As a polyamorous person who talks a lot about non-monogamy, one of the most common questions I get is about jealousy. For most people coming from the monogamy world, one thing that makes my multiple-loving lifestyle seem impossible is the threat of jealousy. “I could never let my partner have sex with someone else!” “But what if they’re prettier than me?” “What if she likes sex with her more than with me?”
These, and other fears, seem to plague the minds of my curious but skeptical monogamous friends. What these questions show me, though, is how scarce we all seem to think happiness and love are. Our dominant cultural narrative tells us that we each only get ONE true love. The dominant culture is also full of stories about how other people will try to steal our one love from us. I mean, just think of how many movies, books, and TV shows feature story lines about someone who is a “home-wrecker” or love triangles! For those socialized as women, we’re told that we’re in competition for attention from men, that any attention another woman gets is necessarily taking something from us. For those socialized as men, we’re taught that “Mr. Steal Your Girl” is just around the corner, that other men are monsters who want to hurt our partners. What about the queer, trans, and enby folks? Well we just simply should be happy that ANYONE can get past our obvious wrongness. UGH!!! Terrible messages all around.
The thing is, the more worried I am about losing someone, or being replaced, or being inadequate, the more likely I am to feel jealous and to try to limit my partner because of it. And, to me, limiting my partner just isn’t in alignment with my values. I want my partners to have all the hot sex and deep love and sweet intimacy that they want! So what do I do when they’re dating someone who I think is way hotter, or when I worry that they’ll like this new person more?
Compersion is defined as happiness for another person’s happiness or joy in your partner’s joy.
I work really hard at feeling compersion.
Often, people who are non-monogamous will say that people in polyamorous or swinger or open-relationships “don’t feel jealousy,” but that instead they feel compersion. (I think this is often a way of glossing over hard truths and painting non-monogamy in some weird, super enlightened light, but that’s a whole other piece.)
What the heck is compersion? And what does it even look like?
Compersion is defined as happiness for another person’s happiness or joy in your partner’s joy. If you’ve ever had a friend tell you about a promotion and gotten super happy about it, you’ve felt compersion. Let’s define two other relevant terms here, and then we’ll look at how they each might play out in a non-monogamous context. Jealousy, for the purpose of this article, is wanting to take something another person is getting. Envy is wanting what someone else is getting WITHOUT the desire for them to stop receiving it.
So how do these show up? Let’s say my partner, Bill, starts dating Corey. I think Corey is really really pretty, prettier than I am in fact. They’re spending a lot of time together, their sex is super hot (at least in my imagination), and Bill is telling me that he’s SO SMITTEN with her in a way he doesn’t usually get. He has that New Relationship Energy.
Jealousy in this situation might be me wanting to limit Bill and Corey’s relationship to prevent him from leaving me. Maybe I would try to limit how often they see each other, maybe I would prevent them from doing certain things sexually, or maybe I would have an emotional emergency any time he wanted to see her, thus de facto limiting their relationship.
Envy in this case might look like wanting to feel desired and wanted and appreciated by Bill, maybe wanting more dates or more quality time or more sex. I might notice a feeling of lack, a hurt for what I’m seeing that I’m not getting, and talk with Bill about how we could work on building up our own relationship rather than focusing on tearing down his relationship with Corey.
Compersion for Bill might mean that I’m excited hearing about Bill’s dates, that seeing his smile when he talks about Corey gives me warm fuzzies. I might encourage him to keep pursuing Corey, or enjoy hearing hot stories about things they’ve done together.
While compersion is often called the opposite of jealousy, I think that they can coexist at the same time. For instance, I may simultaneously be really happy that Bill is finding someone new that fits well with him, and be happy he’s having sex AND feel scared about what it means for our relationship. I might both want him to have a fun time with Corey and feel like I’m not getting what I want from him. His happiness could be both a source of happiness for me, and a spotlight on things I am feeling are lacking.
Compersion, envy, and jealousy are all easier or more common for some folks than for others. Humans are wonderfully varied creatures and there may be some situations that bring out more or less of each of these feelings in us. In addition, some people may struggle to feel any one of these feelings. Compersion, particularly in a romantic and sexual relationship, is something a lot of us don’t have a ton of experience with.
While I personally tend to feel compersion quickly and easily and frequently, many people struggle to ever really feel it. There’s no right or wrong here. Being good at compersion does not make you more enlightened or better at relationships. However, I think a lot of folks think that their tendencies towards jealousy or envy or compersion are somehow unchangeable, that you are a “jealous person” rather than someone with lots of practice at jealousy. Humans, as changeable creatures, are able to choose and focus on what we WANT to work on feeling. Is it magic? Will it work immediately? Of course not. But we can often do more to change how we feel than we assume.
Compersion can be learned. One of the most common questions folks tend to have when they think about non-monogamy is how to stop feeling jealousy, but unlearning jealousy is often more challenging than learning how to have more compersion.
When dealing with feelings, we can often think about feelings, thoughts, and behaviors as all being interrelated. After all, if we feel sad, we’re likely to do sad behaviors (crying, staying in, low energy) and think sad thoughts (I’m a burden, people don’t like me, I’m a failure). If we have sad thoughts playing in our head, we’re likely to do sad behaviors and feel sad feelings. Likewise, if we do sad behaviors, it’s likely we’ll have sad thoughts and feel sad feelings. This basic theory is what underlies cognitive behavioral theory and therapy.
Our feelings are never “wrong.” At the worst, they give us information.
When what we want to change is feelings, it’s often easiest to work first on changing the thoughts and behaviors instead. If you’re feeling really sad, sitting in your room and saying “STOP BEING SAD” or “BE HAPPY” over and over to yourself isn’t likely to do much. But going out to hang out with friends, or having a great orgasm, or reminding yourself of some of the great things in your life might start to have an effect on your mood.
If you’re feeling jealous, beating yourself up about it, or trying to shove it deep down inside, is far more likely to create a festering wound waiting to burst open than to actually help you change. Our feelings are never “wrong.” At the worst, they give us information. We just have to choose what we want to DO about what we’re feeling. That feeling of jealousy or envy may be highlighting problems we’ve been trying to ignore, or pointing to ways that we’ve been neglecting or neglected in our relationship, or it may be a sign that we need to remember what we really appreciate about our relationship as it already is.
Learning how to be better at compersion is like learning anything – the more you practice, the better you’ll get. We’re building up this skill like we would build up a muscle, so it’s all about committing to regular work on it.
If you want to get better at compersion, one option would be to write down some thoughts that help you tap into that compersion feeling. Then, when you notice you want to be feeling compersion, pull those statements out and read them to yourself. Some examples might be:
- My partner’s happiness increases my happiness
- Love grows the more we share it
- My partner’s excitement is infectious
- The more my partner is fed by their life, the more they have available to give to me
- My partner is choosing to continue building our relationship every time they spend time with me
- Everyone dating my partner is on the same team
- All of us share in improving my partner’s life
When it comes to actions or behaviors, the old adage “fake it til you make it” is sometimes a good place to start. Ask yourself what you might do if you were feeling lots of compersion. Then, act as if you’re already feeling the compersion. I know this sounds silly; “But I don’t actually feel it! It’s a lie!” The thing is, sometimes acting as if we’re feeling something helps us to start actually feeling it. There’s research to back this up! Studies have found that just smiling and holding it, regardless of how you felt before you smiled, improves mood. Likewise, frowning and holding it makes people feel worse. Our brains and bodies are constantly checking in with each other to determine what we’re feeling and experiencing, so you can take advantage of that to hack your brain into feeling what you WANT it to. Some things you could do to act as if you’re already feeling compersion could be:
- Congratulating your partner on their positive experiences
- Expressing interest in the positive qualities of their partners
- Encouraging them to spend time with people who make them happy
- Developing positive metamour relationships (your metamour is the partner of your partner)
- Smiling and leaning in when they talk about other partners
- Sending them encouraging texts before/during a date
- Focusing on what you love about your own relationship
Does this mean you’ll never feel jealousy or envy again? LOL NOPE.
Once you start paying attention for opportunities to practice compersion, you might find way more opportunities than you thought there would be. Your bestie has a date tomorrow night? Compersion! Your work friend aced their presentation? Compersion! Your sibling got into grad school? Compersion! Your high school reunion? OMG SO MUCH COMPERSION!!!!! And the more you practice tapping into this feeling, the easier and easier it’ll come to you.
Does this mean you’ll never feel jealousy or envy again? LOL NOPE. But you may find that they sting way less and that you’re able to find happiness where previously you only found pain. Your life is all about what you focus on, and who doesn’t want more joy in their life? So tap into this second-hand joy and find yourself some happiness in the process!