approx. 9 minute reading time
Taking your first steps into polyamory is a lot like being American and planning to move to the UK. Everything is just different enough to throw you off, and you quickly realize that even though everyone’s speaking English, you still have to learn a lot of new language. One of the first words most people encounter when they explore nonmonogamy is “compersion”, which is not only a new word for them, but a whole new concept.
And then, you find out that there’s kind of a lot of pressure to experience compersion to show how cool you are with polyamory, but maybe you just…don’t. Yikes! Does this mean you’re bad at polyamory? That you’re just monogamous but horny or unfaithful? Does it make you selfish or unenlightened? WHAT IS GOING ON HERE??
Yeah, it can be a lot to wrap your head and heart around. Take a deep breath with me, let all that tension out, and let’s start with…
What is compersion?
Very simply, “compersion” is the experience of feeling joy or euphoria from witnessing your partner’s happiness and excitement about someone they’re seeing. It’s when you love seeing them in love (or likelove, or lust, or whatever). It’s kind of the opposite of schadenfreude.
If that sounds like a really weird concept to you, think of it this way: Have you ever felt really happy when you saw your partner blissed out over something that didn’t directly involve you? Maybe you love seeing them immersed in their favorite hobby that you don’t understand, or you felt really proud of their work achievement, or your heart swelled up when you saw them playing with their beloved nibling* or a pet they adore.
That’s what compersion feels like, except that it’s specifically about them connecting intimately/romantically/sexually/infatuatedly with someone who isn’t you. (If you’re not partnered, think about any times you’ve been excited for a dear friend who started dating someone great.)
Compersion isn’t so much a constant state as a peak moment. It’s usually when you realize that you feel great about your partner feeling great, and then you get the added benefit of feeling great that you feel great about them feeling great. That clears it all right up, right? But compersion tends to just pop up at random moments, set you all a-glow, and then mellow out back into everyday life.
That doesn’t mean that you aren’t happy about your partner’s happiness all the time in general—which you may or may not be (more on that in a moment). It’s just that compersion describes those moments where you feel those feelings more intensely AND you’re aware of feeling them. Pro tip: Yes, you can have moments of compersion *and* also have times when you feel jealous, sad, lonely, or upset about your relationship. It’s not an either/or.
Is compersion necessary?
The reason that the polyamory world came up with the word “compersion” is that it’s a very common experience—and one that feels great. We needed a word for this experience so many of us were having.
I don’t endorse the idea that being “correctly” polyamorous (or otherwise nonmonogamous**) requires us to be the right kind of happy, well-adjusted, free-spirited, or “chill” (UGH). There’s a strain of toxic positivity in polyamorous culture that tries to insist that “real” polyamorous folks are always expert-level communicators, are always sexually savvy, are always flexible and great at problem-solving, are always happy and open and welcoming and of course, have gone up the mountain to become enlightened love masters who never, ever, ever feel jealousy.
Nonmonogamous folks can be crap at communicating. We can fuck up relationships on epic scales. We can be petty, bitchy, selfish, closed-minded, subject to the winds of our mental illnesses and trauma, and, yes, jealous. Unfortunately, being under constant suspicion and criticism from the monogamous world has made a lot of us want to hastily plaster over the holes in our relationship walls and pretend that we are all, always, doing just great thanks for asking! But at the end of the day, we don’t owe monogamy culture anything—not a justification for existing, and not an appearance of perfection.
Which brings me back to the question: Is compersion necessary to healthy, functional polyamory?
Here’s my potentially unpopular opinion: No, it isn’t.
Is it a great feeling? Absolutely. Is it desirable? Sure, the way any abstract good feeling is technically desirable because it feels good. Can you have a great and fulfilling polyamorous life without ever once feeling compersion? I think you can.
A word about the benefits of compersion
That being said, there are also very valid reasons to want to feel it, and to hope that your partner(s) feel it for you:
- Nonmonogamy can be really, really hard. Experiencing a moment of pure joy around it doesn’t just feel awesome, it feels validating, like you’re truly on the right path.
- If you’re feeling anxiety about how your partner is handling your new relationship, it can be a huge relief to see them feeling great about it.
- It’s a clue that you’re able to put yourself in your partner’s shoes and want things that are good for them even if you’re not directly a part of all those things.
- It feels really good to enjoy your own little glow off the good things happening to your partner—and it’s not selfish to want those happy moments for yourself.
- If you’re doing the type of polyamory where you meet and possibly befriend your partners’ partners, compersion does help you look forward to those interactions, and view your metamours with compassion and grace.
All of those things are wonderful and really helpful, but you can still function just fine in your polyamorous relationships—and even experience some of these benefits—without directly feeling compersion.
Okay, but why don’t I feel it? Will I ever?
There are so many reasons why you might not feel compersion at all, or about a specific relationship of your partner’s. And here’s the thing: It might be no big deal, or it might be a sign of something that’s a very big deal indeed. It’s worth digging into it to explore what you’re feeling instead of compersion, and why.
I’m a big fan of journaling, so I recommend trying to write out your feelings (or talk them out into an audio recording if you prefer) in a private space. First thing, ask yourself what you’re feeling about your partner’s relationship. You might have to do a little stream-of-consciousness brain-dumping to get past the surface to your real feelings.
You might discover that you just feel…fine. Neutral. That their relationship doesn’t really affect you at all, any more than your partner’s lunchtime friendships with work buddies. And maybe you feel fine feeling fine. Maybe you don’t need to feel any more invested in the parts of your partner’s life that don’t involve you.
Great! If this isn’t causing any distress for you or anyone else, go forth and live your life and don’t let anyone tell you how you “should” be feeling.
But maybe you don’t feel good about feeling neutral, like you’re missing out, or maybe you have some negative feelings instead. That’s okay! That’s very common, and you aren’t “less polyamorous” or doing something wrong. Now it’s time to dig into where those feelings are coming from and what they’re trying to tell you.
Here are some things that might be getting in the way of compersion that might need attention:
- Becoming nonmonogamous still feels very new and scary, and you’re dealing with a lot of general anxiety about it.
- You’ve been with your partner for a long time, with a comfortable and relaxed dynamic, and it’s hard to see them be starry-eyed and schmoopy about someone else when your own romance has mellowed out so much.
- Your partner pushed you into polyamory (also called poly-bombing—a topic for another blog post) and/or is rushing into new connections when you’re still struggling with the very idea of nonmonogamy—and maybe are afraid of losing your relationship if you don’t go along with it.
- You and your partner have been having relationship problems apart from nonmonogamy, and it’s scary to see them have another relationship that seems so much easier and happier.
- Something about your partner’s partner, or their relationship, hits some kind of emotional trigger for you, violates a boundary of yours, or otherwise creates a struggle for you.
- You know absolutely nothing about your partner’s partner, and your imagination is creating very elaborate fantasies about how superhuman and better than you they are.
- An extremely common one: Your partner is getting a lot of attention, dates, sex, partners, etc. while your dating life is *crickets*, and it’s hard to feel happy for them in the midst of your loneliness and envy.
- You’re experiencing some shades of past trauma or patterns from previous relationships, and/or you have an insecure attachment style (anxious, avoidant, etc.) that’s flaring up.
- Your partner has been so caught up in “kid in a candy store” mentality with being excited to date outside your relationship that they’ve been neglecting you in favor of chasing that high.
These are just examples, but you can see how any of them would easily get in the way of feeling compersion. It’s important, when you discover underlying issues like these, not to squash them down and pretend everything’s okay or to try to force yourself to feel compersion when you don’t. Your inner self is giving you messages that everything is Not Okay, and the best thing you can do for yourself and your relationships is to be honest about that and pay attention to those messages, even if that’s hard for your partner to hear.
What you do about those underlying causes varies. Sometimes it’s inner work that you need to be responsible for doing. Sometimes it’s something you need to work through with your partner. Sometimes you need to draw a new boundary, and sometimes you need to recognize that you had an unrealistic expectation you need to let go. Sometimes, you just need some time to adjust to a new situation.
As for whether you’ll ever feel compersion? You might. It might not even require everything to be “fixed”. You could have enough peace of mind just from knowing that you’re working on the situation that you find yourself suddenly having a moment of joy for your partner out of nowhere.
And you might not. Even if you want to reach that place, it’s okay to recognize that the best you can do right now is to be okay with everything that’s happening in your love life, and to be more okay with it some days than others. It’s okay if it’s hard. It’s okay if you and your partner(s) get frustrated and tired sometimes because it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. It’s okay for it to take as long as it needs to before you go from okayness (or actual struggle) to joy.
And maybe you’ll find that your right level is to feel generally content with your partner’s relationships, or neutral, or lowkey good but not really ever euphoric. That’s okay too! Not everyone has big exuberant feels, and not everyone wants to put any focus on their partners’ other relationships. If that’s what works for you, and it’s not causing problems with anyone else in your life, let yourself relax into things being generally fine.
The most important thing to know about compersion is that you really can’t force it. You can encourage it, by making sure you deal with problems as they arise, by letting go of the need to be part of everything good in your partner’s life, and by embracing the desire for them to have the things that make them happy and thrive. But just like you don’t need to have an orgasm every time you have sex to have great sex, you can have a great nonmonogamous life without having to feel compersion regularly or at all.
You can take that deep stress-busting breath now!
*gender-neutral term for your sibling’s child, i.e. niece/nephew
**You will often see people saying things like “ethical nonmonogamy” or “consensual nonmonogamy”. I am moving away from using those qualifiers and just saying “nonmonogamy” because I don’t like how ENM/CNM implies that nonmonogamy is inherently unethical or nonconsensual. I want to normalize the idea that “nonmonogamy” is a neutral idea, just like monogamy, which can be great or it can be toxic. Oh for the day when we have a word that describes what we are, not what we aren’t, and is as great an umbrella as “queer” is for LGBTQIAA+!
Are you opening up your relationship, or thinking of exploring nonmonogamy as a single person? Rebecca Rose Vassy offers nonmonogamy coaching for both new and experienced folks, and regularly offers virtual workshops on polyamory and nonmonogamy as well as dating and relationships in general. Contact us to get the support you need for the nonmonogamous life you’ve been longing for.