Fostering Compersion

I wrote a while back about the greater non-monogamous community’s idealization of compersion and holding it up as the opposite of jealousy. This implies jealousy and compersion are mutually exclusive; I wholeheartedly disagreed. However, I don’t deny that compersion can still be a desirable thing to feel, regardless of what else is going around in one’s brain.

In general, I am indifferent to my partners’ dating lives. I prefer to focus on my relationships with them and not their relationships with others. Sometimes, however, when I’m tired or hungry or lonely or I’ve had a long day, I find myself feeling crabby about a partner’s dating adventures. The same would be true of anything they did that made them unavailable to me at a time I wanted more affection, but there are extra layers with dating and always will be. It’s not a way I’m a fan of feeling, and I certainly don’t want it to influence my behavior. 

I wanted to come up with a way to redirect my thinking and put myself in a better mindset when I’m feeling less-than-charitable, or let’s face it, selfish. SHOULD YOU NOT ALLOCATE ALL YOUR FREE TIME TO ME? WHY NOT? I AM AMAZING! DON’T YOU THINK I’M AMAZING? THEN WHY ARE YOU GOING OUT WITH SOMEONE WHO IS NOT ME ON A NIGHT I AM FREE? IT DOESN’T MATTER THAT I MAKE PLANS WITH OTHER FOLKS ON NIGHTS YOU’RE FREE BECAUSE MY BRAIN IS A JERK AND I AM THE ONLY ONE WITH FEELINGS. Sometimes I am an asshole in my head.

To that end, I have some exercises I run through when I’m feeling irritable about my partners’ other relationships:

What about this relationship makes my partner happy?

  • Asking myself this question reminds me that I am not the most important person in my partner’s life, they are. And they should be! In order for relationships to grow unencumbered by resentment, people should feel free to do the things that make them happiest.
  • A positive outcome of asking myself this question is that I am focusing on the benefits of the situation rather than the negative aspects. And to be sure, a happy partner is one of those benefits!
  • The last thing I do in this exercise is smile. I know that sounds hokey, but the mind/body connection is super real, and something as basic as a smile on your face has all sorts of subconscious positive effects on your mind. 

What would I want my experience to be with me if I were them? 

Well, I would for sure want my partner to be selfish and passive aggressive. I would also want them to expect me to manage their feelings and sacrifice my own happiness in the pursuit of theirs. RIGHT? Okay, no. Probably the opposite of that. 

And here is where I get to decide whether or not I want to be a supportive partner or an insecure bag of poop. Since this is the second exercise in my routine, I’m already at the place where I’m aware of their happiness, so it’s easy to be supportive of it by encouraging their enjoyment of it.

I know how much of a bummer it is when I’m excited to spend time with someone and the person I’m with is making sure I know how unhappy they are about it. I don’t care to be that in anyone’s life, and I certainly have been in the past. Unlearning stuff is hard, but that’s why I do what I do here on this blog.

What is something I can do right now to be a better version of myself?

And now that I’m done projecting my bad day onto my partner’s completely unrelated pursuit of happiness, I can focus on what I really need: to take care of myself. This looks different for everyone of course, but for me it’s usually eating a healthy meal, getting more sleep, or going to the gym. When I feel better, I feel better.

So to recap, my little exercise has done the following:

  • Fostered a little compersion
  • Allowed me to be a good partner
  • Probably made my partner love me a little more, which is hard, because have I mentioned that I’m amazing? 
  • Improved my wellbeing in a tangible way

The dominant narrative tells us that our partners should prioritize addressing our unhappiness in order to show us that they love us. There are times of crisis when of course the priorities of those closest to you will shift accordingly, but for the most part, we are all grownups that can be expected to manage our own selves rather well.


The new narrative I’m attempting to write for myself is one in which I prioritize my emotional stability by learning to manage it myself. In this way, I ensure the folks I love the most get to experience the best I have to offer. I won’t always be stoked to be alone while a partner is entertaining another interest, but I can be sometimes and I can always show up in support instead of opposition.

Photo by amin tn on Unsplash

Compersion

There are a lot of words we use in the practice of ethical non-monogamy (and that I use here on my blog) that may not translate well in most circles. Language evolves to suit the society it’s used by, and that is as it should be, but I’m not a fan of how some folks weaponize ideas that could be useful tools in articulate conversation, but instead become laden with negative connotations.

Case in point!

  • Compersion: The positive feeling you get from your partner’s enjoyment of the relationships and associated activities they share with their other partner(s). Kinda like being happy for your BFF when they win the lottery. Except your BFF is your partner and the lottery is totally having sex* with them . . .

Often times, this concept is held up as the holy grail of polyamory. Pure Compersion is marketed to non-monogamists as the “opposite of jealousy” or some evolved emotion we should all aspire to – the alternative is, of course, some shameful state of being in which you . . . I don’t know . . . have a range of human emotions.

Fuck that nonsense.

Look: human beings are not on/off switches. We’re more like faucets with varying degrees of water pressure and unreliable temperature controls. Sometimes we run out of hot water and sometimes the water main breaks. I myself am generally feeling 17 emotions at any given time. Compersion is often one of them, and a lot of times it likes to drag envy and loneliness along for the ride.

I mean, OMG I would be so happy if my best friend won the lottery. SO HAPPY FOR HER. And also, jealous. Of course I’d be jealous. I wouldn’t act out of jealousy and attempt to manipulate or cause her harm. I wouldn’t insist that in order to remain my friend she should cut me a check so that I wouldn’t have to feel jealous anymore. No. That is not how we show up for each other.

Compersion is similar. Of COURSE I’m so happy for my partners when they get to do fun things, feel good feelings, fall in love, have healthy relationships with a variety of people, and generally enjoy their lives. And sometimes I wish I was the one they were doing those things with. It doesn’t erase the fact that I’m happy for them. Both things can be true at once.

Emotional maturity informs compersion, but a lack of compersion does not translate to emotional immaturity. I think the polyamorous community could do themselves a favor here and acknowledge that ALL feelings are valid. Perhaps then we could all feel ownership over a term that simply acknowledges our happiness for our partners’ happiness, regardless of the multifaceted, layered, and complex emotions that come with it.

*yes, I am aware polyamory is not about sex and also that not all relationships include sex – this was a hyperbolic statement intended to incite feelings of mirth in the reader and if you needed this footnote to get past it, well then you’re welcome!

Perspectives on Special

A challenge I face as a polyamorous person in a primarily monogamous society is working to unlearn what my culture has taught me about certain concepts. One of the things that keeps coming up for me is the idea that a place or event or experience is special and that if it is shared with more than one person, it becomes less so.

I call out the dominant narrative a lot for informing how we think about things. In this case, we are led to believe that to be special means singular and reserved.

But what really makes a thing special?

When I am in the moment and connected to the person I’m having an experience with, that is where the “unique” feeling I end up being possessive of is created. I don’t know why the idea of that same person having that same experience with someone else makes me feel like it will take anything away from mine, but sometimes it does. I attribute that to how the idea of special has been constructed for me, and I’ve done some brain-thinking on how to manage my perspective in that area.

Do I really think the special moments in my life can be undone by someone else being happy in the same place? No . . . I do not. But I can be a tough person to sell paradigm shifts to at times.

So, it starts with the idea of same. Or more accurately: it starts with letting go of the idea of same.

There is no same.

If you take your friend Chris to a baseball game, and then you take your friend Eryka to a baseball game, is it the same experience for you each time? You could sit in the same seats, eat the same processed meat tube in a bun with extra relish, wear the same fan gear, and sing the same baseball songs – but you would still be having two completely different experiences.

By taking Eryka to the baseball game, you’re not undoing the experience you had with Chris. And it’s not even an issue of who was first. You are going to the game with Chris for the first time! AND THEN YOU’RE GOING WITH ERYKA FOR THE FIRST TIME! It’s all of the winning, and you get to do it over and over.

Because it’s the connection you have and what the other person brings to the experience that makes it unique. And if Chris and Eryka are your romantic partners and not just friends? It doesn’t change a thing.

Have you ever had the exact same sex with two different people? (Spare me your threesome jokes…) I have not. I’ve never eaten the same meal twice, seen a movie the same way, walked around a lake with the same sky, or written the same love letter to two different people. Most of us are not wired to seek absolute repetition, but we do find comfort in what makes us happy, and happiness in sharing that with those we love.

So love abundantly, and share your happiness in kind. You cannot make what is special, unspecial by enjoying it exponentially.

You find the special in the people – that is where it lives.

Pocket Monster: Envy

Jealousy is a thing, peeps.

It is the dead horse beaten on a regular basis when discussions of polyamory are on the table, but that’s because It Is A Thing. And it’s not the biggest monster in my closet . . . but I have one – it’s just more like a pocket monster. I carry it with me and occasionally take it out to play. You know, when I want to torture myself a bit!

Seriously though, jealousy gets a bad rap. No, I’m not saying we should aspire to jealousy, but it doesn’t have to be the horrible thing people think it is. It doesn’t have to be something we shame ourselves for experiencing. It can be, like all things, an opportunity to grow.

In an unrelated area of my life, I’ve learned that a hallmark of emotional maturity is the ability to be happy for others when they have what I hope to have, but do not. For example: if my best friend won the lottery, I would not be mad! I would experience both joy for her, and likely, a twinge of envy. Some people might not experience envy in that situation at all, while others may find themselves struggling to be at all happy for her.

In poly circles, some of us are able to feel happy for our partners when they are finding happiness with others – this is called compersion. It’s not a universal experience. It comes very naturally to some while others work to feel it, and still others never do nor find value in its pursuit.

Now, I will tell you that I identify as one of those people for whom compersion is a natural thing. When my partners are happy with their other partners, it brings me Great Joy! I would go so far as to say I sometimes attempt to facilitate greater happiness there by suggesting fun things they might enjoy together, or talking to them pre-event to share in their excitement. I am disgustingly poly, it’s true – but I do have that envy monster in my pocket.

Recently I had a partner do something REALLY BIG with their spouse, and I was SO EXCITED for them to do that thing together. I did not want to join, I did not want them to have a bad time, I wanted everyone to really enjoy themselves – but I was also so sad.

For me, envy manifests itself not as a territorial “that’s my partner and they should do fun things with me only” type of feeling, it’s more a “something along those lines would be a lot of fun, but I don’t think that experience is available to us” – very much like a best friend winning a lottery I will likely never win. And to be very clear: the lottery here isn’t the experience itself, it’s the experience with that particular person. I have never been able to substitute one person for another in my life. All of my relationships develop separately and are unique unto themselves.

So I felt pure compersion, and also envy.

And this means I have an opportunity to grow.

I have a future blog brewing about What Makes Things Special, and I know that writing that out will help me with this. But in the meantime, I also have the following tools:

  • Focusing on being grateful for what I have as opposed to focusing on what I do not – because perspective has a lot to do with where we focus our energies. If I’m wearing myself out pining for things I do not have, then I’ll neglect the things I do and run the risk of them atrophying.
  • Expressing happiness and feeling it returned – I’ve learned that when I’m feeling down, putting the emotion I want to experience out into the world allows it to come back to me.
  • Looking forward to special plans I’ve made with my partners – because the fact is, I do a lot of amazing things with my partners and I can’t tell you another time in my life when my life was this much fun!
  • Acknowledging that envy is not a product of a broken system, but a side effect of being human – as a human, I’m allowed the luxury of imperfection.
  • Choosing to act out of love, instead of envy – and this is the key . . . because I could, in a moment of envy, decide to make my partners miserable. This is why jealousy gets a bad rap – it’s not the feeling itself, it’s the terrible ways people treat each other when they’re affected by it. Jealousy itself is just another emotion we get to experience and choose how to act in response.

So, I’m not at all ashamed that envy wiggled around in my pocket and wanted to play with me over this. I know where it settles in my body when I feel things that need fixing. It’s nearly always a perspective shift that needs to occur,  and I have a big toolbox full of perspective tweakers at the ready!

I’ll just keep on humaning, and letting you know how it goes.