“When I dip, you dip, we dip!” – What is Compersion?

“I don’t mind, you don’t mind

‘Cause I don’t shine if you don’t shine

Before you jump

Tell me what you find

Can you read my mind?”

–The Killers, “Read My Mind”

Hey, my kinky, polyam peeps! Spring is in the air, and so is the pollen. If you’ve got allergies, my sympathies. Mother Nature has blessed me with a relative immunity to all her natural toxins, which isn’t as great as it sounds because the only excuse I have for not going outside on a sunny day is “I’m lazy”. Allergies is a Get out of Jail Free Card for introverts that you’ll never truly appreciate.

Today we’re gonna talk about something “controversial”. I put those words in quotation marks because, at least to me, it shouldn’t really be that controversial, but common sense. It’s like pineapple on pizza: You’re allowed to hate it, and I’m allowed to have no fucking clue why you would ever feel that way. It’s a hot button topic that we as the polyam community can never seem to come to a consensus on: Compersion.

I will not rest until I have been able to incorporate cats into EVERY aspect of my life.

Before we start the discussion, it’s important to define the word, because I’ve found that most of the debate around compersion comes from what it means to us. Let me pause here for a moment to give a shoutout to both Penguin and Poly Mom for their feedback on this article. After speaking to members of the community, as well as doing my own research, I’ve found that “Compersion” can be defined as one of three terms:

  • Deriving pleasure from your partner’s sexual relationships with another individual
  • Deriving pleasure from your partner’s romantic relationships with another individual
  • Deriving pleasure from your partner’s enjoyment in things that do not affect you directly

When you ask the average polyam person to define “compersion”, they’re probably going to give you one of the first two responses. For the purposes of this post (also, because, you know, it’s MY blog), I want to discuss compersion in the context of the third defiintion: “Deriving pleasure from your partner’s enjoyment in things that do not affect you directly”.

Discussing compersion in this light allows us to look at it simply and holistically. We can understand what it is, why some people have it, why some people don’t, and (here comes the controversial part) why I personally believe everyone should.

Compersion is sometimes loosely defined as “The opposite of jealousy”. What does that mean exactly? Well, fortunately Google lays it out way better than I could.

I spend way too much time on Schadenfreuede than I should…

I really like this chart because it puts into words how your feelings relate to your partner’s feelings. Now, before I go any further, let me say as always, all feelings are valid. The purpose of this post is not to shame anyone, but rather educate and help you become a better partner. When I say everyone SHOULD feel compersion, I recognize that not everyone currently can. That’s perfectly okay. What I mean is that if you don’t feel compersion, it’s something that you should think about actively working towards, because to be honest, it’s just gonna make you a better human being.

We all know what jealousy is: Unhappiness (typically expressed as fear) when your partner is experiencing happiness. To say that compersion is the opposite of jealousy, I mean exactly that: Happiness when your partner is experiencing happiness. To put this in perspective, let me give you an example.

Typically, about once per year, when Panda and I will go to NYC for a long weekend, we’ll go see a Broadway play. In fact, it’s not uncommon for us to see a play or musical at our local community theatre a couple of times per year. Anyone who understands me knows that this is my nightmare scenario. I hate sitting still for extended periods of time and I can’t just sit there and absorb information. I have to be multitasking at all times. That’s why you’ll usually find me at home, working on my laptop while watching TV and fiddling with my phone. I absolutely have to be doing multiple things at once. Yet somehow, I LOVE going to the theatre with Panda. Is it because we usually get a hot dog on the way to the show? Partially, but mostly it’s because SHE loves going to the theatre. Seeing a play is something I would never do by myself, and honestly, if my parents wanted to go, I’d probably tell them I’m not interested. It’s the look on Panda’s face when the lights go down and the curtain comes up that makes the whole experience worth it for me.

I love using this example because, if you’ll notice, I made no mention of polyamory. It can be copy and pasted to any type of relationship: romantic partners, platonic friends, parent and child, anyone. To me, compersion is not just the highest, but the purest and simplest way to show love: To say “Your joy brings me joy”. And honestly, if you are not invested in your partner’s happiness, why are you even with them?

You may be wondering why I am even bothering discussing something so fundamental. It’s because, believe it or not, I’ve met people who claim to be unable to feel this basic level of, what I like to refer to as, “positive empathy”. Even using the example about the theatre I presented, these individuals still claim their heart lies still when something good happens to someone they care about, which I find nothing short of troubling. To compound matters, when we as a community say “Compersion isn’t mandatory”, I worry we are sending the wrong message that it’s okay not to be emotionally invested in your partner. Granted, you get to decide what that level of emotional investment is, and to say “your feelings mean nothing to me” can be cold and toxic.

For that reason, I want to spend the rest of this post breaking down barriers to compersion (namely, jealousy) and what you can do to enhance and increase your levels of compersion should you so choose to. Again, I want to reiterate that I see compersion as a goal, not a mandate. Not everyone is able to feel compersion. However, I believe everyone should always be doing the work to try, even if they never get there.

So why don’t people feel compersion? I’ve asked that question and never really gotten a satisfactory answer. Usually the response I get is “I just don’t” or “Why do I have to?”, which brings an air of defensiveness when the question is asked. I can’t help but feel I get these types of responses because many in the polyam community feel pressured into feeling compersion, and therefore see themselves as some sort of failure if they do not.

Based on these responses, I’ve had to make some assumptions on what is truly causing this “blockage” when it comes positive empathy. I’ve found the biggest obstacle tends to be that “green-eyed monster” we refer to as jealousy. Now, I’ve spoken about jealousy numerous times before both on this blog as well as through my Facebook page. Jealousy is a normal human feeling, just like joy, anger, sadness, and fear, and to ignore or suppress jealousy is to deny that which makes us human. The key to coping with jealousy first comes from normalizing it, and then unpacking the drivers of that emotion inside of you.

So, what makes us feel jealous? Well, there’s no single answer, but according to one of my favorite resources, Psychology Today, there are four key drivers:

  • Low self-esteem
  • High Neuroticism
  • Feeling Possessive of Others
  • Fear of Abandonment

When we say, “High Neuroticism”, what we’re discussing is a wide range of psychological behaviors including anxiety, depression, self-doubt, and negative self-talk. I will say that neuroticism, if strong enough, as well as low-self esteem and fears of abandonment, can best be treated with the help of a licensed therapist (which, as a quick reminder, I am not). It’s important to remember that therapy doesn’t need to be long-term. The role of a therapist is not to “fix” your problems, but rather, give you the tools so that you can fix your problems on your own. As someone who just “graduated” from therapy last week, I can confirm that my life is not all sunshine and lollipops. However, my therapist and I both agreed that I now have everything in my toolbox to start enacting the changes that are necessary to make my life what I want it to be.

Feeling possessive of others, I think, is the one item on that list that most people can effectively tackle on their own, although not to say a therapist can’t also aid in this. It’s easy to blame toxic monogamy culture for why people feel jealous. It romanticizes the idea of “The One” and fosters the expectation that jealousy is actually a good thing, because it shows how much you care. The truth is, I believe, that toxic monogamy didn’t create jealousy, only glamorized it. The desire to protect what we believe is rightfully ours goes all the way back to our “lizard brain”. It’s an extension of the fight or flight response. When we feel threatened, it’s not uncommon to attack to protect ourselves, and by extension, our… property, if we want to use those words.

While processing jealousy and feelings of possession is different for everyone, I can share what works for me. Keep in mind that you may very well find something unique that works for you. If so, run with it. As Elton John would say, “Whatever gets you through the night”.

First, ask yourself why you’re jealous. It’s been my experience that jealousy is usually driven by fear, specifically the fear that you will lose something you care about. If that’s the case, dig deeper into that emotion. Why do you feel like your partner will leave you? If it’s because this other partner can offer something you can’t, well that’s probably true. That’s part of the joy of being polyam. We embrace the concept that no one person can be everything to someone else. Yeah, your partner is going to get some satisfaction from this other person that you can’t give them. The silver lining to this “problem” is that YOU offer your partner something they can’t get anywhere else. You and this other person aren’t competitors, you’re teammates, and you “win the game” by meeting your mutual partner’s needs.

Second, we need to remember that polyamory is built upon the principles of autonomy and freedom. No one can “steal” your partner away from you. If they leave, it’s because it’s a choice THEY made. Along that vein, when you are with someone, it’s because they have CHOSEN you. When we become accustomed to something, we often take it for granted, but that’s what a relationship is: It’s waking up every single day and actively choosing to be with someone. Another person showing up on the scene isn’t going to change what your partner sees in you, and it isn’t going to affect the circumstances on why they keep choosing you.

To sum it up, “Is compersion a good thing?”: Yes. “Should we all be striving for it?”: Yes. “Are you a bad person if you can’t feel it?”: Absolutely not. Compersion is aspirational, and one thing polyam has taught me is that there is so much growth and personal work that’s involved. It’s okay to be jealous. It’s okay if you don’t feel compersion. What’s not okay is accepting that this is how it’s always going to be. If you put in the work, you’re gonna get results. You just gotta believe.


Until next time, stay kinky, my friends…

–The Bratty Cat

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