Jealousy is such a palpable, raw human emotion. We all experience it at one time or another, and it can seem like there’s no way to avoid it when you love multiple people at once. But some polyamorous people have learned not only to fight against those feelings, but to take pleasure in their partner’s happiness. This elusive feeling is called “compersion.”
If you’re one of the many who rely on Wikipedia or Wiktionary to understand English language words which seem foreign to you, here’s a quick summary.
The word compersion is the antonym of jealousy, and it’s similar to the Buddhist concept of mudita, or sympathetic joy. However, mudita is a much more general term.
“Compersion” was first used by the utopian and polyamorous Kerista community in San Francisco. It refers to the happiness felt for loved ones who are having other sexual or romantic relationships at the same time.
The word’s etymology appears traceable to the French word for partner, compère, which was once used in the form compérage to describe brothers-in-law who shared wives.
And if you’re somewhat unsure about the meaning of polyamory, think of it as non-monogamy.
It’s hard for people practicing monogamy to imagine how compersion could be possible, since we’re socialized to think monogamy is the only sane way to have sexual relationships. Yet we regularly see members of the poly community who, thanks to their self-esteem and self-love, are able to experience the joy of compersion and thrive in beautiful ways.
We can learn a lot by listening to journeys in multi-love: the emotional ups and downs experienced during the process, the dealbreakers, the epiphanies, and the acceptance and growth that’s possible.
We spoke to four people about their journeys toward compersion within their polyamorous relationships. These are their stories.
Zachary Zane, 28, writer and LGBTQ advocate
I used to be that jealous boyfriend when I was in monogamous relationships. I wasn't ever aggressive or accusatory, I simply needed reassurance all the time and would feel some sort of way when I saw my partner get hit on by another guy or simply talk to another hot guy. For whatever reason, I felt so deeply insecure and it led to this jealousy that was, frankly, pathetic. That's why I didn't think I'd be able to be polyamorous. I thought my jealousy would be through the roof.
I can't delve into the details of how I ended up stumbling and trying out polyamory, but I will say, it was during a time of my life when I didn't want a serious partner, so dating a married man sounded ideal. Of course, that's not really why you should be polyamorous (although I guess it can be a reason) and I ended up falling deeply in love with him.
Weirdly enough, when I became polyamorous, most of my jealousy disappeared, and I think it had to do with the fact that I knew that if he was hanging out with me/having sex with me it was because he wanted to be with me. When you're monogamous and want to have sex, you kinda have to go to your partner even if you don't want to. (Or, I guess you cheat, but that's another story.) When my partner would turn down invites for dates/sex to just hang with me, it made me realize that I have nothing to be jealous about. And the times he did sleep with/date/go out with other people, I didn't feel jealous, because at the end of the day, he would always come back to me.
If everything is communicated, drama-free, and above board, I’m generally OK.
Being poly somehow made me feel more secure in our relationship, which I know is somewhat ironic. But it worked for me and really helped me get over my jealousy issues. It also allowed me to be happy for him sleeping with/dating/talking to other people. In fact, I liked when he did because it took the stress off of me in the relationship. I didn't feel like I had to be his everything. There were other people who could step in and help.
Charyn Pfeuffer, 46, sex and relationships writer and author of 101 Ways to Rock Online Dating
I’d been involved in a series of "don't ask, don't tell" relationships, where one or both partners have permission to be involved with other people, but have agreed not to share information about those extracurriculars. I don’t have to have contact with my metamours , but I don’t like feeling like someone’s secret or sidepiece. Ideally, I prefer to practice kitchen-table polyamory, a situation where everyone in the polycule (a term used to discuss collectively all of the people who are in a relationship with one or more members of a polyamorous group), come together in a familial-like structure and is comfortable sitting together at the kitchen table over a cup of coffee (or in my case, a no-nonsense Manhattan).
When I’ve been in dynamics where there are a lot of unknowns, my jealousy and insecurities tend to spike. If everything is communicated, drama-free, and above board, I’m generally OK. I want my partners to be happy and will do everything in my power to support their independent relationships. I think compersion first clicked for me with a partner who had a long-term, live-in nesting partner. My meta and I had enough in common (in addition to our mutual partner) to enjoy each other’s company well enough. We slowly warmed up to weekly Sunday dinners together. It made my heart swell for the three of us to banter in the kitchen over cocktails, cook together, then sit down and share a meal.
Often, we’d all retreat to his bedroom (they had separate bedrooms) to snuggle and watch TV – with him in the middle. (She and I were never intimate.) Eventually, she’d excuse herself, knowing full well he and I would fuck, and maybe I’d stay the night. That thoughtfulness meant the world to me and made me respect their relationship even more. (He and I have split up, but she and I are still friends.) Since then, I’ve had partners show up in various ways, which have made me felt compersion.
Compersion is this feeling that we’re all in this together, and that we all want one another to be happy, whether we're fucking each other or not.
Most recently, I broke up with a couple I was dating. It was a messy split, and everyone had warned me, so I was wary to reach out for help. When I fessed up to one of my partners that I was having a hard time, he and his primary partner canceled their usual date night to make dinner and care for me. I was a hot mess and bawled through most of the meal, but they made me feel loved and cared for and I could not have asked for a better post-breakup safety net. That is what compersion means to me. It’s this feeling that we’re all in this together, and that we all want one another to be happy, whether we're fucking each other or not. The common connections are enough to create a solid foundation of care. It's this mutual respect from all parties involved that translates into the almighty feel-good state of compersion.
Daniel Saynt, 36, founder of NSFW
One superpower that polyamorous people need to develop is the ability to express the emotion known as compersion. If your partner is truly committed to your happiness and is actively excited in your sexual pleasure, then it's easy to feel the same for them.
For me, it's a challenge. Being open isn't easy. I prefer relationships in which my partner and I share in experiences rather than having each one off on their own adventures. I am poly but my ideal situation would be a triad, in which all three partners are each other’s primary. My dealbreaker is a partner who commits in words and not actions. It's easy to say "I hear your concerns and will make changes." It's harder to actually do the work to save a relationship. The main epiphany I've had in my experience of being in an open relationship is that it requires more than communication. It requires putting in the time and effort to make it work. Not everyone has that ability.
Stephanie Schull, 48, inventor of the Kegelbell
Having an open relationship was a fundamental premise to my agreeing to marriage. I preferred the term “partner” and wore no ring. We saw no other people for many years. Why? It seemed too difficult to figure out logistically. The social pushback and judgment from those who knew I was living with someone was disheartening, and that always took the wind out of my sails when I tried to launch my boat after someone. Simply put, who wants to date someone who is married? I run with a very ethical crowd and this seemed to violate a code for them regardless of the honesty and openness of my relationship.
Jealousy is about possession and ownership. Rationally, we cannot and should not try to own or control people.
Flash-forward seven years, I set out to figure it on my own how to live well polyamorously. At first, my partner only wanted to know about dates after the fact, which made planning dates nearly impossible for practical reasons, as I am allergic to lying. We worked through that. How? We were both university professors at the time, so we thought through the premises and assumptions and came to the following conclusion:
Jealousy is a dark and base emotion that only does harm. It is about possession and ownership. Rationally, we cannot and should not try to own or control people.
So, we concluded, we did not want the arbitrary nature of contemporary society to force us to lead an inauthentic life that is contrary to human nature. To fully be alive, is to be fully human, which is to do what we were made to do. And so, open coupling and mating is a more natural way of being in the world.
As far as the practical nature of settling down with someone for the purpose of feathering a nest, there is no need to trap, force, manipulate or punish a partner into staying. If one is self-confident that one is a good partner, and if one has faith in one’s ability to live on one’s own, then there is no need to be jealous of others.
When my partner is with someone else, I authentically wish him well and want him to be happy and to have a full and rich life. I am excited for him if he has a nice evening. If it ever ends up being the case that a lover is potentially a better partner for him, I would tip my hat to them and wish them well. Indeed, I every so often encourage my partner to keep his eyes open for someone better; how could I want him to have an inferior life with me if a better one awaits him?
So, it is the convergence of objective reasoning and the primordial instincts along with a good dose of self-confidence in my value, and my ability to thrive on my own, that makes me not jealous. Rather it makes me enthusiastic to engage in polyamorous behavior.