One of the reasons I (and several of my friends) wanted to attend the Poly Living Conference this month was the opportunity to meet and listen to the co-author of The Ethical Slut, Dossie Easton. Practically every person who explores the history and literature of polyamory has read this book, and whether or not we think of ourselves as sluts, pretty much all of us try to adhere to the ethics of open, honest relationships that bring our partners as much pleasure as they do ourselves.
Much of what Dossie has to say in her work as a writer and therapist revolves around the idea that we are not born "perfect" at what we do -- anything, even learning to love, takes work and awareness. I loved how she spoke directly and with humility about her own experiences, mistakes and challenges. Dossie definitely gets across the message that love and sex are experiences within the human realm, and therefore subject to all kinds of difficult (as well as blissful) feelings.
I decided at the last minute to attend her workshop on "Making Friends with Jealousy". After all, I've been attending and leading poly discussions on this topic for many years, not to mention wrestled with my own jealous demons over the course of my poly life -- what could possibly be said that I didn't already know? Turns out I was glad I went.
I've been feeling very scientific lately, so when Dossie announced that she was going to focus on the physiology of jealousy, I perked up. So many people try to find deeply buried emotional reasons for jealousy (and for love, and attachments in general) that coming at this most complex and frightening of emotions from the perspective of our biological self seemed somehow comforting --like maybe jealousy is something I don't need to feel so guilty about experiencing.
Dossie introduced us to our amygdala: essentially the region in our brain where emotions are experienced. There have been, she said, great advances in brain research regarding the physiological components of emotional experience via hormones (such as the stress hormone, hydrocortisone, which is produced by our adrenal glands in response to stressful situations -- essentially, our fight or flight mechanism).
So, in terms of the experience of jealousy, there is a lot going on that is autonomic, or that our bodies are doing without our even realizing it, and this affects our perception of the situation. Dossie listed several things we can do, however, to mitigate the effect of our very human reaction to what we perceive as a dangerous situation (eg. when we feel jealous):
1. Take care of yourself. Schedule times for gratification and things you love doing but don't otherwise get the chance to do. If you can do these things when your partner is out on a hot date with someone else, so much the better!
2. Create a container for your jealous emotions so that you can experience them but not allow them to spill over and affect all aspects of your life and interactions. We get in trouble, she says, when we pretend not to feel something we are actually feeling. (Dossie herself cheerfully admits that she still gets jealous, but after 40 years of working on it, "it's sort of a non-event".)
3. Because we can't solve conflicts in a state of stress, taking at least 15 minutes to calm down (through breathing, meditation, or visualization -- or, depending on personal preference, gentle exercise) will actually "reset" our amygdala and increase our capacity to calm down the next time we get stressed. I thought this was pretty cool, and it also explains why handling jealousy does get easier the longer you address it.
4. Use distraction to deflect the cyclic process of negative thought patterns. This doesn't always work, but it can be an effective tool to derail some of the negative self-esteem chatter than crops up in our minds when we're feeling like we might lose someone's love or attention.
5. Release and banish the "shoulds". There is no one "right" way to feel. Just let your feelings be what they are (this is what she means by "making friends with your jealousy"). At this point in the workshop, Dossie took us through some breathing exercises and a short guided meditation/visualization of what our own jealousy looked like. We were encouraged to try and open a dialogue with our jealousy in whatever form we envisioned it and afterwards we shared this experience with others in the room. (I liked this exercise a lot, because it reminded me of one in my Buddhist practice called: "befriending your demons".)
6. Finally, she reminded us to focus on what we can control in our lives, and to practice letting go of what we can't. As poly people, we know that we cannot (and should not try to) ever, ever control our partners' feelings. We can, however, feel pretty confident that we can control our own feelings with the help of some relatively simple tools and the knowledge that sometimes, managing scary feelings is as easy as shutting off the hormonal hot-water tap and allowing ourselves to rest.
My thanks to Dossie for leaving us with the assurance that we are all beautiful human beings who have valuable things to contribute in terms of wisdom and love.