Holding on by letting go
‘Relationships of all kinds are like sand held in your hand. Held loosely, with an open hand, the sand remains where it is. The minute you close your hand and squeeze tightly to hold on, the sand trickles through your fingers. You may hold onto some of it, but most will be spilled. A relationship is like that. Held loosely, with respect and freedom for the other person, it is likely to remain intact. But hold too tightly, too possessively, and the relationship slips away and is lost’ — Kaleel Jamison, The Nibble Theory and the Kernel of Power.
I have always struggled with jealousy. Growing up I felt there was never enough love, affection or attention to go around, that if someone else was receiving love or desire, it was at the expense of the love or desire shown to me.
I used to be jealous of pornography, of a pretty girl at a party, of a picture in a magazine. To me, the lust my partner experienced for another person was utterly threatening, because how could I compete? I saw myself as plain, nice, unsexy: entirely opposite to these vixens. Whenever I perceived a threat, I demanded affirmation, reassurance that my partner desired me and only me.
And it wasn’t only in romantic relationships. I was a jealous friend, too. If someone I considered my best friend suddenly started hanging out with someone else, I was terrified they would find my rival more entertaining, more popular, less me, and I would lose them.
I usually did. No one wants to be suffocated by a crazed clingy bitch who doesn’t know how to share.
Of relationships with men, my mother used to say, ‘You have to let them look or they will stray.’ I guess what she meant was, Don’t choke-hold your partner. Don’t cling so closely that they don’t have room to live, to breathe. Try not to control them. You don’t own them, nor should you.
Instead of helping me understand that desire is natural, and monogamy a struggle, I heard a message of desperation: you must do whatever it takes not to lose your man; and the subtext: you are not whole on your own. I wasn’t okay by myself. I needed to find and keep a man. Losing him was akin to failure, and loss took the form of him acting on his desire for someone else. That he would desire someone else was inevitable. My challenge was to somehow afford him sufficient freedom to desire while keeping him tethered to and desiring of me. I needed a kind of retractable love-leash.
But that very need, that feeling of not being able to be on my own, contributed to my insecurity. Because I couldn’t reassure myself, I grasped for reassurance from others, embodying the very thing I was warned against: I was clingy and needful. Worse, I was aware that this was the exact wrong response, that the tighter I gripped, the more likely my partner was to pull away. Fearing the effect of my own response, my insecurity was compounded: I gripped tighter still, turning my retractable leash into a choker.
Years on, I can look back and see what my mother was actually trying to say: that no one wants their fidelity demanded, the love wrung out of them, their reassurance requisitioned. But it was a long and arduous journey to get here. Along the way I put myself though 18 months with a partner who lied and cheated constantly, and I knew this. It was one of the reasons I stayed so long. I needed to test myself, to become desensitised. It was 18 months of hell, but I came out the other side with a new perspective, determined never be that jealous and out of control again.
After that I forced myself to spend time alone, exploring multiple casual relationships with no expectation of fidelity and no obligation of reassurance. I managed to slowly establish some self-sufficiency while developing a very different understanding of desire and monogamy.
As well as breaking down my reliance on a partner, I worked to improve my self-esteem and build confidence. I learned independence and how to self-assure. I knew that even if I ‘lost’ a partner, I would be okay. It would hurt, but I didn’t need them to be a whole person. I had spent time on my own and not just survived, but thrived.
During that time I practiced sex without love, and learned to separate the two, to compartmentalise sexual desire and see it for what it is: animal and natural. By acknowledging and experiencing the difference, I could see the one as less threatening to the other.
I gave myself permission to be non-monogamous. This worked in two ways. Firstly, how could I be jealous of a partner sleeping with someone else, when I was doing the same? Secondly, by experiencing sex with multiple partners, I discovered that my interactions with each didn’t change how I felt for the others. Sometimes it brought clarity through comparison, but this was more of a catalyst than a transformation. If there was a solid foundation to begin with, having sex with someone else wasn’t going to change that. If anything, being with someone else made my feelings for my primary partner stronger as I acknowledged and appreciated how difficult it must be for them to give me that freedom. Knowing this allowed me to relax my grip: I no longer feared the outcome of them doing the same.
Most of all I learned to accept my green-eyed monster. It’s not something I am proud of, but it is a part of who I am and where I came from. It is a natural response that in and of itself isn’t a threat to my relationships: it’s what I do with that response that chokes or sets my partner free.
Now, I still feel the stab of hot and sick at the thought of a loved one being intimate with someone else, but it is less acute, and when it happens, it doesn’t tie me into a knot of hurt and rage. Instead of fighting my jealous urges, I try to acknowledge them, openly and honestly. I step back, examine the feeling and where it comes from. I observe the insecurity, the fear that when my partner is with someone else, they are rejecting me. I tell myself that I don’t own them, nor should I, that the object of my desire is not an object at all, but a living breathing person with the same rights to freedom and desire as me. How would I feel if the situation were reversed?
Being more comfortable with myself, I can pause to play out the worst case scenarios in my head, giving me time to become comfortable with each. As long as I can unravel and objectify my jealousy, it can’t take the same choke-hold. That’s not to say it doesn’t hurt, or that I won’t lash out, but if I do, I am better able to handle it. I can reassert control, not over my partner, but myself. If only I had understood all those years ago that it wasn’t my lover I needed to set free, it was me.
This post first appeared in Rhonda Perky’s Bits on Jul 9, 2012