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