Presently, most of the people in our culture believe that competition, possessiveness, and jealousy are all acceptable responses when we love someone. But is this really true, independent of culture or custom?
Can true love contain jealousy?
Jealousy most often arises from fear - a fear of losing your partner to someone else, or the immediate stimulus of seeing or knowing our partner gave someone else affection we wanted them to give to us. Does the feeling we have when we experience true, pure love for another person embody any qualities of fear? Or does fear completely dissolve away when we are fully experiencing love?
What about possessiveness?
When we feel the need to possess our partner and not let them express intimacy or have sex with anyone else, is this a sign of love? When we want to control our partner and say what ex's or friends they can and cannot hang out with, is that love?
What about exclusivity?
If your partner says they love you and someone else, does this cheapen their love?
Is love more meaningful when it is rare and fought over? Or when it is abundant and shared? If you love someone more, does that mean you have to love someone else less?
All of these questions suggest that we all have very particular beliefs about love - about what love is and what it is not, about who we are supposed to love, and who we're not, about the limits of love and the boundaries that define its shape and texture.
To answer these questions for ourselves, we have to look at our life and the larger society with deep attention. We have our established opinions, maybe an intuition. We also have many cultural voices that have taught us how to see love. I have been taught by my culture how to love. My philosophy, by default, is the philosophy of the larger culture, the culture of my parents and my friends and my peers and the mass media. But I want to throw all that away while I ask the question for myself.
When I asked these questions for myself, after reading Teachings On Love by Thich Nhat Hanh and Mind Beyond Measure by J Krishnamurti and Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse and the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu and Zen Mind, Beginners Mind by Shunryu Suzuki I felt that instinctively, true love for someone else does not contain jealousy, fear, possessiveness or exclusivity.
True love does not contain any of these things. When we are feeling genuine love for someone, we aren't in a state of fear. We aren't jealous. We do not feel a need to possess them.
Our love may trigger these reflexes, but are these qualities of love itself? Or are these responses triggered actually, not by love, but by the fear of the ego? When my partner says they want to be with someone else, or they cheat on me, and I get angry or upset, who am I really thinking about? Am I thinking about them, or am I thinking about myself? Isn't my anger, my jealousy, my fear, my sadness all based on my personal desire, the fear of my personal loss - not having anything to do with actually caring for their needs, desires, and aspirations? This was my disturbing realization once. The narrative I had in my head was a deception. I thought I loved her but I didn't. Not all the time. Not when my own needs were threatened. My love was conditional, and I don't believe true love is conditional.
When I saw this contradiction in myself, I was disturbed. Suddenly, I wanted to take more responsibility. I wanted to discover how to love someone without conditions, to see if I was capable of loving in this way. Looking back at the times when my love has been very selfish, the memories evoke a deep empathy.
Of course, I am not alone. Most of the people in the world love in this sort of conditional and easily jealous way. But here is the insight that really hit me: it is not because we are selfish people. It is not a sign of some innate human flaw or limitation. These conditional forms of love are, in fact, a sign of the many millions of impoverished human beings that, having found some sweet oasis of love and affection in this desert society, naturally want to protect what little love they have found.
Sadly, in this competitively-driven love economy, if we want to secure our own needs, it is incredibly difficult to genuinely love the other person. Though we use the word love to secure a mate, it is hard to be truly concerned with the other person. In a competitively-driven love economy, we can be concerned about the welfare of the other person only so long as one's own desires and needs are met. If this comes into conflict, the survival-driven part of our ego cannot be concerned with what is best for the other person. Because love relationships exist as a zero-sum game in our society, any compassion we afford to others will only give the other players in the game a greater advantage to steal what little love we have found.
It is like a game of musical chairs. There are always more players than chairs. And each person only has one chair available to offer to someone else - one person to offer their love and affection to. It doesn't matter if there are 3 people in the game or 4 or 8. There is only one chair available. So if you want to give your seat to someone that doesn't have one, you will ultimately be the one left without one. In this kind of game, there is little space to consider what would make our beloved truly happy. If we want to be happy, we have to protect what we have from others. It is what zero-sum games are all about.
Because this is the environment we are raised in, we are conditioned to love and not love in ways that can best meet our own needs. We adapt to our environment, and our environment worldwide is based on a love economy built around scarcity and competition.
This is obviously a self-perpetuating cycle. Past scarcity produces cultural values that perpetuate present scarcity which will ensure future scarcity.
What other models could possibly exist?
The alternative to a love economy based on scarcity and competition is a love economy based on abundance and cooperation.
How could we create this? I believe the only way to create a new love economy is to start with ourselves - to make love more abundant in our own lives, and as this kind of love becomes more contagious, more and more people will start shifting to a cooperative love economy, where we do not have to compete for the love we crave, and love will be in such abundance that old social givens like jealousy and possessiveness will gradually fall away. This truth is so subtle I think it's worth meditating on this cause and effect relationship until it becomes fully apparent.
We have to realize jealousy and possessiveness are not emotional responses inherent in human nature; they are learned responses that have evolved over thousands of years to adapt to economies of scarcity. As we change our environment, these adaptations become less and less relevant. Obviously, making this transition is the most difficult part, but once the transition has been made, future generations may look at emotions like jealousy with idle curiosity, the same way it is hard to understand the customs and behaviors of people in the Middle Ages.
How does a transition like this begin? Like any paradigm shift, a change in our consciousness is necessary - a re-orientation of how we see ourselves and our sense of identity. I believe this change starts by seeing that our own ego is of the same nature as our partner's ego, and the person she wants to be with. But before we even get to our intimate relationships, it starts with seeing that our ego is of the same fundamental nature as every other ego on planet earth - that everyone deserves happiness and love, and that cooperating to help realize this vision is a more joyous way to live one's life than simply competing for our own happiness.
From this foundational understanding, a person can love their partner and love their partner's other romantic interests. It becomes natural to want to allow our partner to share their love with others if they want to.
In a world of abundant love, it's no longer necessary to tie our security to exclusivity. There's no need. When there is such an abundance of love, affection, and emotional intimacy among our relationships - when we have more of it than we need - there is no need to guard it, hoard it, or keep it from everyone else. When there is such a great abundance of potential loving intimate relationships in society, one would no longer experience the fear of not having enough, or not having their own needs met.
Hence, a person raised in this environment would naturally have no inclinations to territorially guard their partner from others. They would likely experience little jealousy because jealousy arises principally from an environment of scarcity. We fear we will lose the love we get from that one single person, and they will give this love to someone else. Because in the old model, we can only share affection with one person at a time. This makes any new person that enters the equation incredibly threatening.
In contrast, with this new understanding, it becomes easier to want to share our partner's affection with others just as we can share our own affection with many people. The natural inclination is to cooperate - to find a solution that works for everybody.
In our current love economy, it is hard not to compete. Finding companionship with anyone becomes a competition among other interested people because there can be only one. Who cares that life frequently does not fit into such a simple format. Who cares that people frequently find themselves loving new people and loving their old partner just as much. With monogamy, you must choose a sole winner of your affection and intimacy, and the loser must be cast out to avoid threatening your partner. Ultimately this is a system that makes winners and losers of us all. It is the same principle that I dislike about capitalism, and it is what I dislike about our current love economy.
The more I think about it, the more it becomes curious to me. As an example, I'm wondering how often we stop to think about the demands and control we feel entitled to have over our partner after being with them for awhile. We don't make these demands of our friends. If a friend is hanging out with another friend, we don't berate them for defecting. We can share friends. More friends usually don't threaten existing friendships, but yet we have these very specific expectations for our intimate relationships in one category, and another set of expectations for our friendships. One is based on a model of scarcity and competition, the other is built on a model of abundance and cooperation. Why the divide? Obviously, we can understand that these defined and separated categories evolved from many generations of scarcity. They've provided a useful benefit to us otherwise we wouldn't subscribe to these categories. But what I'm wondering is, given the changing social realities of the age, are the philosophies that define these categories still relevant? Are we ready for some new categories in between these two?
I would really like to get feedback on these questions because I have rarely heard them asked, or even thought about. They are like social givens, ingrained in us so deeply we never stop to ask, why is it like this, really? We've been running on auto-pilot for who knows how long. But I think it's necessary for a culture to reexamine it's basic foundational assumptions every few decades, do some spring cleaning, so that we can discard outdated social models and create new meanings to interpret our life.
Now, to have a good spring cleaning, we should take every idea we have about love and relationships and look at it deeply. Because the monogamous model of relationship is the model practiced almost exclusively in our culture, let's start with that.
To be clear, the monogamous model is a beautiful form of relationship. I don't think monogamy is inherently a bad thing at all. It evolved and has continued to be the dominant relationship model in human societies because it is the most well adapted and workable solution given the environmental conditions of our past. And even today, with radically shifting cultural realities, there is still a fully relevant place for the monogamous model. Monogamy can be and is often beautiful. I have seen it in its true beauty and I have experienced it myself.
At its heart, stripped of all our cultural associations, monogamy is simply the act of making a loving, intimate commitment to one person. What I want to examine are all of the philosophical and cultural assumptions that we attach to this model. Because I do not see monogamy itself as the source of our current love economy (based on scarcity and competition). The part that I believe we would benefit from growing past is our orientation towards rigid, inflexible monogamy. It would seem that with our current philosophical approach to monogamy, our society has taught us that we must apply a monogamous model onto every situation whether it is incredibly unhealthy and inappropriate or not. There is very little flexibility or diversity in our relationship options currently. No care is taken to evaluate each situation and tailor the agreement to best fit the situation. You've got to end it with one person to be with someone else. You've got to be monogamous, even if it causes everyone a lot of suffering.
While it is certainly wonderful and amazing when our relationships fit into the socially-accepted and ideal form of monogamous love, so often I'll hear of stories where exclusivity isn't always the best option. Despite our strong belief that love should only be shared with one partner, so often I find people coming across situations where they organically find themselves loving more than one person. And it is incredibly sad when people do find themselves loving more than one person but are consistently and subtly punished for it. They're scolded by their partners and told, "If you really loved me you wouldn't love anyone else. If you want to be with me, you've got to choose."
What kind of damage does this do to our psyches, with situations like these being multiplied thousands of times in our conscious awareness, either through personal experience, or through representations of it that we get from stories, movies, TV, and the rest of our culture? I can only imagine a five-year-old child whose natural inclination is to love both their parents, just naturally, loves them both, and yet in this dysfunctional family the mother or the father gets angry with the young child every time the child tries to express this love. And like in any situation where there is continual negative reinforcement, the person ultimately learns to suppress this feeling, to bury the suffering of closing off their heart to one of the parents they love so much. Why can't the child just love them both?
If you can imagine, having to suppress this basic human inclination would have to do some serious psychological harm to the child. And to some degree or another, that child is in all of us. But in the same way, adults often lose all of their memories of their early childhood, so have we, forgotten the capacity for the boundless, infinite love that was possible when we were first born. Slow accumulations of how to limit our love, restrict it, guard it, selectively share it, and take it away (all adaptations to an environment of scarcity) have conditioned our minds, much like the way soft bark turns petrified with age. The potential we lost remains in a dream world. It remains a vague memory of something we feel in quiet moments, but cannot put our finger on.
The thing is, almost our whole society has lost its connection to this original potential. We are all like hungry ghosts, scavenging for nourishment wherever we can find it in this impoverished world, unaware that the potential for a world of abundant love exists. What are the implications of an entire society that shares this psychological baggage?
Well, it's a good question, if you ask me. But regardless of all this, it's true that we remain self-determined beings, and our future remains unwritten. The potential to grow and evolve, to de-condition our minds, and expand our ability to love is always there, if we have the determination to seek and find it. It doesn't matter where you're starting from. As humans, we all have the potential to love many people, to open our hearts to many people and care for all of them, one hundred percent.
It is not easy at first, of course. Our culture consistently suppresses this potential and keeps us stuck on a very low-vibrational frequency. Most of our social environments - at work, at school, at shopping stores, on the street, at the bars - do not encourage interacting as openly authentic human beings. Instead, it's our social masks that interact: the consumer and the cashier, the employee and the boss, you and the stranger, the ex-partner. We interact with each other's roles and not the people themselves.
On an emotional level, we are encouraged to keep our feelings low-key. People avoid getting too emotionally close with people of attractive sex for fear of jeopardizing the friendship. Once they have chosen a primary partner they try to suppress natural feelings of attraction to others, feeling like they shouldn't be experiencing that if they were really interested in their partner. If they feel feelings of love towards someone new, they think it must mean they're not really in love with their original partner, a sign to break up.
Occasionally, however, among the millions of people that find themselves feeling love for more than one person, a few of them will break through the guilt trip. A few of them will realize that, yes, it is natural to love more than one person. I shouldn't have to feel bad about it. It's - okay - to love many people. When the situation arises naturally, people suddenly understand polyamorous love, and it happens with people more often than you'd think.
Unfortunately, because these people are unequipped with any tools or supportive community to deal with this natural feeling, they are forced to either break up with the old person, creating a pattern of harsh stops & starts (with a lot of great suffering at each interval), or they just cheat on their partner and create a relationship of dishonesty and mistrust.
Polyamory has the potential to solve all of this. It is the philosophical breakthrough that can provide the door to an entirely new type of love economy - both for ourselves, and for our society.
Polyamorous love facilitates smooth overlappings of loving relationships, where old and new relationships can transition lovingly and peacefully. No broken hearts. No winners and losers.
For example, let's say you're in a relationship with someone you love very much, but you have also met someone new and are growing feelings of love for them too. You love them both and they both love you. With a polyamorous philosophy, everyone involved understands this. Everyone in this situation wants everyone in the situation to be happy.
Take Ashley, Brian, and Chris. Ashley and Brian have been together for several years and Chris is the person Ashley has recently gotten to know and is building a new bond with. Chris understands that the relationship that Ashley has with Brian is very important to her, and Brian wants Ashley to be happy and to be able to express her growing love with Chris. Ashley, amazed and bewildered by how understanding and compassionate Brian and Chris are striving to be, wants to love both of them 100%.
At the core of each of these people's understanding is the belief that "loving someone more should never mean loving someone else less." That "more love does not threaten existing love." And that "by loving others we love ourselves."
With this understanding at the core of their hearts, Chris and Brian both feel very secure. They both feel loved by Ashley. They do not feel threatened by the other person. Because Chris wants Brian to be happy and is taking into consideration Brian's feelings and needs, Brian does not have to fear Chris trying to steal Ashley away from him. Because Brian wants Chris to be happy, Chris also does not have to feel jealous or threatened. In Chris' particular case, having less of a history with Ashley, this loving situation allows him to not feel intimidated by Brian and Ashley's history and closer past.
Each takes the suffering of the other as their own suffering. Each takes the happiness of the other as their own happiness. Each feels a feeling of compersion when Ashley is spending time with the other partner.
The word compersion isn't used a lot in society yet but I'm hoping it will eventually be a regular word in our vocabulary. Compersion is the experience of happiness one feels when we know the people we love are happy with someone else. It isn't a competition, and making comparisons is ridiculous. Ashley is happy, unbelievably happy at the rare chance for everyone in this situation to feel loved and to also be happy. There is nothing worse for Ashley (or whoever is in her situation) than knowing that someone you love is hurting deeply, is suffering greatly because they want to be with you, and they cannot, since in most situations there has to be a winner and a loser. It is even worse when one realizes that this suffering is completely unnecessary - that all could be happy and find an agreement that all three people consent to that will allow everyone to be happy and feel loved.
A polyamorous philosophy makes this possible. You could prefer to be monogamous most of the time, but this philosophy allows you the flexibility to continue to love and keep your heart open even through transitions in relationships. With this mindset, you have the freedom to love your partner in it's truest sense - to love them when they are with you, and to love them when they are with others, either temporarily, eventually, sometimes, or consistently. No conditions to your love, no duality. There are conditions to what we can handle of course, what we'd prefer, and what we're okay with. But no longer is the condition for our love an on-off switch controlled solely by whether our partner is exclusive to us or not. Partners can mutually agree to much more finely tuned and personally-tailored arrangements.
Polyamory also facilitates greater trust and transparency. There is no need to lie or cheat in this situation because more love does not threaten existing love. Because this is so important and hard to grasp, let me say it again: more love does not have to threaten existing love. Loving someone more does not mean you have to love someone else less. It is tragic to me that we live in a system where this is accepted as normal.
Polyamorous love allows us to create deeper bonds with our partners, and be completely honest. We do not have to hold back and share our secret thoughts only with our friends. With open and honest communication (and feeling the security that comes from this) hearing your partner say that they care about someone new does not have to feel threatening. It is natural, and indeed, we know it is natural because we experience this feeling too. It also is not threatening because in no way does this mean your partner wants to leave you or even spend less time with you. They may only want to date this new person during the times you wouldn't hang out anyways. You may have someone else in your life and this will give you more time to spend with them. You may have some personal goals that you are excited about working on, so having a little more time to devote to your passion may be fully welcomed. You never know.
Every situation is different. Every relationship is allowed to be dynamic and evolve over time to flow with what's right for that moment. There is an incredible amount of diversity possible with polyamorous relationship forms, and that is part of its beauty. It is incredibly flexible and has a solution for every set of people and every situation. This is possible because the core of polyamorous love is not dependent on particular forms. Polyamorous love is a philosophy you can apply to every form of relationship. It can even be applied to just being with one partner.
The golden rule is: "Let the relationship determine the form. Don't let the form determine the relationship."
From here, it is all about excellent communication, honesty, and a willingness to want to remain centered in a place of genuine love and compassion for yourself and the other people involved as much as possible.
Deep communication is essential. We really have to listen deeply to what the other person is okay with, what they need, and what they are comfortable and happy with. We also need to be good at communicating clearly to our partner what we need, what we're okay with, and what would make us happy.
Difficulty and discomfort arise in all forms of relationship, and polyamory is not about escaping those difficulties. Jealousy and insecurity don't magically go away when we commit to exploring new paths. Polyamory is about navigating those difficulties with as much authenticity and openness as possible.
We have to be able to look deeply into ourselves and reflect on our emotions and thoughts. If something happens that triggers jealousy or some uncomfortable feeling, we need to be able to look deeply into why we felt that. What is its root cause? What tangible thing can my partner do to reassure me and allow the feeling to subside in a way that also preserves my partner's freedom and happiness? How can I take greater responsibility for the feelings I am experiencing and work to find peace in my heart, independent of exterior factors?
Developing all of these communication skills (both with ourselves in reflection and with other people) will be beneficial to us and others no matter what type of relationship form we prefer. So many monogamous relationships remain dysfunctional because we do not know how to communicate with each other. So many amazing friendships are lost because people get put into an "ex-partner" category when a relationship ends, and a new partner may not allow those relationships to continue. So many polyamorous relationships don't work out because of how hard it can be to transition from our old conditioned beliefs and habits into a new way of being, and we still have so few mentors, community reference points or elders to guide and support us.
We have known the monogamous model our entire lives, and even though so many monogamous relationships are fraught with betrayal, heartbreak and difficulty, there is comfort in familiarity, and difficulty that is familiar is often preferable to difficulty which is new.
But for those that want to see what possibilities await beyond the horizon of the familiar, a grand and beautiful adventure awaits. Whether we ultimately prefer monogamy most of the time, but want to leave the door open to possibilities when they arise, or whether we are fully committed to sustaining many loving intimate relationships over the years, if we can agree that jealousy, fear, and possessiveness are not genuine qualities of love, then I think our relationships will benefit greatly from the effort we make to root these aspects out of our love, no matter what relationship forms we gravitate towards.