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How polyamorous queer women really cope with jealousy

Love’s Refraction author Jillian Deri insightful study of non-monogamy

The women interviewed by Love’s Refraction author Jillian Deri (above) are not the cheerleaders who sometimes blow sunshine from the pages of newspaper polyamory puff pieces.  Credit: Vivienne McMaster

The great Spanish playwright Lope de Vega wrote that “there is no greater glory than love, nor any greater punishment than jealousy.” Shakespeare called jealousy “the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” Karl Kraus said it was “a dog’s bark which attracts thieves.”

But maybe the most terrifying thing about jealousy — the topic of a new book by Simon Fraser University instructor Jillian Deri — is how private the emotion is.

Share it, and you’re controlling. Hide it and you’re dishonest. Repress it and you’re neurotic. Jealousy is like herpes: a problem nearly everyone has, no one wants to talk about, and most look down on others for acquiring.

That’s why it’s so voyeuristically appealing to pry into the lives of a cast of women who meet jealousy head on. In Love’s Refraction, Deri interviews 22 queer, polyamorous women in Vancouver, and combines their interviews with scholarly research and her own analysis to paint a picture of how queer women take on multiple relationships, tackle jealousy, and come out the other side.

While narrow in scope, the result is one of the most academically rigorous books about polyamory and non-monogamy in print.

The best parts of the book often come straight from Deri’s interviews. These women are not the cheerleaders who sometimes blow sunshine from the pages of newspaper polyamory puff pieces.

Some feel genuine, maddening, stinging jealousy when their lovers are with other partners. One woman says she feels physically sick, another sees tunnel vision, and a third loses control so much she feels like “other people are driving the bus and I’m not even close to the wheel.” They flinch when their lovers have sex with someone too similar to themselves, or writhe with discomfort when they feel their power in a relationship threatened.

And yet, these women stand by their non-monogamous lives. One reason, bluntly, is the sex. Deri works hard to dispel the illusion that polyamory among women is a bloodless, sexless, purely emotional affair. Many of her subjects are kinky or into the leather scene, and make no apologies for their libidos. One woman draws a parallel between being polyamorous and wearing leather; both are flashing signs saying, “I’m sexual.”

Some even make jealousy work for them, bending it into sexual tension. In one of the funnier interview segments, an interviewee explains a fantasy of advertising in a newspaper for a lover to woo her stay-at-home wife, just so she can interrupt them in a jealous rage and passionately reclaim her territory.

Beyond sex, or even emotional fulfillment, however, many of Deri’s subjects also see their polyamory as a feminist, political practice. In a culture that would often prefer to see women as heterosexual, chaste and deeply monogamous, the very existence of polyamorous queer women is an act of rebellion. “It seems like once you say, ‘I’m poly,’ then it kind of eliminates the need for the feminist part,” one woman puts it.

The title of Love’s Refraction refers to the final upside of polyamory: compersion. The word is used in polyamorous culture for positive feelings generated by seeing a lover with someone else, the opposite of jealousy. Deri’s central metaphor is that if jealousy is love’s shadow — a dark patch left in its wake — then compersion is love’s refraction, love directed through the prism of one relationship and into another.

 “Being in a poly relationship doesn’t mean you are okay with your partner being with other people,” one participant tells Deri. “It means you are actually supportive of your partner being with other people… How could I not be happy if she is happy and having fun?”

Unfortunately for the casual reader, Love’s Refraction is too dense to be a pleasurable read. Deri writes in strict academic patois throughout, regularly dropping sentences such as “I theorize from a position that integrates multiple perspectives, complicates mutually exclusive divides, and substantiates accounts from opposing perspectives.”

This is a shame, since the book’s style will probably prevent Deri’s valuable insight from leaking out into the polyamorous community about which she writes. For those up to the task, the book is an insightful look into some of Vancouver’s most daring romantic outlaws.