What the Hell is Compersion? And Why You Need It to Make Open Relationships Thrive
Written by Samia Mounts (OpenLove101) on Sep 30th, 2020
“If you’re happy, I’m happy.”
That’s compersion in a nutshell. If you’ve never heard the term before, you’re not alone. You won’t find it in any dictionary, and the only people who are familiar with it are those who’ve read up on polyamory.
The common definition of compersion is a feeling of happiness or joy when your partner or partners experience romantic or sexual pleasure with someone other than you. It’s often referred to as the opposite of jealousy. Instead of feeling threatened by romantic-sexual rivals, you feel a warm sense of pleasure at seeing your partner happy.
This is a website for people interested in swinging and open relationships in general, so it’s worth noting here that polyamory is the practice of having many loves. Not just sexual partners, but loves. There are some who use the label to justify indiscriminate, promiscuous sex, and I’m here to tell you that’s not polyamory. Polyamory is about love. It’s in the name. And while polyamory may not be for you and your partner, which is totally okay, the feeling of compersion can improve any kind of open relationship by replacing negative, fearful feelings with sparkly, positive ones.
This idea goes against the grain of everything we are taught about what constitutes a solid romantic relationship. We are fed so many toxic messages surrounding romantic love, and these messages are deeply ingrained in the psyches of most people. They include the baseline idea that lifelong monogamy is the only legitimate way to have a relationship; that jealousy is an indicator of love, and the absence of jealousy implies the absence of love; that you are supposed to completely fulfill your partner’s every emotional and sexual need, and if you don’t, that means you’re “not enough” for them and you’ve failed; and that you can only love one person romantically at a time, meaning that if you have romantic or sexual feelings toward someone other than your partner, you don’t really love your partner.
These messages are ubiquitous in our culture. We hear them practically from birth, from family and friends, from movies, books, songs, and television shows. Even if you’re someone who values unconventional thought, you might find that this programming is so firmly entrenched within your own psyche that even a free thinker like yourself has a hard time wrestling with the strong emotions and anxieties that nonmonogamy can bring thrashing to the surface of your soul.
You’re Not Weak For Struggling with Jealousy
If you’re interested in trying to replace your jealousy with compersion, know that these struggles are totally normal.
You’re not weak for feeling jealous or threatened when exploring nonmonogamy. Every single person that grows up in mainstream culture has this same programming, and it’s incredibly difficult to work through it and past it. Embarking on this journey is a sign of strength and emotional maturity in and of itself, so give yourself a high five for even reading this article! You’re already killing it.
The rewards for doing this internal work are phenomenal. You can be free of the sickening dread that many people feel when their lover is with someone else. You can rise above the anxiety, the fear, the knots in your stomach. It’s a form of liberation I would like as many people as possible to feel. Not only can it transform your romantic relationships, it can actually improve all of your relationships. The second you decide that your love for someone else is more important than your fear of losing them, you ascend to a new level of love – one where you can love unconditionally.
Compersion is a Sign of Unconditional Love
Unconditional love is a noble ideal in our culture, but if you look around, it’s very hard to find real-life examples of it. Even in parent-child relationships, where unconditional love is thought to be the norm, you can see many examples where parents do not, in fact, love their children unconditionally. Many parents need their children to reflect back on them in a certain way, and if the child doesn’t, the parent will withhold their love.
Unconditional love is not something that is possible when your ego rules you, when you live in a constant state of fear, or when you need other people to be what you want them to be instead of who they authentically are. It’s totally unreachable if you don’t love yourself enough to know that you will always be loved, whether or not one particular relationship lasts for life.
We think of unconditional love as the love that God or the Source or the Universe has for us, and we aspire to love each other that way – but for most people, the actual practice of it is elusive and limited, due to our fears of being alone, or of being inherently unlovable.
Start With Self-Love
An excellent place to start in the journey toward fostering compersion is fostering a sense of unconditional love for yourself, so that your identity and sense of self-worth don’t depend on anyone else. Then, letting go of the tremendous fear of losing your loves becomes easier – and so does compersion.
Practically speaking, though, how do we begin to undo our cultural programming, rise above our fears, and foster the feeling of compersion in our relationships? There are lots of angles that you can approach this problem from, and I’ll share the ones that have worked best for me.
Above all else, for me, fostering compersion has been part of a greater spiritual/emotional journey. The difference between jealousy and compersion is the difference between fear and love – or more specifically, a fear-based, egoic, scarcity mindset and a love-based, egoless, abundance mindset.
When you are deeply afraid of losing your partner, so-called “threats” to the relationship, in the form of other partners, can seem like an attack, and can send you into panic, rage, and despair, potentially causing you to damage the relationship. However, if you develop a strong enough sense of self-love to know that even if you do lose your partner, your life will still go on and you will still have plenty of love around you, then suddenly, it’s possible to relax and allow them to do whatever it is that makes them happy, even if that means having other partners besides you.
The truth is, we are never safe from losing our partners, whether we practice monogamy or not. People in monogamous marriages lose their partners all the time. Developing a nonmonogamous arrangement in no way increases that risk. In fact, the honesty and communication required to make an open relationship work can, in my opinion, actually decrease the risk of losing your partner. Instead of clinging tight and suffocating the relationship with notions of ownership and possession, you allow your partner to be fully authentic with you, and to fly as free as they desire. I know that when I feel free to be my full, authentic self in a relationship, I am far more likely to stay.
In order to rise above the all-too-common fears that you are inherently unlovable or will end up loveless and alone, you must start by treating yourself with the love that you’d like to be able to give, or that you’d like to be given.
The truth is no human being is inherently unlovable. We are all worthy of love, by virtue of simply being human. We all have inherent worth. Self-love is a tough thing for so many of us, but it has the power, all by itself, to completely transform our lives for the better.
If you know you have problems with loving and valuing yourself, this is the place to start if you hope to ever authentically feel compersion for your partner. Your relationship with others will always mirror the relationship you have with yourself. The journey toward self-love is a topic that is far too broad for this essay to cover to satisfaction, so I’ve compiled a short list of books that have helped me in my own journey.
Reconsider Cultural Myths Around Relationships
It’s worth taking a good hard look at the cultural assumptions around relationships, one at a time, to examine whether or not we actually agree with them on an intellectual level. For now, don’t worry about how you feel on a visceral level – most of the time, intellectual/rational knowledge comes way before a deeper, visceral knowledge. This means that we can know rationally that jealousy is not an indicator of love. But viscerally and emotionally, we still get upset when a partner doesn’t show jealousy, because it makes us feel they don’t really love us. That’s totally okay. The visceral knowledge follows the intellectual understanding eventually, over time, with constant reinforcement and the willingness to put oneself in uncomfortable, boundary-stretching situations. Think of it a kind of exposure therapy. You establish your intellectual opinions, whether or not your emotions agree, and then you repeatedly expose yourself to the uncomfortable, frightening elements – in gentle, baby steps – until your body realizes that this isn’t going to kill you, and the fear slowly subsides.
Is Monogamy the Only Legitimate Way To Have a Relationship?
Let’s look at these ideas one by one, starting with the idea that lifelong monogamy is the only legitimate way to have a romantic relationship. The fact that most people have a series of romantic relationships over the course of their lifetimes should be enough to kill this one. Are we really willing to say that any relationship that didn’t achieve lifelong monogamy is somehow not legitimate, in spite of the many valuable lessons we learn from each and every relationship we have? Most of us can agree that our past relationships have contributed hugely to who we are as people today, and in many ways, have prepared us to have better, healthier relationships in our present. It’s my view that no relationship is illegitimate, because every relationship teaches us something about how to love, or how not to love. Do you agree? It’s okay if you don’t – but think about it. Is a relationship completely invalid if it’s not monogamous and doesn’t last for life?
As far as the ideal around monogamy, the sheer volume of stories we all hear of people who cheat – and for many of us, our own experiences as cheaters – should be enough to convince us that perhaps there are other paths to explore. You’re here at OpenLove101 for a reason, after all. Is monogamy really the most natural way to have relationships for human beings, a species that has never been known to be particularly good at the practice? Does it make sense to force every single person to have relationships the exact same way, when in every other area of our lives, we acknowledge the enormous diversity of preferences and tendencies across the spectrum of humanity?
Is Jealousy An Indicator of Love?
One of the most toxic messages we receive is that jealousy is an indicator of love, and that the absence of jealousy implies a lack of love. This idea is completely at odds with our higher ideas around what real love is supposed to be – unconditional, infinite, unbounded, wholly compassionate – and still it persists. People start fights when their partners don’t exhibit jealousy, furious because they think it means their partner doesn’t value them. And even more toxic, people often justify high levels of jealousy – even violent jealousy – by saying it just means they really love their partner. There are multiple “love” songs that showcase this idea. The underlying assumption is that we are entitled to our partner’s body, heart, mind, and attention, and if they don’t give it all to us, we have the right to be angry and upset. And that somehow means we love them.
Do you feel it’s appropriate to feel entitled to anyone’s body, mind, soul, and heart? Is it loving to demand the full ownership of someone’s entire being? Does a sense of entitlement, possession, or ownership have any place in a loving relationship? When you think of love in its highest form, does it include those ideas as well – entitlement, possession, and ownership?
Or are you perhaps more inclined to agree that love should be free and expansive, infinite and unconditional, totally unfettered? That perhaps a higher indicator of love than jealousy is the ability to fly free followed by the choice to keep coming back home?
Put this idea – that jealousy implies love – next to your highest definition of what love should be, and see if it holds up. If you have children, think about whether or not it would be loving to be jealous of any other adults they might develop a parental relationship with. If you have several close friends, as most of us do, would it be loving to demand that any one of them sacrifice all of their other friendships because they make you feel less important or less loved? Is it an indicator of love when you feel yourself getting jealous when a friend starts hanging out with someone new? Or are you more likely to see it as an indicator that you’re a little insecure in the friendship?
Now let’s look at the other side of this. Does it feel like love to be excited that your child has another adult in their life who cares for them and wants to help them grow? Does it feel like love to be happy for your friends when they develop new, supportive friendships with others?
What feels more like love to you? Being jealous when your friend or your child is happy – or being happy for them? And why should this not apply to our most intimate relationships as well?
Again, we are looking at all of this from an intellectual, rational perspective. It’s okay if your emotions or your gut are freaking out right now. Try to stay with your brain. Your ego is like a scared little kid or a wounded animal. It takes a lot of time and soothing to calm it down when deeply held beliefs are being challenged.
Am I Supposed to Fulfill My Partner’s Every Need?
Now, we move on to the assumption that we are supposed to somehow fulfill our partner’s every emotional and sexual need, or else we are “not enough for them,” and we have failed as a romantic partner. In no other kind of relationship do we put this much pressure on one person to fulfill our every want and need, or on ourselves to do that for them. This idea is so poisonous that it ruins beautiful relationships by convincing everyone that any unmet need is a signal that the relationship is fatally flawed.
Do you expect your partner to fulfill all of your needs? Or do you, like most people, have a network of support that includes friends, family, and coworkers, in order to fulfill all the many different sides of you? Does it seem reasonable or fair to you, on an intellectual level, to expect any one person to satisfy every part of you? Does it seem reasonable or fair to put that much pressure on yourself?
Perhaps it makes more sense to admit that no one can completely fulfill anyone else, that we all need a diverse network of relationships in order to feel fulfilled. Perhaps you can take the pressure off of yourself to be “everything” to your partner, and acknowledge that there are things they’re interested in that you’re not – and that it might be okay to allow them to explore those things with other people.
You can start small with this. Think about how your partner already has activities they love that you aren’t so into, and how it’s okay that they do those activities with other people who actually enjoy them. Maybe your partner really likes tennis, and you’re more of a yoga person. You probably don’t get really upset when they go play tennis with someone else. They probably don’t get upset when you do yoga with a class of other yogis.
It’s not a huge leap to apply this to romantic-sexual relationships. Your partner might really be into butt play, and your butt is solely an outbox, not an inbox. Why deny them the opportunity to play with someone else’s willing butt, if it makes them happy and take the pressure off of your cute little anus?
Or maybe you’ve been together for a long time, and your partner just wants to have sex with someone new, for the novelty of it. You can never be someone new, and that’s not a failing on your part. A new person can never have the deep intimacy of the relationship that you’ve built together, either. It’s okay to acknowledge that someone new is going to provide an experience that you cannot, and to realize that that doesn’t diminish you or your relationship. It’s just something new, not better. It’s novelty, not replacement.
I also like to put myself in my partner’s shoes, and look at things as objectively as possible. For example, no matter what I do, I can never give my partner the experience of being with a tall, leggy blonde. I’m an average height, muscular-curvy brunette. If my partner, like me, has a thing for tall, leggy blondes, there’s just no reality in which I can give him that experience. And that’s okay. It doesn’t make me any less sexy or appealing. It just means I’m not a tall, leggy blonde. It’s not a failing on my part. And if having glorious sex on occasion with a lithe blonde partner makes him happy, I can totally understand that. I like those ladies, too, after all – and my deliciously sexy male partner will never, ever be able to give me that experience. He’s still the one I want to share my life with. Just as he can never compete with a blonde woman in the realm of being a blonde woman, she can never compete with him in the realm of being my life partner.
Is It Impossible to Love More Than One Person At a Time?
Lastly, let’s look at the idea that it’s only possible to love one person at a time. Bizarrely, we believe that romantic love, unlike all other kinds of love, is finite and limited to one person at a time. We’re told that loving more than one person romantically is impossible, and if you love someone other than your partner, that means you no longer love your partner. We’re also taught that if you are sexually attracted to someone other than your partner, especially if you act on it, that too means you don’t really love your partner.
(Side note here: the impetus that helped me discover my own ability for loving more than one person simultaneously was leaving an intense love affair in another country, and then getting into a committed, monogamous relationship in my new home. After a year, I realized that, while I loved my current partner deeply, my feelings for the one I’d left behind were as strong as ever. Neither love affected the other; both existed concurrently and with equal intensity. The next mental leap I took was to realize that if I was capable of this, other people probably were, too. Therefore, I never need feel jealous when someone I love loves someone else. This wasn’t a fast process. It was slow, drawn out over years of introspection and experience. Don’t expect yourself to make rapid-fire progress. You can be gentle, loving, and patient with yourself while you try to implement these deep emotional changes.)
Do you agree that romantic love, unlike every other kind of love, is somehow subject to different rules? Do you believe that romantic love is finite, even though we all agree that all other kinds of love are infinite and expansive? Is it perhaps possible that this cultural belief – that romantic love alone is finite and limited – is part of why our romantic relationships are often so terribly hurtful and disappointing?
Come To Your Own Conclusions – Then Reinforce Them In Thought & Action
Once you’ve gone through the flawed, toxic ideas our culture claims are true about all romantic relationships, and decided which parts you agree with and which parts you don’t, you can start rewiring your brain to reject those ideas you’ve found to be logically unsound, and replace them with the ones you actually do value. If you, like me, agree that all love is infinite and best when it’s unconditional, then you can start reminding yourself of that whenever jealousy rears its head. You can look at the jealousy, thank it for trying to keep you safe, and then tell it you’d rather be happy for your loved ones when they experience pleasure, no matter who or what the source.
Now, none of this will be worth a damn if you’re not actively applying it to real-life situations, as I imagine you already are, or are at least considering, if you’re reading this piece. It’s one thing to do the intellectual work outlined above, but another thing entirely to start putting yourself in the uncomfortable situations that can help this work sink into your soul.
As you explore with your partner, never be afraid to be honest about how you feel, but always try to be kind in the way you communicate. If your partner loves you and is worth your time and investment, they will give you patience and reassurance when you ask for it. They will move as slowly as you need them to. If your partner is trying to rush you along, disregarding or invalidating your extremely justifiable feelings of anxiety and fear, know that this is a form of emotional abuse, and consider whether this partnership is right for you in the long run. You should always feel safe when communicating your most vulnerable emotions with your partner, and you should have the freedom to move as slowly as you need to when exploring uncomfortable new situations.
Through this constant choice to redirect your thoughts away from fear and towards unconditional love, paired with the gentle form of nonmonogamy exposure described above, you will slowly start to let the ideas that resonate with you intellectually dig roots into your heart. Eventually, you’ll have visceral revelations that correspond with what your rational mind has been saying since you started this journey. At that point, compersion becomes natural and effortless, because you’ve let your ego fall away and chosen to love your partner without conditions or requirements, without fear, without limits or restrictions.
The last thing I’d like to leave you with is another reminder to be loving with yourself through all this. It’s okay for your progress to be slow, and it’s okay to ask your partner for reassurance and patience as you work through the ways that you can expand your capacity for love beyond fear. This is difficult work, after all. Most people never even try, because the task is so daunting. The fact that you’ve read this article to the end means you are already eons ahead of the average human when it comes to your willingness to challenge toxic cultural ideas and move toward a life where your love – both for yourself and your partner – outweighs your fear.
As always, I’m happy to answer situation-specific questions and share my insights in a more personal way. Email me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recommended reading for fostering a strong sense of self-worth and self-love:
If you wanna laugh and feel sparkly, check out…
You Are A Badass by Jen Sincero
If you have zero time and need something concise…
Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends On It by Kamal Ravikant
If you want to expand spiritually while learning to love yourself in the process…
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
Conversations With God, Book 1 by Neile Donald Walsch
If you’re a journal-er or otherwise gain insights primarily through writing…
The Self-Love Workbook by Shaina Ali
Recommended resource for all singles and couples in the open lifestyle: The WORLD SUMMIT