Q: Over Pride weekend my ex-boyfriend was in town and stayed with me. We slept in the same bed, but only because my apartment is small and there wasn’t any other place for him to sleep. We’re just friends now and aren’t into each other sexually any more. My current boyfriend, a guy I really do love, had to be out of town for work, or he would have been the one in my bed. But he was sulky and quiet every time I talked with him on the phone, and when he came home he finally admitted that he was totally jealous. I was surprised, and then I got angry because I don’t like not being trusted. We’ve always had an open relationship anyway, so isn’t it hypocritical for him to be mad at me?
A: I’m sympathetic with your boyfriend on this one. First of all, his feelings aren’t at all unusual. Ongoing connections with ex-partners are often an area of tension in relationships, and need to be handled with sensitivity.
But second, and more important, if anything in a relationship is more destructive than jealousy, its contempt for your partner’s feelings. It sounds like he had an unhappy Pride weekend, and, judging by your reaction, he probably feels that you’re judging him pretty harshly for it. I think jealousy is a feeling which gets too much of a bad rap from gay men. Often, when we talk about it, we couple it with words like “insecure” and “possessive.” It’s an emotion that is “immature,” “unsophisticated,” and just not very highly evolved. It comes from low self esteem. It’s a holdover from “patriarchy.” Really cool gay guys are above such feelings. We don’t try to own each other. We don’t put fetters on love. When it comes to open relationships we take them in stride. We understand that playing around is a guy thing and don’t begrudge each other life’s little pleasures. And so on.
So our first reaction to a partner’s jealousy is often indignation. But jealousy is a reaction to the fear of loss, abandonment and betrayal; and these experiences really do happen in relationships. Is there any adult who hasn’t been deeply wounded by such experiences? You aren’t going to make those realities of life go away for your boyfriend by just telling him he ought to trust you more.
I understand that it can be off-putting to be on the receiving end of jealousy. If you felt implicitly accused of lying, it’s understandable that you felt indignation. The trouble is that his original need for reassurance got lost in the process. Instead of treating his jealousy as something he just ought to get over, I suggest that you treat it as a natural emotion which comes up in any relationship sooner or later. Instead of focusing on who’s “right,” try to replace contempt, defensiveness, and anger with compassion. Think of the times in your life when you’ve been afraid of losing somebody’s love, and treat him the way that you would have liked to have been treated at those times. Let him know that you respect his feelings, and that you’d like to work together with him to see that he doesn’t have to feel afraid and jealous again. Demonstrate that respect by being willing to listen to how sleeping with your ex affected him, and resist any temptation to respond with judgments or arguments to what he tells you. Ask him what he needs from you to feel safer in the future. That kind generous attitude on your part will do a lot to reassure him that he really is first in your heart.
Once you’ve done that, it might be a good idea to discuss explicitly (if you haven’t already) what ground rules regarding outside sex and relationships will make you both feel most safe. Open relationships seem to work best when the couple has explicit agreements about what kind of outside involvements are acceptable. These vary from couple to couple: only three-ways; only when I’m out of town; not in our bed; no over-nights; no outside romances; not with any of our friends, etc. Your boyfriend, for instance, may feel that sleeping together, whether you have sex or not, is something you only do with a primary partner, while for you it may feel like no big deal. He may be especially sensitive about this where your ex is concerned, given your former intimate involvement. Neither of you is “right.” It’s a question of listening to each other’s feelings with respect, and negotiating ground rules that feel safe for both of you.
If you can make explicit what you each believe is appropriate behavior in an open relationship, and if you can avoid the temptation of arguing about whose ideas are “right,” you’ll be in a better position to negotiate ground rules you can both live with. But the most important thing is not to leave him alone with his jealousy as if it’s a problem he has to solve by himself without any support from you. No attitude is more destructive to a good relationship than that one.