What Is Compersion? The Polyamory Practice For Rethinking Jealousy
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
A few years ago, my partner at the time and I decided to see other people. It started as a breakup but eventually it turned into something else—an open relationship filled with a lot of love and ongoing commitment to each other as we began exploring dating and sleeping with other people. It was a very new experience for both of us, but it also just made sense for us with where we both were in our lives and in our relationship.
Today I'm in a monogamous relationship with a different person, and we're not too interested in introducing non-monogamy into our relationship. That said, there's one tool I learned from my polyamorous days that I've brought with me into every subsequent relationship, even and perhaps especially the monogamous ones.
It's about how people in these types of open relationships deal with jealousy.
The concept is called compersion.
What is compersion?
The word compersion is loosely defined as the opposite of jealousy. Instead of feeling upset or threatened when your partner romantically or sexually interacts with another person, you feel a sense of happiness for them.
Consider how you usually feel when your partner gets a big promotion at work or accomplishes a new fitness goal, or how you feel when your best friend tells you about a new guy they've been dating that they're really clicking with: You're genuinely, totally stoked for them, right? This is an instinctual feeling for most of us. Now apply that to when your partner is having fun flirting with (or sleeping with) a new flame that's not you. Instead of sparking jealousy, it sparks earnest empathetic joy. That's compersion.
"It's joy that has nothing to do with your joy," Effy Blue, a relationship coach specializing in consensual non-monogamy, tells mindbodygreen. "It's sympathetic joy or unselfish joy, where you are joyful for the other person for things that have nothing to do with you. You're just happy for them because they're in a good place, because they are experiencing joy, and you can sort of look at it from the outside and feel the same experience."
According to reporting from GO Magazine, the term itself emerged in the late 1980s within a San Francisco poly commune called Kerista. But Blue says the concept itself has a much older, deeper history: The Sanskrit word for it is mudita, which translates to "sympathetic joy," and it's actually part of one of the four core pillars of Buddhism.
"If you sort of dive into the Buddhist teachings and down the mudita path, they will actually tell you it's the hardest virtue to master," she says. "There are a ton of mudita meditations, which is something else I recommend to people."
That's an important part of this actually: Compersion doesn't often come naturally to people, in large part because of the way we've been evolutionarily trained to protect our mating relationships and how today we've now organized our entire society around monogamy. That means that for many, compersion is a feeling or skill set that takes conscious practice.
Why people experience jealousy.
The evolutionary purpose of jealousy isn't relevant anymore, but the emotion does still play a role in our lives. Blue compares feeling jealous to having an alarm bell going off in your head.
"It's very similar to a fire alarm in your house, right? It goes off, it's loud, it's obnoxious, it's alerting to something, it has a function. And you know in a similar way, it's very disorienting," she explains. "In the same way, when you're triggered into feeling jealousy, it's very disorienting, and it can be very overwhelming. But ultimately, it's alerting you to something. Once you quiet the alarm, once you turn off the fire alarm, what you would normally do is sort of go around your house and figure out what's going on. … Is something actually on fire, or is it a false alarm? Same with jealousy—it's alerting you to some sort of discomfort."
Sometimes the emotional alarm is going off because something's actually wrong—your partner isn't giving you the attention or affection you need, for example, or perhaps they're betraying a promise or agreement you have about your relationship, which of course makes you feel unstable or upset. Other times the alarm goes off over misperceptions or just our own insecurities. We're worried a lively conversation between our partner and an attractive stranger means that they're no longer as interested in us, that there's a chance they might be more interested in someone else, that there's a threat to the relationship. Even if none of that is true, our anxieties can get the best of us, and so jealousy is how it manifests as an emotion.
"Some people have more of a disposition for jealousy," Blue adds. "It's a character trait. Just like some people are happy people, some people are more solemn people, you get people who are more jealous."
Do polyamorous people experience jealousy?
Yes, absolutely! Research shows people in consensually non-monogamous relationships do experience jealousy; they just experience less distress when it happens.
"Ultimately there is no such thing as not experiencing jealousy," Blue says. "Jealousy is part of the human emotional spectrum. It's like saying 'I never feel sad,' 'I never feel angry,' 'I never feel happy.' To say 'I never feel jealous'—I don't think it's realistic. I haven't ever really truly met anyone who's said they haven't felt jealousy. I think some people say they don't feel jealousy because they're in a specific relationship that doesn't hold grounds for it. It doesn't trigger them into jealousy."
The main difference between poly and monogamous folks deal with jealousy. Mainstream, monogamous society tends to treat jealousy as a sort of disease, something to be deeply feared and that might signal something irreparably wrong with a relationship. Jealousy is treated as a powerful, ugly emotion that we believe can consume and crush us.
That's not how it is among polys: "We recognize jealousy as just another emotion," she explains. "It's just part of life and part of processing and part of the emotional section of the human experience."
A lot of it just comes down to practice, she says. Non-monogamous people just spend more time processing their feelings of jealousy and have more practice with dealing with it. With enough practice, it stops being so big and overwhelming. And, perhaps in time, compersion can appear in its place instead.
How to practice compersion.
Learning to be compersive will probably take some practice, and that's especially true if you're someone who tends to be more jealous in general.
"The baseline for everybody is different, but we know that we also have neuroplasticity. We know that humans can learn and grow and expand and evolve, and we have done so for millennia. So just like empathy, compersion, or mudita, is something that you can cultivate and practice and grow," Blue says. "For some people it will come easily. For other people, it might be more of a process, and you have to sort of really dig deep to try to find it if it's not something that comes up naturally for you."
Here are a few ways to embark on that process:
1. Start with empathy.
Some people are born with a ton of empathy; some aren't. If you're not great at intuiting and resonating with other people's emotions, Blue says that's the skill to work on first.
2. Intellectually reason through it together.
My partner and I made compersion an active practice, a skill that we both worked on together. It didn't really come naturally to either of us, but we supported each other as we tried to do it. Initially, it was basically a lot of mental gymnastics trying to reason out why we should be happy when the other person scored a hot date. Once you fully get why it doesn't make sense to feel jealous—i.e., your relationship is totally secure, and the presence of another person in your partner's life is not a threat to your relationship whatsoever—then you can start to disarm that alarm more easily whenever it goes off in your head.
"For some people, it works that you kind of go through the intellectual mind," Blue says. "You try to understand what it could be and then sort of move into that space."
We found a lot of ways to support our intellectual belief in compersion with actual psychological rewards. For example, I'd help my partner get matches on Tinder and give him tips on cute bars to take them, and after the dates, he'd tell me how they went and give me a ton of love and affirmation whenever I pouted over him having a good time. Meanwhile, he played wingman with me when I wanted to meet up with a potential flame at a party or concert, and I always made sure to come home to him and share the sexy things I'd done with the new guy and what things I wanted to migrate into our own sex life. In this way, we began to be able to associate positive experiences together (showering each other with affection and affirming the strength of our relationship) with the aftermath of one of us having fun with someone else. When it became clear that these extradyadic encounters only brought us closer, it became easier and easier for us to feel earnest joy for the other person's romantic successes.
3. Support each other through jealous moments.
For a person to feel compersive, they usually need to feel safe and secure in their relationship. (Not a blanket rule, but for the uninitiated, it's usually a good prerequisite!)
If you're working on practicing compersion as a couple, make sure you're addressing any feelings of jealousy that bubble up in either of you with a lot of love and gentleness. Blue says it's good to encourage the jealous party to talk through their feelings and dig at what underlying fears are actually driving the jealousy.
"Listening I think is really important, listening without judgment and without being defensive," Blue says. "Separate your stuff from your partner's theories. Your partner's feeling jealous, and they've done some work, and they're sorting of saying 'I feel jealousy because I worry that you're gonna leave me.' … When you hear that, some of us feel accused as if we are doing something wrong. We're not somehow enough, and we've made some sort of a mistake, and immediately we become defensive. I think if we can get into that sort of separate state and realize our partner, when they're working through something like jealousy, is battling with their own stuff, battling with their own insecurities, or own unmet needs, [then we can be more able to] lend an ear to that to really understand what's going on with them."
Encourage each other to make requests, she adds. If your partner's jealous, ask them: What do they need from you? What does it look like? What requests can they make that you can accommodate so they feel safe and secure again?
Compersion in monogamous relationships.
Compersion is life-changing even for people who want to stick to monogamy.
With a fundamental understanding of compersion, I'm able to look at moments where I could be jealous in my current monogamous relationship and instead respond in a more levelheaded or even joyful way. It doesn't bother me if my partner tells me he finds another person attractive, nor am I freaked out if I find myself flirting with a charming stranger on the subway. We might not be entertaining other relationships at the moment, but my partner and I can at best find it cute and at worst feel totally neutral about it when these brief interactions with other parties occur.
We, of course, still feel jealous from time to time, but that emotion isn't scary or damning to us. It doesn't really hold any power at all over us.
"Whether you're in a monogamous relationship or a non-monogamous relationship, practicing processing jealousy and cultivating mudita, or compersion, is just going to serve you. It's going to make your life easier. It's going to bring you closer to joy and lightness," Blue says. "Wherever you are, it's a practice. It's a worthwhile practice."
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