A few years ago, my friend Kina, whom I’ve known since we were toddlers, told me she had started dating a girl I’ll call Lexi. Kina had already told me she was queer so that part of her news didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was that Lexi was dating another girl I’ll call Janie, and that they had all decided to begin a polyamorous relationship so that Lexi could continue to date both of them.
“It seemed really natural to me,” Kina told me over the phone a few months later. As she put it, she “didn’t have any hang-ups” about sharing her girlfriend with Janie. “I was just happy that I got to be in a relationship with Lexi,” Kina said, “I didn’t really think about it that much.”
But I did think about it. I had a lot of questions. Some that Kina could probably answer: “How do you stay happy dating someone who has another girlfriend?” And some that I’d have to ask experts: “How does polyamory fit within the history of human sexuality?” As I looked for answers, I started to think that we teenagers bring a lot of evolutionary baggage with us on our dates. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Before Kina told me about her relationship, the concept of a fellow teenager becoming so explicitly non-monogamous had never crossed my mind. Of course I had come across the idea of non-committed dating before – from the more formal “serial dating” to the more casual “hooking up.” And I was familiar with polygamy, the custom of a man marrying more than one woman that I associated mostly with some sects of fundamentalist Mormonism.
But polyamory was new to me. Dossie Easton is a prominent psychotherapist in San Francisco who works with sexual minorities and who wrote the book “The Ethical Slut,” a guide to navigating polyamorous relationships. I asked Easton: why some people become polyamorous?
“I certainly don’t believe it’s some kind of gene that we’re going to find that you’re either monogamous or polyamorous,” said Easton. But even if it’s not genetic, Easton said biology is full of non-monogamous examples. She cited the number of animal species in which the evolutionarily vital roles of sex and nurturing are shared among multiple individuals, not just two at a time. And she said the same was true in many cultures throughout history. One Amazonian tribe apparently encourages young women to sleep with as many men as possible because all of their traits would be passed on to her child. “That doesn’t happen to be genetically true,” Easton said. “But it’s interesting that we have cultures in the world that are based on this.”
“It says monogamy is kind of optional,” she said.
Most people at least understand the appeal of having multiple partners, the excitement of dating new people and not feeling tied down. But even if it’s an option, as Easton says, there are some big obstacles to becoming “poly.” I talked to several young people who are in open relationships and in some cases they said they had to overcome social stigma and keep their relationships secret from family and friends. Non-poly teens I talked to said that while polyamory sounds like a cool idea, they’re too jealous to try it.
Research psychologists who study jealousy say it is a nearly universal emotion, although one that is experienced in many different ways. Some people are more jealous than others. Researchers have used surveys with lists of potentially jealousy-inducing scenarios – “Someone flirts with your partner,” or “Your parents seem to give your sibling more privileges like staying out later or driving the car” – to find out what the normal level of jealousy is in different populations.
David Buss, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Texas in Austin, has used similar surveys to study the link between jealousy and dating experience. He found that people who have never been in a sexual relationship, which tends to be younger people, have lower scores on jealousy scales. Those scores go up once they start dating. “It is very clear that jealousy comes online as soon as people start experiencing romantic relationships,” Buss told me.
I wondered whether there might also be a link between jealousy and polyamory. Perhaps people who get involved in polyamorous relationships are less jealous. Which got me curious, where would Kina fall on a jealousy scale? And how would her results line up against the norm?
I'm no scientist, but I did an informal survey and handed out a standard self-reported jealousy questionnaire to 21 fellow teenagers in Oakland, Calif. Obviously, I’m not about to submit my findings to an academic journal -- my sample was small and non-random, so it may not have been representative of teens in general. Also the questionnaire I used was originally designed for college, not high school, so it's possible that attitudes could change as the respondents got older. But the results are still interesting. Researchers developed the questionnaire in 1979 by giving it to college students in the midwest whose collective score was used to determine the norms for the 100-point scale – the average score was 71. The average score from my group was 56, meaning that at least on paper, they were less jealous than the historical cohort.
And yet when it came to relationships, all but two of the teens I surveyed said they wanted to date exclusively, without outside romances. No one identified as polyamorous.
Neither did Kina anymore, by the time I could give her the survey, Lexi had broken up with her. Still, she filled out a questionnaire. For dating preferences, she stated that she wasn’t planning to try another polyamorous relationship again. Her answers to the jealousy prompts resulted in the lowest score of the group, a 23.
As David Buss said, a person’s level of jealousy isn’t constant. He likens the emotion to a biological defense mechanism, like a callous that forms depending on how much friction your skin comes up against. When someone cheats on you, you become more wary, a more jealous person.
To evolutionary psychologists like Buss, emotions are adaptive traits that are passed down through human history in the same way as physical traits, like eye color and disease resistance. According to Buss, that extra wariness that comes with jealousy gives you a better shot at reproductive success. “Jealousy is usually explained as an immature emotion, as a character defect,” Buss said. “But in fact it is an emotion that evolves primarily to protect a valued romantic relationship, and that is highly functional in most cases.”
Except, perhaps, in the case of poly relationships, when jealousy would seem to cause only dysfunction. According to Buss, it’s what makes polyamorous relationships inherently unstable and much more likely to result in breakup than monogamous ones. Dossie Easton calls jealousy the most common fear that stops people from forming open relationships. And as an advocate for open relationships, she spends a lot of time thinking about why that is. “You have to ask the question, why are we so afraid of it?” said Dossie Easton. “We expect to deal with sadness, we expect to deal with frustration, with loss and grief. Why is jealousy the only emotion where you are supposed to get a gun and shoot somebody?”
Kina said she let her emotions get to her at the beginning of her polyamorous arrangement with Lexi and Janie. She would get insecure, sometimes feeling like a third wheel. But then she’d call Lexi and talk through those feelings. “I had to work at it a lot to know how to deal with these feelings,” Kina told me.
Kina’s survey results made me wonder: had being poly and working on her insecure feelings actually made her a less jealous person? When I asked her about it, Kina said she thought it had, and she was glad for it. “Jealousy is just a counterproductive emotion,” she said. “It doesn’t make me happy.”
Of course, evolutionarily speaking, jealousy doesn’t work by making you happy. It works instead by creating an unhappy feeling, a feeling that your partner is threatening to reproduce and raise offspring with someone else. And once you have that feeling, you need to do something about it, whether it’s something immature, like attacking the person flirting with your partner, or mature, like talking to your partner about it.
In Kina’s case, she found ways to get rid of her jealous feelings, and that’s made her feel happy. In the end, evolution aside, that’s the question that mattered most to me.
Charlie Foster contributed reporting and editing.
This story was produced by Youth Radio.
(c) 2012 Youth Radio, Oakland CA