My wife and I married young and lived a monogamous lifestyle for 15 years. Over the last few years we've had several polyamorous experiences, initially due to her interest in it. But in this process we've discovered that she harbors crippling - and I mean crippling - jealousy and anxiety that for all practical purposes prevents me from having outside relationships (or for that matter flirting with or even spending time with women she suspects I'm attracted to), while I've mostly gotten over my own jealous instincts.
She currently has a full, loving, stable relationship with another man who visits us frequently, goes with her to events and functions, and so on. While she's not withdrawing from me emotionally, and appreciates me enabling and sanctioning her other relationship, I obviously get less of her time than I used to, and I'd prefer a more equitable arrangement where I could in the long run also make meaningful romantic connections to enrich my own life. She says she's working on herself to perhaps eventually allow for this, but she's not hopeful she'll get there and the road there seems lengthy indeed.
Based on your experience with jealousy and insecurity in polyamory, what is your advice for me? Is there anything I can do to help her, other than being supportive of her and her process? Or would it be best for me to simply come to terms with the situation as it is, given that it's not an enormous hardship for me? Going our separate ways is not an option - I love this woman with all my being and have full compassion for her situation.
Grateful for any insights you may have.
Thanks for writing. There are two potential - and potentially painful - concerns I have on your situation, so hold tight.
Firstly about your wife. In my experience, when someone suffers crippling anxiety and jealousy, they can trace it back to one or more period(s) of toxic stress in childhood which can stem from any number of trauma.
There's a working paper by some Harvard Scientists which proposes that high levels of stress hormones in childhood alter the architecture of the developing brain so that it operates on fight or flight survival mechanism 24/7 revving the system like an overdriven car. Anxiety is thereafter easily triggered, as well as its cousins jealousy/insecurity etc.
Because these formative experiences occur in many cases pre-verbally, or at such a young age that they cannot be properly expressed, they become ingrained in the subconscious. Hence the causes of the anxiety/insecurity are difficult to find and resolve but logically, there are probably few such impactful experiences if you're looking for them.
Childhood trauma can create anxious attachment patterns in adult relationships. There's no one definitive way to resolve childhood trauma (and anyway that would be a much longer post), but there are ways to process and manage it I know have worked for several (including me). It is possible. Please do support her in contacting a poly friendly therapist for this. She, I'm sure, would benefit and I have some further reading for her which has worked for me, if she's interested in what I have to say.
But in summary she aspires to the ethos of polyamory, but is unable to handle your practice of it because she has a deep rooted fear - the usual suspects are abandonment, failure, success, rejection - which triggers the anxiety.
Unfortunately (or fortunately) you can't do the work for her, so in that sense there is nothing you can do to make her feel safer.
Here's my concern about you.
I understand, believe me, that you have compassion for her situation. As a fellow anxiety sufferer, I have compassion for anyone who experiences it.
And yet as much as I sympathize... you are not responsible for her experience of her emotions and I'm sure she doesn't want you to be. You - no one else - is choosing to justify a self-imposed veto on your potential polyamorous experiences because of her experience of her emotions. It sounds like you are acting as her rescuer--by abstaining and enabling--in the drama triangle (ah that pesky drama triangle pops up in so many of my answers).
It won't end well for either of you...
In many situations resentment builds on either side, at first subconsciously and then poking its nasty little head out into every day life about things which seem unrelated and trivial. Resentment kills relationships. In the extreme, there is also a risk is that you not only continue to co-create a comfort zone where she doesn't need to confront/work on her anxieties (which is not ideal), but also that you damage your integrity, self-respect and indirectly maybe even hers for you as well.
Please know that operating within the drama triangle carries no negative moral judgement. It is part of our humanity. Neither am I apportioning blame between the two of you - you have both created your relationship paradigm. The majority of us operates within the drama triangle to a greater or lesser extent (I try my best to be aware when I operate in it; it's how we learned to survive in the first place and it's often a comfortable place - at least initially), but the more you do it, the more it becomes a habit or a role - and that's a painful situation to be in because it limits both of your life experiences.
My advice is to stop but it's not easy. You are neither her rescuer nor her therapist. This means you also have work to do on your side (and it doesn't have to involve any exploration into non-monogamy just yet, or ever). As she does - or does not do - her work, your job is to stop assuming the identity of the rescuer. You're not doing yourself or your wife, any favours in the long run.
PS. My colleague in the States, Jessica Mahler, has some articles on her website Polyamory On Purpose which might serve as a starting point on anxiety.
Read next: Am I Abusive?