Val and I were talking a bit about jealousy this week because of the post they made about it. Both of us feel like language is a serious stumbling block in the attempt to talk more usefully and openly about jealousy because there are several different situations that the word jealousy tries to cover and they are very different both ethically and practically. Moreover some occurrences of jealousy are totally fine, even useful, and some of them are destructive and indicate real problems.
I am talking about jealousy as it is related to a romantic partner's behaviour. Such jealousy always comes from worrying about getting one's own needs met but too often that "need" is to control a partner's behaviour, body, or associations. That might seem like splitting hairs but hopefully I can describe why the need for control is very different than other needs.
If I am feeling like I really want snuggling in a relationship and I am not getting it then that can be a real issue. If my partner then spends hours on end snuggling somebody else it could trigger a jealous reaction because it made me realize that I am not getting what I want. I don't need them to stop snuggling others, I just need them to snuggle me too and then everything will be fine. This sort of jealous reaction is useful because it can let us know that there is some need that isn't being met. Of course it should be framed that way as well "Hey, I have been feeling somewhat jealous because I really miss snuggling you a lot. Could we find time to do more of that?" When thought of as a sign that a person needs something for themselves jealousy isn't a problem.
Often though jealousy has nothing to do with an internal need and stems only from a desire to control a partner. This is often celebrated as a sign of love, particularly when men violently attack other men who dare be near a female partner. The classic example in Archie comics is Moose violently beating Reggie simply because Reggie happened to be standing beside Moose's girlfriend, Midge. Moose has a desperate need to control Midge that has nothing to do with how they relate to one another or their time together. Moose clearly doesn't think of Midge as a full person with autonomy and rights but rather as a piece of property that belongs to him. This sort of jealousy is destructive and dehumanizing to one's partner.
Differentiating between the need for a particular action and the need for control is critical. The question that should be asked is "Is there something my partner could do just between the two of us that would make me feel better?" If the answer to that is yes, then the path forward is clear: Have an honest talk about what it is you need and try to find a way to get that. If the answer is no, then you are only looking to control your partner's behaviour and you need to stop that. Changing that mindset certainly isn't easy but we all need to accept that when people are doing things that make them happy and don't affect us we need to let them do that.
All of this doesn't mean you can't have agreements. If you both agree that neither of you will snuggle anybody else then all well and good. As long as everybody freely accepts the terms then you can have whatever sorts of terms you like. Jealousy caused by breaking of agreements is perfectly reasonable because the need that isn't being met is for both people to tell the truth.
This description of jealous behaviour can be useful for understanding the question often asked of polyamorous people: "How do you deal with the jealousy?" The answer is that I don't treat my partners like I own them. This means that the destructive kind of jealousy simply isn't an issue and the only thing left is (very rare) moments of jealousy that serve as a useful reminder that I need to take some time to think and then have a constructive talk with someone. Dealing with that, needless to say, just isn't that hard.