Q: “My husband and I have been open our whole relationship – sometimes we play with other couples, sometimes on our own. It works great most of the time and we are loving and communicative enough to handle when it doesn’t go so smoothly. Neither one of us is particularly jealous, but recently we had a situation that made me prickly. On our 5th anniversary, he made a date with another partner. I asked him a week out what we were going to do on that night, assuming he knew what it was, and was really deflated when it turned out he had plans. We just decided to do our anniversary stuff another night that week, but I can’t shake the feeling that I was wronged. Am I crazy here? It’s hard to figure out what’s reasonable and what’s the weird heteronormative, compulsory monogamy stuff that I’ve just been socialized to believe.”
Let’s start with a reassuring truth: you’re allowed to feel however you feel. If something upsets you, it’s upsetting. And anyone who loves you, cares about your feelings – or is in some kind of meaningful relationship with you – will have concern with your feelings.
But there’s another side to that – that our feelings are not always in alignment with what is technically accurate or universally recognized. A common adage among therapists is that “feelings aren’t facts.”
As emotional fitness expert Dr Barton Goldsmith writes: “Many things may produce an emotional response. Some are in the moment, others are from our past, and many people get destabilized worrying about the uncertain future. Still other emotions may be a response to mere fantasies, lies we tell ourselves that make us needlessly unhappy. They may also be a result of misunderstandings.”
So, again: feelings are absolutely real – our entire experience of reality is through the lens of emotion. Cognition doesn’t even kick in until after we’ve reacted to a stimulus, usually to justify the response we already had. When you ask if it’s “reasonable” to feel some way, it doesn’t fucking matter what I or anyone else thinks. It’s not up to public debate. No one else has to live in your relationship except for you.
Here’s an example. The other day I was giving a lecture on ethical consumption of adult content and asked the audience, “is watching porn cheating?” and the response was an emphatic burst of “No!”
I replied, “That’s good to know…for you. And that’s the same for me, personally. I don’t think it’s cheating to look at porn if you’re dating me. But I don’t get to make the rules for other people’s relationships. That’s a thing y’all have to hash out between yourselves and can’t be assumed.”
For many, cheating is having sex with another person. That’s clearly not a hard and fast rule for your relationship, since you’re consensually non-monogamous.
For some people, cheating is kissing, intimate texting or secretly spending money. For others, it’s watching ahead in a Netflix series that you were clearly viewing together.
So back to feelings. Feelings are instructive, especially when they’re painful. They clue us in to our current condition and areas that need attention. If we did not experience the physical pain that accompanies burning flesh, we would fail to recognize that our hand is on the hot stove and we would severely damage our bodies.
Same goes for feelings of jealousy – it’s an opportunity to examine what is happening and what needs to change. In a culture where monogamy is compulsory, jealousy is treated as a thing to be avoided. Specifically, we must not do the things that evoke jealousy in partners. Unfollow that hot girl on Instagram, don’t talk to that guy.
Some jealousy points to a growing chasm between partners or a sensation of feeling taken for granted – a relationship issue. Other times jealousy is a way to externally apply responsibility for one’s insecurity. Only through reflection and introspection can we figure out what’s what.
The good news is that in a loving, collaborative partnership, you have a teammate in this investigation.
You can talk through the conflict in a way that takes ownership for your own feelings and safely lays bare your fears and desires. You can work together to find the source of the angst and the solution that is mutually agreeable.
So back to your anniversary. Personally, I think the commemoration of passage of time is a big deal. I think birthdays, anniversaries and holidays are important and that sharing excitement for milestones is a component of showing love and conveying how much someone matters. But that’s me. And apparently that’s you too.
Perhaps the takeaway from this incident is that anniversaries and other symbolic signifiers of commitment are a big deal to you. Fortunately, you were able to find another night to celebrate and hopefully that fulfilled the same need. It might be useful to convey this to your husband so that he can make sure to pay attention to the calendar and is better equipped to love you the way that you value.
Have a question for Dr. Timaree? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.