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Compersion & Ethical Non-Monogamy

Nick Fager, Co-Founder

What is Compersion? 

If you’ve delved into polyamory or open relationships, you’ve likely happened upon the term compersion. In a general sense, compersion means finding joy in the joy of others. You could consider it the opposite of schadenfreude. The personification of, “I’m happy for you.”  

In the context of ethical nonmonogamy, compersion means finding joy in your partner having satisfying sexual or romantic experiences with other people. In a polyamorous sense, this might mean feeling joy when your partner tells you about going on a good date with someone else. In an open relationship, it could mean finding joy in your partner telling you about a sexual experience they had with someone else. It might also mean watching your partner have sex with someone else, and feeling good and happy about the pleasure they are experiencing. There are a lot of different ways that compersion can show up, both big and small, but the fundamental concept is, “the pleasure you are experiencing with someone else is also bringing me joy or pleasure.”

What is Compersion? 

If you’ve delved into polyamory or open relationships, you’ve likely happened upon the term compersion. In a general sense, compersion means finding joy in the joy of others. You could consider it the opposite of schadenfreude. The personification of, “I’m happy for you.”  

In the context of ethical nonmonogamy, compersion means finding joy in your partner having satisfying sexual or romantic experiences with other people. In a polyamorous sense, this might mean feeling joy when your partner tells you about going on a good date with someone else. In an open relationship, it could mean finding joy in your partner telling you about a sexual experience they had with someone else. It might also mean watching your partner have sex with someone else, and feeling good and happy about the pleasure they are experiencing. There are a lot of different ways that compersion can show up, both big and small, but the fundamental concept is, “the pleasure you are experiencing with someone else is also bringing me joy or pleasure.”

What is Compersion? 

If you’ve delved into polyamory or open relationships, you’ve likely happened upon the term compersion. In a general sense, compersion means finding joy in the joy of others. You could consider it the opposite of schadenfreude. The personification of, “I’m happy for you.”  

In the context of ethical nonmonogamy, compersion means finding joy in your partner having satisfying sexual or romantic experiences with other people. In a polyamorous sense, this might mean feeling joy when your partner tells you about going on a good date with someone else. In an open relationship, it could mean finding joy in your partner telling you about a sexual experience they had with someone else. It might also mean watching your partner have sex with someone else, and feeling good and happy about the pleasure they are experiencing. There are a lot of different ways that compersion can show up, both big and small, but the fundamental concept is, “the pleasure you are experiencing with someone else is also bringing me joy or pleasure.”

Myth vs. Reality 

Compersion is generally viewed as the gold standard when it comes to ethical non monogamy - to arrive at a state of non-possessiveness where you can view all of your partners sexual or romantic explorations with an open and joyful heart. But the term is often portrayed idealistically and can create unrealistic expectations. 

The reality is that no one is perpetually in a state of compersion, just like no one is perpetually in a state of any emotion. We are all complex compilations of parts and emotions with intricate attachment histories. We all have trauma stored in our bodies to some degree, and that trauma often manifests in complicated ways in relationship. We have different parts of ourselves that feel different ways about the same situation. 

Compersion is a feeling that you earn by doing the hard work of building a solid emotional foundation with your partner or partners, but even then it is a temporary state. It comes and goes and is situationally dependent. We might love watching a certain person pleasure our partner at a certain time in a certain place, but change one of those details and our feelings might change completely. We might feel compersion one day and jealousy or anger the next even though the situation hasn’t changed, simply because we are feeling internally resourced and secure one day and depleted the next. 

There are so many factors that affect our experience of compersion, all of which to say that it is important to keep expectations around compersion realistic. It can be a goal of yours, but it will never be a permanent state. A better goal is to figure out what you’re going to do when compersion isn’t there and the more difficult emotions show up instead. How are you going to work through those emotions with yourself and your partner(s).

Building The Foundation for Compersion 

Compersion is an emotion that emerges in the context of a strong and secure emotional foundation between partners. If you don’t feel secure in your relationship, it becomes difficult not to interpret your partners’ pleasure with others as somehow in competition with your own. You might begin to ask, what is that person giving them that I’m not? What am I lacking? Why can’t I make them happy? It’s not to say that you’ll never have these thoughts within the context of a secure foundation, but they will be less frequent because there will be less of a feeling of scarcity within the relationship. Shame spirals abound in insecure, non-monogamous relationships. 

So what exactly does it mean and look like to build a strong emotional foundation in order to lay the groundwork for compersion?

It means doing the work to create a safe space where partners can share their emotional truths with each other, even when those emotions are irrational, petty, or inconvenient. This foundation gets built up over time when intimate partners are able to show up and hold space for one another as they go through various experiences and emotions together. It means choosing each other when things get difficult, and leaning into the discomfort. 

If you feel that you can go to your partner with any emotion that you’re feeling about the relationship and that emotion will be given space, validated, and worked through together, then you have a secure and solid foundation. If you feel, on the other hand, that only some of your emotions are given space, and others are shut down, gaslit, labeled as problematic in some way, or ignored, then it is likely that you don’t have a solid enough foundation for compersion to emerge. You may not even be ready to open the relationship up at all. You probably want to go back to basics first and focus on building trust and holding space for one another before stress testing the foundation. If it feels daunting to do that work without outside help, finding an ENM affirming therapist might be a good option. 




Beware of Bypassing

With all the media coverage of polyamory and the broadening popularity of the term compersion, it can be tempting to lean into compersion when it is not your authentic truth. Maybe you want to tell your partner you’re happy for them about having sex with someone else in order to justify (to yourself or others) that polyamory is right for you. Or maybe you want to lean into compersion because it feels much easier than tapping into those messy emotions that you’re actually feeling. 

Remember that those other emotions don’t go away when you bypass them in favor of a false compersion. They stick around and fester in your unconscious, and ultimately lead to distancing and a deterioration of the relationship. As difficult as it is to open up about anger, jealousy, sadness, etc, you have to be honest about what is coming up for you if you want to actually feel authentic compersion in the future. 

Whether you’re venturing into ethical non-monogamy for the first time, re-engaging with it after a break, or a seasoned pro, remember that non-monogamy takes work and you’re bound to feel a wide range of emotions when your partner is engaging with someone else romantically or sexually. The important thing is that you have a strong enough foundation with your partners to bring those emotions up, be held in that vulnerability, and work through them, mutually adjusting boundaries and agreements if necessary. 

The hope is that over time, compersion becomes a more common occurrence than the more difficult emotions, and maybe eventually the dominant emotion when it comes to your partner being with other people. But like with any emotion, it will always be transitory and fleeting, so celebrate the moments when you do feel it. You earned it.

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