The Compersion Conundrum

Compersion: Describing an empathetic state of happiness and joy brought about by knowing or witnessing the happiness and joy of another individual. Often used to describe the positive feelings an individual can experience when a lover is enjoying another relationship. Considered to be the opposite of jealousy.

Polyamory: The practice, state or ability of having more than one intimate, physical, loving relationship at the same time, with the full knowledge and consent of all partners involved. 

How, and when, do you let your other partners know you are interested in someone else? When do you tell them when you are now seeing someone new?

I find I am fairly laisez-faire when it comes to this. I don’t expect anyone to be beholden to me in relationships, just as I wouldn’t expect to be beholden to them. Still, though, I like good healthy communication, and I am always curious to know about my lovers’ other lovers. I have friends who have joked that I seem to be immune to jealousy. I wouldn’t say that I am totally immune. Just that my capacity for compersion in most cases out weighs the jealous part of my brain.

I’m uber compersive. I can feel compersion at the drop of a hat- at the sight of strangers walking arm in arm down the street; as my friend tells me about his first romantic getaway with his girlfriend; when I am having dinner with a new crush and his wife and see them get snuggly together; even reading gooey Facebook statuses will have me in compersion. I will admit, there are times I even feel compersion and jealousy simultaneously- like they are battling in my head for supremacy. There’s a rationale process that usually wins over and compersion triumphs. See, Jealousy just wouldn’t be logical.

And even so, I cannot feel compersion if I do not know something is happening.

The network of cross-connections amongst my sweeties and metamours is complex- and with so many interwoven relationships, it is healthy to remember to treat every person as an individual, and to honor each relationship as the unique and dynamic phenomena it is. I’ve struggled with this a lot in the past. I think I am getting through that finally.

Well, almost. I found myself tested on that this week.

For a while now I’ve happily watched a flirtatious relationship develop between Orion and one of my best friends, Miranda. The friendship Miranda and I share is one of the closest platonic friendships in my life, and I really value that. I’ve rejoiced at her explorations into polyamory, celebrated her NRE, cried with her heartbreaks. We are bonded by many commonalities in our backgrounds and lifestyles. A few months ago we talked about the possibility of someone wanting to date both of us, and decided it would be weird, tricky, messy. We are in each other’s lives on a daily basis. We share a lot of things; sharing lovers seemed like taking things too far. But I started to see the chemistry between Orion and Miranda, and knew that something was likely to happen.

Orion talked to me about his crush on Miranda a couple of months ago, and I said that he should just go for it. I knew she was attracted to him. I love him, and I love Miranda, and I want them to explore and enjoy. I feel totally confident in the uniqueness of what I share with Orion, and I know how much he has taught me through being my lover- there’s no feeling of ‘I might be replaced’, which could come up in a newer relationship. Orion and Miranda? I instantly knew, right in my gut, that this was a good thing, and something that needed to happen.

I was therefore totally unprepared for the fit of anxiety and jealousy that came upon me when I found out, after the fact, that Miranda had spent the night at Orion’s.

Perhaps the weirdest part was that I had dreamt about it… in those sleepy moments of almost-wakefullness, I dreamt I heard Orion’s and Miranda’s voices talking. When I woke up, it hit me right then- she must have been at his place. But why wouldn’t I know? Shouldn’t I have known?

A little gentle prodding, and Miranda let on that this was, indeed, what had happened. I spent the day questioning myself. Should anyone have told me? Was this something I had some god-given right to know? Not really. Miranda’s always been good at keeping me up to date on her latest goings on. Orion has always told me when he’s got a new crush that might develop into more. And with Orion, I have never felt anything but happiness about him developing his other relationships. I have never wanted anyone to be beholden to me about anything in relationships. All I ever ask of my partners is ‘please be present with me, please communicate with me, please honor our connection whatever it may be’.

So why was I so upset?

I played through alternative scenarios in my head- what if I had known? What if, when Miranda had texted me that she wasn’t free that evening, she had mentioned ‘I’m at Orion’s’? How would I have reacted? I think I’d have sent her a thumbs up and a ‘Yay! Have fun!’ I feel like I was kinda denied that instant compersion because, well, I didn’t know it was happening, and you cannot feel compersion for something you don’t know is happening. The Big Sister in me feels sad that I was left out of knowing about something that I was really excited about, even though it had nothing to do with me. It’s not that I feel there’s an obligation to let me know every little detail. I just feel that in a spirit of perpetual openness, why hide something that might be relevant for someone to know? It’s not like I need a play by play detailed account. And going forward, it isn’t something I need to get too involved in. I just wish I’d had that opportunity to feel the compersion first, before the jealousy. I’m still uncertain how I should have found out though.

I’ve talked about this with both of them now. I think things are all good. We’ve all learned something out of this.

pompomThis experience has taught me something very important about myself and how I process things. I like to know what’s happening! Once I have shared my love with someone, that is not something I can take back, and even if I am no longer involved, I love to know that they are experiencing beautiful, happy things in their life. I had a huge grin on my face last night as ElkFeather told me about a girl he has a crush on. She’s someone I know peripherally, and I feel like they would be a really lovely pair. I’m rooting for them. This discovery of my desire for compersion brings me as well to understand the frustration I have felt with some other situations in my life: I think two exes of mine are now seeing each other. But I really have no idea. I just pick up on things, and it is sometimes enfuriating to be in the void of ‘not-knowing’. I get a little resentful of it. I’m not sure that there’s any obligation to tell me, of course. But again, they are two people whom I can see being incredibly compatible together  and I just wish I knew for sure if that was actually the case, so I can cheer them on!

I acknowledge this might make me one of the strangest people on the planet. I’ve just never found the head-in-the-sand approach worked very well for me. Whilst looking up definitions of compersion for this article I came across a book, “Compersion: Using Jealousy As A Path To Unconditional Love“, and I think that this concept- that you can transmute jealousy into a positive experience that brings about a feeling of emotional expansiveness- accurately summarizes one of the things I absolutely adore about polyamory: it challenges me on every ounce of selfishness and past-attachment, and the only way through all of that is by continually working on myself to find that place of natural (not forced) unconditional loving. When jealousy turns into compersion, it is a beautiful thing indeed. And I don’t like the feeling of being denied that opportunity to experience compersion with any loves, whether they are still a central feature of my life, or not.

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12 thoughts on “The Compersion Conundrum

  1. Compersion is indeed a profound state I have experienced and I also appreciate the expansion and ways that it forces one to look at selfish behaviour. When I think of your paradox of not knowing and thus not being able to illicit compersion I think it’s a basic issue of trust being eroded. I think for me it’s a fact that trust is measurable and that it does facilitate compersion much more readily than a diminished trust that comes when you KNOW someone is hiding something. Having also been in the situation where it’s a question of what to reveal and not to reveal I know it takes effort to communicate, to check in, especially when you know something will inevitably impact someone. I think it shows the level of trust that exists when that communication can occur pre-emptive fashion. It’s good that it was taken seemingly lightly and as a learning lesson for you. My thought is that it would be good to include cultivating and maintaining trust as a common denominator.

    • Good points there Sobey.
      I was chatting with some friends tonight about this issue of disclosure- how much do you share, and when, and why.
      I think that there’s always three options:
      1) Assertively communicate, even if it is difficult;
      2) Deliberately/consciously conceal;
      3) Say Nothing, Hide Nothing (this is the easiest route to take).

      The problem with the later there is that in saying nothing it is easy to misinterpret as a deliberate concealment. Therefore, in my opinion, assertive communication- and working to anticipate future needs and communicating those- becomes the key. But, that might just be me. I know that steps outside the comfort zones of many people. I just feel like when things aren’t talked about (whether consciously hidden or not) it is inevitable that ‘drama’ or emotional hurt of some kind will arise- and I don’t just mean in poly situations, though it is particularly pertinent to those.
      One of my earliest poly experiences was with someone who didn’t want me telling anyone about us, and wouldn’t tell me about his other partners. A very difficult way to learn about the side effects of keeping things in the dark. Perhaps this is why I am now such a fan of wearing my heart on my sleeve!

  2. A very well-written piece with lots of good questions. Compersion is such a wonderful feeling… but do we ever really purge jealousy from our systems? I don’t think so and it’s not that one might get hit with a twang of it – it’s how they react to the emotion. Still, if you pretty much have this poly thing figured out in your head (if not on paper) then you understand that an event like the one you’ve written about is bound to happen; it’s a situation that, in a monogamous relationship, would let loose the hounds of hell… but, being poly and all that, it can’t be allowed to break any connections because no one individual in your poly group is exclusively yours – so sharing and admitting new people into the web should bring even more joy even when a new connection hits close to home in that sense.

    When do you tell? As soon as it is convenient to do so and, yeah, you should tell because communication is never more important than when you’re a part of a huge poly relationship (or even a small one) and, really, if your poly web is nicely entangled, um, they’re gonna find out eventually and I think it’s better they find out from you than it would be to find out by other means.

    And, finally, it makes sense to be happy about things and to be even happier when new bonds and connections are formed because the alternative is rarely attractive and serves no purpose. You’re human just like everyone else so you’re gonna feel whatever way your gonna feel about something but do you let it mess with your head and perhaps initiate some unnecessary drama – or do you see that in the grand scheme, it’s all good and thus a source of great joy?

    I know which one I would embrace…

    • “As soon as it is convenient to do so and, yeah, you should tell because communication is never more important than when you’re a part of a huge poly relationship (or even a small one) and, really, if your poly web is nicely entangled, um, they’re gonna find out eventually and I think it’s better they find out from you than it would be to find out by other means.” Well put kdaddy. I think you hit the proverbial nail on the head there. Thank you!

  3. Excellent blog on compersion! I love compersion. It makes me feel warm and happy and good and it’s so affirming and helpful and sooooo much better than jealousy. I am right there with you on the informing. I don’t like sucker punch surprises. I don’t owe the people in my polycule anything and they don’t owe me anything either, beyond what we have negotiated as “must informs” (which are primarily about sexual safety and basic communication).
    Having said that, I do wayyyy better with information presented as it comes. I feel included and cared for and I can ease into things. It helps me to feel joy when joy is shared and it’s less shocking to my system when it is consistently shared. Great Date and I had a series of conversations on this and are getting better and better at sharing info and being open and transparent and I have to say.. it’s really helping me. It is awkward at times and it’s scary for both of us to put things out there, but it’s building trust. And building that trust is making me feel safer and that gives me more compersion. I find myself rooting for him and encouraging him. I find that this good communication makes me feel safe and that makes me freer. It also nice to be able to communicate more and more with him, to feel like he is supportive of me and my endevors. It makes me feel loved and makes our relationship more fulfilling. Great post!

  4. Thanks for this fine blog post on a very interesting subject for yours truly. I’m completely determined to learn, practice and authentically celebrate compersion. Am making good progress – you should have seen me last year and previous 😦 …But still a ways to go it seems.

    As hard as it feels when I know my partner is with another man, I actually welcome the experience now. Because it’s then prime-time to really look inside and see what’s going on, and to practice just feeling whatever is there, fully and without trying to change it. I’m convinced that this strategy is the best way forward through the pain that I often feel.

    When I can just sit with the pain, let it fill me and open to it ever more fully, it seems to move through me much faster, and leaves me with greater love and self-respect, which then opens up into actual compersion! Yay! All good stuff.

    Am reading The Ethical Slut for the first time, which is helpful, and also found this a while ago using google:
    http://www.planetwaves.net/compersion.html
    Also helpful.

  5. When I feel jealousy, it’s usually there to point out to me how important my lover is to me. It’s like the thought of losing hir makes me realize how big a role they play in my life. Sometimes jealousy does make you aware of things that are potentially problematic in a relationship. I remember feeling jealousy recently of my two partner’s primary girlfriends, because I feared that since they came first in my partners’ life, that means I’m second best. Well, both of them recently broke up with me…to be monogamous with their girlfriends. Bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy maybe?

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