Exploring Compersion: The Opposite of Jealousy
I first heard the term compersion—as in the opposite of jealousy—after receiving flattering messages from someone other than my partner. When my lover didn't get jealous and instead encouraged the exchange—he was interested in exploring ethical nonmonogamy—we found ourselves in a "monogamish" long-distance relationship. In short, we were romantically monogamous but allowed for agreed-upon sex outside the relationship. As I found myself navigating these strange new waters, I came across the term that best described what my partner was feeling—fast becoming an emerging term within polyamorous communities—"compersion."
Most people already feel compersion.
Compersion is a relatively new term, so much so, it isn't found in the dictionary. However, it basically defines feeling the happiness or joy someone else is experiencing.
Think of a time when you felt happy for someone else. This occurs naturally within many humans; an empathetic response to another person's joy. If we applied this feeling to a romantic relationship, it would suggest there could be another option to jealousy available to us within love, sex and relationships.
The term compersion was first coined by the Kerista Commune, which explored polyamorous relationships in the 1970s in San Francisco. Kerista used a sleeping schedule that rotated nightly and members slept only with the other people in their "clusters." The group defined compersion as "the opposite of jealousy, positive feelings about your partner's other intimacies."
But it's a universal feeling. In Sanskrit, it's called "Mudita," meaning "sympathetic joy." In Norway and Iceland, people use the term "Unna," meaning "to be happy for someone." It seems to be a natural feeling to want to share in another's joy.
For some people, the notion of sharing sexual joy might seem impossible, because of the jealousy that could ensue if a partner were to experience sexual fulfillment with someone else.
Interestingly, in the French language, compersion could have been born from combining "compere" (partner) and "-sion" (which means share). Many in the poly community argue that polyamory (a hybrid of the Greek word for "many" and the Latin word for "loves") is a natural state of how humans interact romantically and monogamy is outdated.
Whatever your preference, it's clear love, sex and intimacy are not a one-size-fits-all situation, and with polyamorous people even reportedly swinging back toward monogamy, sexuality seemingly cannot be defined as one "natural" state of being.
Feeling jealous is normal
"Comparison is the enemy of compersion," said Liesl Gini, Ph.D., a South African transpersonal counselor. "If you are comparing yourself to someone, you cannot experience their joy, their happiness at all, because you are coming from a state of lack."
When we have a hole in our life, we often place the responsibility of filling this hole on our partner, when it is our responsibility to meet our needs first. The idea that we all have one perfect person meant to be everything for us can leave an exhausting to-do list for our partner, causing resentment when your personal needs go unmet. Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel calls this "an endless list of needs." Ethical nonmonogamy can allow an individual to delegate some of those needs to other people, leading to positive outcomes for all.
Studies show jealousy, as with all emotions, is wired into our nervous system for a reason: survival.
'If you are comparing yourself to someone, you cannot experience their joy, their happiness at all, because you are coming from a state of lack.'
"From an evolutionary perspective, jealousy is seen as a complex psychological mechanism that evolved because it increases individual reproductive success by reducing infidelity in reproductive relationships," according to a 2013 study published by Cambridge University Press.
Therefore, jealousy was a way to keep our partners from straying, which kept us safer in monogamous relationships. But with today's society becoming more accepting than ever of differing relationship styles, do we still need jealousy today?
"As humans, we also excel at overriding our instinctual drives," she said in her TED Talk.
Can we learn compersion?
Compersion can be a learned behavior in a similar way an angry person can use anger management techniques to be more mindful. The question is whether a person should learn compersion. The assumption that jealousy needs to be overcome at all, and that it is a lower state of being, is denying a survival response, which is like sticking a bandage over a deep cut; it may not do any good.
"Placing yourself in extreme pain for someone else is the opposite of compersion," Gini said. "In a situation where you are the partner who is potentially 'trying' compersion, your body is naturally accessing old content stored in the amygdala" and activating a trauma response from a past relationship or situation.
"Here, the nervous system is not naturally feeling compersion, and to try to train yourself into it would be to force it and, therefore, to deny natural responses in the body," Gini continued. "It is better to meet those emotions and explore them than to ignore or deny them."
Some people may naturally feel compersion for a romantic partner and truly feel "the opposite of jealousy." In this case, Gini explained, these partners may have a tendency or affinity for compersion if they do not have a trauma response toward jealousy connected to their past.
Compersion could be thought of as a result and not as a feeling that can be developed overnight.
Hamilton suggested polyamory merely handles jealousy differently, and poly individuals "invite jealousy in through the front door."
"Compersion is a feeling to move toward when jealousy takes over," she stated.
In this way, compersion could be thought of as a result and not as a feeling that can be developed overnight.
Hamilton added that jealousy turns into an opportunity for deeper intimacy. Good communication seems to be one way to deepen intimacy. But this communication is not only to be used with partners. It is a way to explore ourselves and what we define as our personal boundaries.
The tools learned in managing jealousy could be used to become more communicative, more aware of our boundaries with others and more aware of our wants, needs and desires. This approach is not just for romantic relationships but could be used with siblings, friends and, most importantly, ourselves. Focusing on accessing and finding more joy in our lives can only be a positive.
If compersion is a new term, then there is no rush to try it, be good at it or even understand it; you still have time to explore it healthily, if and when it is right for you.